Review: Favreau's Photorealistic 'The Lion King' Movie Roars to Life
by Adam Frazier
July 18, 2019
Co-directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, Disney’s 1994 animated movie The Lion King won Academy Awards for original score (Hans Zimmer) and the original song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" (by Elton John & Tim Rice), as well as the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. In 1997, the stage production made its Broadway debut, winning six Tony Awards; 22 years later, it still remains one of Broadway’s biggest hits, recently marking its 9,000th show. The beloved Disney classic also inspired two direct-to-video follow-ups – The Lion King II: Simba's Pride (1998), and The Lion King 1½ (2004) – and two television series, Timon and Pumbaa and The Lion Guard. Now, after the critical and financial success of 2016's The Jungle Book remake, director Jon Favreau is utilizing the same photorealistic computer animation technology to re-tell the story of The Lion King for contemporary audiences in an immersive way.
The Lion King was the first Disney animated movie when it was released based on an original story instead of an already existing work. The story, which draws heavily from William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Osamu Tezuka's 1960s anime series Kimba the White Lion, follows young Simba (JD McCrary), a lion cub who is to succeed his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his iconic performance from the 1994 movie), as King of the Pride Lands in Africa. After his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave), murders Mufasa, Simba is forced into exile where he soon meets the worry-free warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and know-it-all meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner). After reconnecting with his childhood friend Nala (voiced by Shahadi Wright Joseph of Us and later Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) and the mandrill shaman Rafkiki (John Kani of Black Panther), an adult Simba (Donald Glover of FX's Atlanta and Solo: A Star Wars Story) returns to the Pride Lands to challenge Scar and take his place as the rightful King.
Jon Favreau's The Lion King isn't a live-action remake. By blending traditional filmmaking techniques with photo-real computer-generated imagery and state-of-the-art virtual-reality tools, director Jon Favreau and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel are reinventing the medium. Like the stage play, the new film stays true to the timeless story while offering audiences a new interpretation of it. Favreau's aim isn't to replace one of the greatest animated filmmoviess of all time, but rather add to its legacy – like a contemporary cover of a classic song. Some people enjoy Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower", while others prefer Jimi Hendrix's version; you can like both without betraying the other. Still, for some, the new movie will feel like a personal attack – like Walt Disney himself is kicking down their doors and torching their VHS tapes and Diamond Edition Blu-rays of the 1994 film with a flamethrower. Is it exploiting nostalgia? Sure, everything at the multiplex seems to be doing that these days, but that doesn't mean it's soulless.
I found Favreau's updated take on this story to be both visually stunning and emotionally resonant, with added dimension and realism to the characters and the environments they inhabit. Ejiofor is deliciously vile as Scar. His hyena henchmen, however, voiced by Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre, leave something to be desired. It's hard not to still hear Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings in those roles. As for Simba and Nala, JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph have more chemistry than their adult counterparts, but Donald Glover and Beyoncé are more than adequate in their roles, especially when it comes to the musical performances. The highlight, however, is the comedic duo of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen who steal the show as Timon and Pumbaa. It's clear that the comedians did a fair bit of improvisation on set and it shows – their rapport and humor flows organically without carbon-copying Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane's original performances.
As someone who isn't beholden to the original (I was more interested in Wes Craven's New Nightmare and The Crow back in 1994) I found this photorealistic retelling to be a total delight. It combines the drama of HBO's "Game of Thrones" with the jaw-dropping beauty of the BBC's "Planet Earth" documentary series, plus a lion's share of heart, humor, and sensational musical numbers. Some of the voice cast's performances are underwhelming – and some of the emoting done by computer-generated animals isn't quite as articulate as it should be – but it's still a blast to watch. I recommend seeing Favreau's movie on the biggest, brightest screen possible – preferably Dolby Cinema – to experience the incredible visuals (and sounds) for yourself.
Adam's Rating: 3.5 out of 5
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