Cinematic Releases: The Lion King (2019) - Reviewed

In the slippery slope of the recent trend of rebooting, reimagining, and reawakening older franchises in updated media, every once in awhile a director gets it just right. A jewel stands out among the retro rose-colored glasses, the nonsensical retellings, the too-flashy CGI effects bereft of substance. Such an impressive feat is accomplished with Disney’s latest offering, a brilliantly animated and photo-realistic version of its 1994 animated masterpiece, The Lion King, directed by Jon Favreau. From the opening “Circle of Life” scene onward, the visuals are stunning and uncanny, particularly when certain shots are recreated directly from the original. The animal characters are breathtakingly real, both in their visual design and in their characterizations as humanlike. It is not a direct remake – a new script, which borrows heavily from the original, was written by Jeff Nathanson; the narrative takes on a more serious tone than did its predecessor, though it is also a musical and carries over some of the subtler comedic elements from the original movie.

Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role with a gruff gravity imbued with warmth) rules the leonine kingdom of Pride Rock with a benevolent, responsible paw and tries to teach his only son, Simba (voiced as a cub by JD McCrary and Donald Glover as an adult) about his role in the “delicate balance” that is the circle of life in nature. The king’s jealous brother, Scar (superbly voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) stages a coup by befriending a pack of hyenas, led by the ruthless Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), and takes the throne of the pride’s lands with dire consequences for his subjects, driving Simba away after the death of his father. Simba’s journey into adulthood is marked by the fear and guilt of his cub-hood trauma, and he must face these with the help of his friends if he is to become the true king they see within him.

The photo-realism in this film is strikingly arresting, Favreau utilizing similar technologies to that with which he made The Jungle Book a few years prior. Motion capture, combined with virtual and augmented reality technologies, generate a deeply expressive animal dominion populated by familiar characters, reimagined as they might appear in the real world. These filming techniques create gorgeously rendered settings, but as with the aforementioned Jungle Book adaptation, there is a disconnect between the near-perfect backgrounds and the almost too-realistic talking animals – although they look like actual animals, they do not completely move nor act like them, and scenes such as fights between lions are jarringly disjointed as a result (particularly because, Disney being Disney, there is very little blood or markings on any of the injured creatures). Still, there is a great respect for the subject material here, and it is clear that the intent is to raise the traditionally animated original film to one even more tightly focused on its characters and their individual roles in the story. This is undoubtedly a film that celebrates nature, both in its benevolence and its brutality.

This adaptation of The Lion King mirrors its natural visual storytelling with the way it changes some of the characters, grounding them in a more grave, fixated story than its predecessor. It elevates its hyena characters, for example, from mildly threatening comic relief to genuinely menacing, fearsome predators who, rather than being duped by Scar into overthrowing the standing monarchy, make a bloody pact to work together with him as long as they get what they want.

Rafiki (voiced by John Kani) is a more grounded shamanic type, far much less of a trickster than he was originally, and even Timon and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, respectively) are subtler in their humor. They seem quite media aware, fully realizing that they’re in a movie (all based on a different movie), acting more like seasoned improvisational actors who are in on the joke than like a meerkat and common warthog. Even Zazu is far less a comedic character here; John Oliver voices him less as a bumbling butt-monkey than as a very stern but caring minder of the pride’s affairs.

The strongest differences are in the female characters – particularly Nala (voiced by BeyoncĂ© Knowles-Carter as an adult, Shahadi Wright Joseph as a cub) and Sarabi (voiced by Alfre Woodard) – who are given much more to do here, echoing the real-life tendencies of lionesses to be proactive protectors. Nala, whose role is much smaller in the 1994 version, serves as Simba’s deuteragonist; her journey is given equal weight, and she is based more heavily on the stage musical adaptation of the story.

Her song, “Spirit” – written and performed by BeyoncĂ© – is one of the musical highlights in a film saturated with a gorgeous score. Hans Zimmer reprises much of the tonal themes and melodies in the new instrumental soundtrack, while building upon these to create a lush aural backdrop. Elton John and Tim Rice, who wrote the original songs for the original Lion King, return to add new life to their songs, including one they wrote specifically for the closing credits entitled “Never Too Late”.

The Lion King is a classic story, and its newest adaptation is a magnificent affair. From its lovely visual tableaux to the marvelously updated soundtrack and stellar voice cast, it still shines regally despite its imperfections. Much like its heroes, it tries to tiptoe around its destiny, but in the end, it presents us with a fantastic journey.

-Dana Culling