The Lion King roars again
My go-to comparison for these Disney live action remakes, which range from brilliant (Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella) to grotesque (Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast), is that of theme park rides based on the original animated films. Like “Snow White’s Scary Adventures” or “Peter Pan’s Flight,” staples of Disney parks around the world, they bring these stories into a new medium in order to reinforce familiarity with the original. Supplementing but not supplanting. It’s a tight line, and while the most interesting of these films, Cinderella and Maleficent, stray from this narrow lane, Jungle Book and the others from the last few years have relied on minor changes, new music, and technology to justify their existence (I have not seen Tim Burton’s Dumbo as of this writing). So going into The Lion King, my expectations were basically at the bottom of a canyon for two reasons: one, it’s never been among my favorites of this Disney era, and two, I was especially worried about how the animals talking would work.
Is that enough table-setting to say I really enjoyed The Lion King? More than any of these films, I found myself captivated by what was on screen. While this is mostly a technical achievement, it feels like a big enough leap forward for that alone to be worth the time spent with the film. While not perfect, the animals and environment felt real, despite my brain knowing that I wasn’t looking at a single thing that wasn’t created digitally. The animals move and look realistic, while still also ‘acting.’ And because the animation in the 1994 The Lion King is often more similar to live action cinematography than it is in Aladdin (with a few notable exceptions in some of the musical sequences), the translation from one medium to another isn’t entirely jarring. What director Jon Favreau and team have done is turned The Lion King into a cinematic language. The colors, some of the shots, and sound design are all lifted from the original and translated here. Also, just as a note, it looks better in the theater than it does as stills or trailers.
The main flaw is the design choice I feared, which is that the mouths of lions don’t operate the way human mouths do. While Donald Glover and Beyoncé do their best as adult Simba and Nala, the choice for realism only emphasizes the flatness of their performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar is miles away from being as threatening or as wonderfully wicked as either Jeremy Irons or Thanos, which lightens some of the tension and drama, but make Simba’s gaslighting even more pronounced. Of course, it shouldn’t be a surprise that James Earl Jones’ reprisal as Musfasa is the least impacted. After all, he was able to make Darth Vader a menace behind a mask that didn’t move at all. And seeing words come out of Zazu (John Oliver) the hornbill, who speaks with a beak, is just downright distracting.
None of those are as bad it might have been, but the characters who fared the best (while also being the most complex characters in the entire story) are Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). Part of it being that meerkats have smaller mouths that are more or less human-shaped depending on the angle and they let the Pumbaa model act more using his mouth. Adding to this is the undeniable chemistry between the two actors. Favreau is a huge fan of improvisation on set, and the film reflects that, as the timing and riffing feels like Eichner and Rogen recorded their lines as a team, rather than on their own.
Of course, part of what makes The Lion King such a success is the music. And while this version of the film contains neither the imaginative reality-breaking staging of the animated film nor the thrill of having real people sing in front of your face like the stage version, the songs still work. The new song written for submission to the Best Original Song category is unmemorable, but the new versions of existing songs mostly work. The “Circle of Life” opening is just as goosebump-raising as the original.
Besides the music, the one thing this version changes is doubling down on the film’s environmental themes. While the Circle of Life is a key metaphor in the original film, the Favreau version explicitly contrasts it with “Hakuna Marata.” “No worries” as an ethos is all about being selfish and not caring about one’s impact on the world. By comparison, the Circle of Life states that we are all connected, and that connection comes with responsibility. There’s a new sequence in the film that illustrates that wonderfully, and would totally work as a standalone short. It feels like pure cinema, though may be dismissed as cheesy by some, I was fully on board.
The Lion King is the most successful of these films since Cinderella simply by the measure of it being the only other one I have interest in seeing again. The impressive visuals and the mix of reverence and playfulness to the original make this a movie worth seeing on the big screen.