A visually dazzling adaptation that may win over most, but not every fan of Disney’s original animated classic
Full confession: I was among the many skeptics when Disney announced that they would be tackling The Lion King as their next “live-action” project. While their past adaptations have allowed me to revisit old favorites, their overall execution has left much to be desired. Furthermore, these adaptations at least had the advantage of working with a wholly human cast of iconic characters. With the original film as a treasured memory — it was the first I remember seeing in a theater as a kid — I went into Jon Favreau’s film with uneasy anticipation.
Beginning with a shot-for-shot remake of its iconic beginning, The Lion King immediately dazzles with a fusion of CGI animals against equally incredibly realistic backgrounds. It’s a visually stunning film on all fronts, bringing the colorful beauty of the original film to life without sacrificing a crucial sense of realism. Simba, Mufasa, Scar, et al. manage to feel like tactile, living creatures with more than a few animalistic idiosyncrasies.
The Lion King soars when it most deeply reckons with translating moments meant for animation into reality — from how certain scenes play out to the film’s musical numbers. Fans of the original will most likely be delighted with how some of these latter scenes are performed with a certain degree of practicality. The Lion King’s most iconic moments especially don’t disappoint, and utilize the IMAX format for all its worth. At points I thought the film was almost wholly shot for IMAX, until clever moments of changing aspect ratios — notably a stampede sequence — further immersed my audience in the action.
That said, there are still moments where The Lion King struggles with its transition into the “real world.” One of the biggest questions I had when it came to adapting the original film was how Favreau would approach animals that could walk and talk. For the most part, these animals look and feel near-photorealistic at their best. Whenever they talk, however…that uncanny valley took more than a few moments to get across, feeling more like something out of Clutch Cargo than prime 2019 CGI. As the film progresses, the effect slowly dulls, but one can’t help but feel that this bit of magic was somehow lost in translation.
As with the best of adaptations, Jon Favreau’s direction shines most when he’s given the chance to be less than beholden to his source material. Side characters are given more of a chance to shine, and there is a standout moment, completely dialogue-free, that riffs on and truly honors the spirit of the original Lion King. It’s clear even in his diversion from the base story that Jon Favreau and company truly want to do justice to what they have, and that dedication is on full display throughout.
Favreau has also assembled a truly stacked cast for his film, including the return of James Earl Jones as Mufasa. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen are undoubtedly the standouts as Timon and Pumbaa, melding the duo’s personalities in line with their own. Their raucous improv moments definitely caused the most cackles between both the children and adults in the audience. Donald Glover and John Oliver fit pretty well, too — Glover slides into the role of Simba with the carefree ease that marks his best stand-up and musical performances, and Oliver’s Last Week Tonight persona meshes unusually well with a flustered horn-billed bird. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Florence Kasumba lend appropriate scene-chewing villainy to Scar and Shenzi, and Keegan Michael Key and Eric André provide a welcome banter-filled turn to supporting hyenas Kamari and Azizi.
Of the cast, the only person who feels unexpectedly out of place is Beyoncé. While she does portray Nala with an expected sense of regal ferocity, the aforementioned uncanny valley between the CG animals and their performers heightens whenever she’s present. Beyoncé’s clearly enjoying the role, but never fully commits to her performance. Granted, that’s a tall ask when one’s playing an animated lioness in a film where nearly nothing is real, but when the others in the cast blend in so much better in their roles, Beyoncé can’t help but stand out as one of the film’s more noticeable weak links.
For fans of the original Lion King, this version definitely does not disappoint, and at times Favreau and his team are able to build upon and improve the classic material they’ve been trusted with. For skeptics of Disney’s latest venture, some fears are confirmed in few, fleeting beats where the reach of the film’s technology exceeds its grasp. But while there are moments where the illusion rings false, The Lion King remains a roaring good time for both children and one’s inner child.