Disney’s original 1994 version of The Lion King is widely considered one of the studio’s best – and perhaps last in their unprecedented ‘animation renaissance’ of the early 199s – traditionally animated masterpieces. The incredible story, a reimagining of Shakespear’s Hamlet and Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s film quickly became one of the most successful – and highest-grossing animated movie of all-time. The soundtrack, filled with instant hits like “The Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” by Elton John and Tim Rice, was equally popular.
So it’s no surprise that Disney would want to recreate that magic with the help of modern CGI animation. Remaking their classic animated lineup into “live-action” has proven highly popular with audiences, and in just the past few years we’ve already seen Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and – this year alone – new versions of Dumbo and Aladdin.
Directed by Disney fav Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book), The Lion King tells the story of Simba (JD McCrary), a young lion destined to be King, but is caught in the middle of an long-standing rivalry between his father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and his traitorous Uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). This family feud turns deadly when Scar devises a fiendish plot to steal the throne from Mufasa and Simba by luring them into a wildebeest stampede meant to kill them… only the young Prince survives.
Recognizing an opportunity, Scar turns the blame of Mufasa’s death on the distraught Simba and tells him to run away. This means leaving everything he’s ever known behind, including his mother Sarabi ( Alfre Woodard) and best friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph).
Alone and scared, young Simba falls asleep in the open desert where he’s found by Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), a kindly pair of wise-cracking meerkat and warthog friends who teach him the “hakuna matata” way of life that involves eating slimy, yet satisfying things. In the meantime, Scar takes over as King and the pridelands become more like wastelands. Years go by and a fully grown Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) manages to sneak away from Scar’s iron-pawed rule, finding her way to the beautiful lands where an adult Simba (Donald Glover), Timon and Pumbaa live.
Reunited at least, Nala tries to convince Simba to return and take his rightful place as King, but the disposed Prince is reluctant to face his uncle, especially as his mother Sarabi and the other lionesses still believe he was responsible for the death of his father.
This new version of A Lion King is a visually stunning experience, especially in 3D, as the added dimension really brings you into this lushly rendered world and makes you feel like you’re living with these digitally-created creatures. However, once your brain becomes accustomed to these Avatar-like visuals, many of the greatest moments from the original film feel oddly diminished by the process of transforming the surreal to the real.
Making the animals look “real” creates a lack of a suspense of disbelief that was achieved easily in the animated version. In real life, none of the wildlife shown in the opening scene – who’d be considered tasty prey to the carnivorous lions – would actually run toward a lion’s den, let alone bust into song and dance.
Speaking of singing and dancing, the new version’s cast is mostly adequate, though the famous voices seemed to have been chosen more for their individual personas rather than how they’d fit into the story itself. This is really evident with Beyoncé as Nala, which probably looked great on paper, but doesn’t translate on the screen. Beyoncé can sing, but attempts to put her own stamp on the classic songs, instead of singing them as they were originally composed, diminished their power. Some things just don’t need to be changed, and that’s especially true with a soundtrack filled with as many memorable songs as The Lion King.
Hearing James Earl Jones reprise his role of Mufasa was amazing and really grounded the film, bringing the audience back to a simpler time. However, as the animals are meant to mimic their real life versions, much of their charisma and facial expressions lacked the fluidity and style of their hand-drawn animated counterparts. This was especially noticeable with the new designs for Rafiki (John Kani) and Zazu (John Oliver); red-billed hornbills don’t have lips!
While the retelling of The Lion King stays close to the original film, some of its most poignant and memorable moments have been changed or updated in ways to make room for new “cinematic” moments, like watching a dung beetle rolling a dried up ball of giraffe excrement to reveal a flock of Simba’s hair that eventually floats away in a ball of dust, only to be caught by an ant that brings it up a tree and past Rafiki who recognizes it as Simba’s.
Also curious are the attempts to modernize certain elements of the 1994 film, which may have been seen as dated or offensive now, but this results in dialogue that’s less exciting and far less epic. For example, instead of Scar yelling out “Sarabi!” like he does in the 1994 version, a hyena now walks over to Sarabi and tells her Scar wants to see her. Or the iconic scene when Mufasa appears in the clouds to Simba over the water and belts “you are my son and the one true king,” the dialogue has been changed to something far less powerful and not memorable at all.
Other times there were pacing issues where additional dialogue was added, such as when Timon and Pumba watch Simba and Nala’s reunion. Those who aren’t obsessed with the 1994 version as I am – I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched – may not notice or care. But those who loved the original will surely be irked by the changes, which felt unnecessary and distracting, like the new weird love triangle between Scar, Sarabi and Mufasa that didn’t really add anything to the storyline.
That said, there were some additions I felt were very powerful and added new layers to the character arcs, such as showing how Nala gets away from Pride Rock and ends up finding Simba. Even the most critical naysayers will enjoy spotting the attention to detail that was put into making this production.
The Lion King remains a beloved classic, regardless of how it’s animated. This is a beautifully rendered film filled with gorgeous scenery and photorealistic lions to match. Those expecting a 1:1 recreation of the beloved 1994 original may be slightly disappointed with some of the changes made in this update as the added realism actually mutes some of the original film’s personality and wonder. I’m also not sure music fans will prefer the new arrangements, and none of the original songs are memorable or leave an impression. All that aside, the core identity of what makes this story so powerful is as timeless as ever, and Jon Favreau has easily made one of the better “live-action” Disney remakes yet.