I distinctly remember watching The Lion King in 1994. A high school kid who hated musicals, I was cajoled into going by my drama club friends. Needless to say, The Lion King was absolutely magnificent; an enthralling, song-filled adventure that would become Disney’s most successful animated film. The 2019 version doesn’t exactly capture the spirit of the original, but comes pretty damn close. The visual effects are groundbreaking, truly amazing. Director Jon Favreau brings the African savanna to life with stunning realism. A new generation of fans will be wowed by a classic story remade with cutting edge technology.
On the Pride Lands of Africa, a noble and powerful lion king, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), proudly displays his newborn cub to the animals in his kingdom. Young Simba (JD McCrary) is a curious and rascally scamp who loves to explore. Along with his best friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph), the cubs play under the watchful eye of Zazu (John Oliver), their exasperated avian caretaker. The birth of Simba was not celebrated by everyone. Mufasa’s treacherous brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is no longer in line to rule.
Simba’s inquisitiveness is exploited by the cunning Scar. The earnest cub is tricked into endangering his father. Horrified by his actions and spurred by Scar, Simba runs away from home. Alone and hungry, the frightened cub is saved by a loquacious meerkat (Billy Eichner) and odoriferous warthog (Seth Rogen). Simba (Donald Glover) grows up without a care in the world. But a chance encounter with Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) reminds Simba of his royal duty. Scar has decimated the Pride Lands and threatened the life of his mother (Alfre Woodard).
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The Lion King is not a shot for shot remake of the cartoon. The film runs thirty minutes longer than the original. The new material is spread evenly throughout. Not to worry, Jon Favreau and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson don’t change the cartoon’s iconic scenes. The introduction at Pride Rock, the wildebeest stampede, Simba’s meeting of Timon and Pumbaa, the filmmakers treat the most memorable moments with respect and deference. They weren’t going to mess with greatness.
The new material adds dramatic depth and violent imagery. The visual effects are so photorealistic, the interaction between the animals becomes less innocent. The film transitions quickly from cute and cuddly to danger and violence. The climactic battles between the lions and hyenas aren’t bloody, but quite savage. It may seem jarring, but is entirely necessary. This is the major difference between simple 2D animation and the special effects, CGI wizardry on display here. Lions fighting for supremacy is not a pretty sight. I applaud Disney for not sugarcoating the darker aspects. Animals get eaten, fight for survival, and face death.
The vocal performances by Donald Glover and Beyoncé are underwhelming. The younger actors that voice Simba and Nala as cubs are more endearing and effective. James Earl Jones’ majestic inflection anchors The Lion King. No one else who could have voiced Mufasa. The supporting characters steal the show with their warmth and humor. John Oliver, Seth Rogen, and Billy Eichner are hysterical. Zazu, Timon, and Pumbaa are just as lovable as they were in the cartoon.
Hans Zimmer returns to score The Lion King, along with slightly updated versions of Elton John and Tim Rice’s songs. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Hakuna Matata” are delightful, the phenomenal soundtrack doesn’t lose a beat. Audiences will be singing along to their favorite songs. The joyous music mellows out the harsher aspects of the graphic visuals. Beyoncé, Elton John, and Time Rice add two additional songs, “Spirit” and “Never Too Late”. The new songs are played during the credits and don’t displace any of the original music.
The Lion King will stomp the box office like the wildebeest stampede. Every fan of the classic cartoon will like the remake. The visuals are just astonishing. Thankfully the spectacular CGI effects don’t drown out the heart of the story or the beloved music. Disney has done a fantastic job this year updating their nineties animated hits. Both Aladdin and The Lion King are winners. The bar is set high for next spring’s Mulan. The Lion King is produced and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
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