REVIEW: Does it roar? A spoiler-free look at THE LION KING

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We’ll start this off with a caveat: THE LION KING was not my favorite when it came out in 1994. I liked it enough, but I was more into BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ALADDIN as a kid. I didn’t expect Jon Favreau‘s photorealistic CGI remake to really change that. I enjoyed watching THE LION KING on VHS and DVD over and over again through the years, and it was nice enough to sit through it again for this review.

I was concerned about how expressive animation would translate into the VR-constructed pixel world of very real-looking animals. THE JUNGLE BOOK employed the same techniques, but there was one human present almost the entire time, and Mowgli made it feel grounded. LION KING has no humans. How would the emotionally heavy scenes translate? Real animals don’t make facial expressions; they don’t emote. They don’t dance and execute choreography. So would the vibrancy the classic hand-drawn animation brought to the table shine through?

THE LION KINGNot really. Turns out watching “real” animals talk to each other is kind of limp. When young Simba cries, the only way you know is through the (excellent) vocal performance from JD McCrary, which doesn’t match what you see on screen – a blank-faced “real” lion cub. When Beyoncé Carter-Knowles‘s voice brings a bite to her condemnation of Simba – “disappointed” – she cuts like a knife, but the CGI lioness is stone-faced.

The emotion is largely missing in the songs because real hyenas wouldn’t pop-up to perform background vocals or goose-step in rhythm, it would just look weird. Real animals at the watering hole don’t create Busby Berkeley formations while Simba sings about one day becoming king. The only song that escapes unscathed is “Circle of Life”, but more on that in a minute.

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These are limitations imposed by the medium of creating a National Geographic-esque aesthetic. Stunning as it is, no question, it just felt slightly off. However, there are plus sides to it; one of which is that everything is absolutely gorgeous. Beautiful vistas are full of stunning animals set in sweeping landscapes. There’s never a lack of beauty onscreen, even when the Pridelands are decimated. The processes used to create the environment of the film are groundbreaking, and we’ll see more of that when Favreau‘s STAR WARS series, THE MANDALORIAN, premieres on Disney+ this fall.

I don’t want to discourage you from seeing the film. If you adore THE LION KING, you’ll probably enjoy it in this new medium and feel the feels. I don’t know, maybe you won’t because you’ll just wish you were watching the original. It’s hard to say.

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Another plus: when it’s funny, it’s REALLY funny and that brings the movie to jolting life. John Oliver surpasses Rowan Atkinson as Zazu. Seth Rogen is a perfect and lovable Pumbaa. Billy Eichner steals each of his scenes as Timon and whatever he was paid, it wasn’t enough. Timon and Pumbaa are definitely the highlight, walking away with each scene they’re in. Donald Glover is perfect as adult Simba (a much better fit than miscast Matthew Broderick). The cast is fantastic all around, with each actor giving raw and passionate performances.

the lion king official still4Hey, and the music sounds great! It’s cool that Beyoncé wrote a song and sang it for the soundtrack, but you’ll need to grab it on Spotify or iTunes to hear it. About 60 seconds of “Spirit” plays during the film. Inexplicably, a new version of the Broadway musical’s Act II showstopper “He Lives In You” was recorded for the movie by the sensational Lebo M, but only plays during the latter half of the credits instead of where it fits dramatically in the film. Elton John sings the first credits song, a new tune from him and Tim Rice called “It’s Never Too Late”, a very danceable African-tinged uptempo that will be a hit with Zumba classes all across America.

Most of Disney’s recent remakes have differentiated themselves from their animated counterparts with new story material. That doesn’t really happen here; it’s nearly shot-for-shot and line-by-line, and when the lines differ, it’s usually by just a few words. Shenzi (a menacing Florenca Kasumba) and Nala receive a smidge of new dialogue and prominence. It wouldn’t surprise me if James Earl Jones‘s stirring vocals were in part lifted directly from the original film.

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Going shot-for-shot to the original in many scenes was, in my view, a mistake. “Circle of Life” is awe-inspiring in the Broadway musical because director Julie Taymor fills it with surprise after surprise, spectacle after spectacle until it’s overwhelming and the audience is caught up in emotional nirvana. Surely this medium provides for some new tricks not available to 1994’s hand drawing animators – where were they? Hewing so close to the original just ends up being a perfunctory exercise instead of thrilling new look at well-worn material.

the lion king official still2THE LION KING has a lot going for it (cast! Music! Visuals!) but it also has a lot weighing it down (animals don’t do things with their faces!). Jon Favreau is an excellent director and I wish he had had more room to play here instead of being constrained. There are more remakes on the horizon – MULAN in 2020, THE LITTLE MERMAID and SNOW WHITE and HUNCHBACK beyond that. Let’s hope they bring some fresh perspectives to the original classics.

There are many constants in Hollywood – what is old will become new again, whether you like it or not. It’s the circle of life.

THE LION KING roars into theaters everywhere July 19, 2019.

THE LION KING

Author: Drew Hackney

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