As a story and a movie, The Lion King is so iconic, so revered and so widely, universally known that it’s a tall order to do it all over again. By attempting a retelling of Simba’s tale of adolescence, you’re essentially walking a tight rope. Change things too much and you risk alienating the audience who grew up on those stories. Change too little and you’re in danger of being labeled a lazy filmmaker devoid of creativity who’s merely cashing in on an existing property. If you’ve been following the general consensus about the film at all, you’ll know it leans more towards the latter.
And yet somehow, the signs were all there. The movie was labeled a “remake” after all, and not a reboot. The first teaser released was the Circle of Life footage recreated in live-action CG, nearly shot for shot. It’s like the filmmakers and the studio clearly knew how close to the original this 2019 installment would stick and were putting word out there. Sure, there would be a few obligatory changes here and there (that’s how you expand a 90 minute movie by another 30 minutes) but for the most part, The Lion King was poised to tell the exact same story simply because for the most part, that’s what audiences wanted to see.
So what’s the point of the so-called live-action remake then? The point, besides generating good business for Disney as a studio, is to let audiences experience the story all over again, some perhaps for the first time. Every generation has kids who grow up without getting a chance to see Star Wars on screen, or Jurassic Park, or The Lord of the Rings, or The Lion King. For such people, these remakes are often the only solace to get a chance to experience the iconic story again. A story so well known that it would be futile to even discuss it as part of this review.
But a remake has got to offer something new, some aspect that differentiates itself from the original. In the case of director Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, that could never have been the story or the characters, so it becomes technology. By choosing to tell a classic tale with a completely revamped toolset that would never have been accessible back in the day, Favreau offers audiences the chance to experience the same story with present day filmmaking. VFX was so new around the release of the original movie that Spielberg’s Jurassic Park that pioneered its use took hours upon hours merely to render a single frame, with just 6 minutes of CGI dinosaurs. And here we are, 25 years later, experiencing a fully CG photorealistic movie.
Without doubt then, the technology dazzles. Visual effects are so astounding and the animals look so real they’ll leave you spellbound. In my screening, there were a bunch of people whispering that it looks and feels like a National Geographic Documentary. Take that how you will but I see it as a huge compliment that in a completely photoreal CG movie, the animals are virtually indistinguishable from reality.
Of course a downside to making things too realistic is that they can come across as boring and devoid of emotions. That uncanny valley creeps up on The Lion King as the emotive, expressive faces of Simba, Timon and Pumbaa from the animated original are replaced by rather stiff expressions, with the bulk of their character conveyed through mannerisms and voice. At times it feels weird seeing young Simba and hearing a voice that we instinctively know, would sound jarringly different than if Simba were ever to speak for real. That’s a creative choice between opting for too much realism and choosing to sacrifice some of that for experimenting with facial moves and Favreau leans too far in the direction of reality.
Even so, that’s a mild contrivance in what is otherwise a comprehensive, complete package. The voice cast is fantastic and Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor and James Earl Jones (was there ever any doubt) sink into their roles, embodying the personalities of these animals and making up for their lack of expressiveness. Alfre Woodard gets a somewhat expanded role as Sarabi and she delivers in spades, as does Beyonce whose musical numbers are among the few new things in the film. But the scene stealers arrive much later in Billy Eichner’s Timon and Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa with voice performances so convincing you’ll believe they were taken right off the original. Rogen in particular, adds a hilarity and rapid-fire element to Pumbaa that just makes him a natural fit; it’s pretty obvious a lot of their dialogue together is improvised but it works.
The Lion King is the kind of movie you go in with expectations set. You’re to be awed by the spectacle and the groundbreakingness of the technical accomplishment. That entire movies can be made in photoreal CG could someday give way to a new form of filmmaking. And that, frankly, is the real answer to whether The Lion King is a live-action or animated film. It’s neither. It’s a fully photorealistic CG movie that opens up limitless possibilities for filmmaking in the future. If this is the state of tech now, I can’t believe what the original creator James Cameron does with this in Avatar 2. Highly recommended.
The Lion King Movie Rating: 8 out of 10