THE LION KING / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: JON FAVREAU / SCREENPLAY: JEFF NATHANSON / STARRING: DONALD GLOVER, BEYONCE KNOWLES-CARTER, CHIWETEL EJIOFOR, SETH ROGEN, BILLY EICHNER, JAMES EARL JONES / RELEASE DATE: 19TH JULY
Disney animated classics Dumbo and Aladdin have already received live-action remakes this year, and what with 2020’s Mulan and casting announcements for the upcoming The Little Mermaid filling news feeds and being the latest things to froth up social media (what doesn’t?), it isn’t likely to be a trend that stops anytime soon and now is the turn of Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s 1994 classic.
Just in case anyone doesn’t know the story (is there anyone?), the film focuses on excited lion cub Simba, who is heir to the kingdom of the pridelands and just can’t wait to be king as he starts learning about his future responsibilities from his loving and wise father King Mufasa (a most welcome return of the legendary James Earl Jones). However, be prepared, as Mufasa’s jealous brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has plans for a coup that has deadly consequences. But can Simba grow from a scared young lion into who he is meant to be and save his home from tyranny?
This latest “live-action” retelling sees director Jon Favreau put to use the same kind of groundbreaking CGI that filled his immensely successful 2016 film The Jungle Book film and the results are breathtaking. This new The Lion King will not offer the harshest (and loudest) of Disney’s many critics a reason to change their view that the the industry giant is becoming increasingly “creatively bankrupt” but it will offer audiences desperate to return to the African savanna, the summer’s biggest crowdpleaser.
The Lion King is like watching a new concert by your favourite band or a classic stage show years later. Some members of the ensemble have changed and the experience may not be as special as it was the first time but the technological spectacle has been upped impressively and they still get you on your feet with them hits! Some have called it a carbon copy but there are fresh edges added by some updated dialogue and humour (which largely works very well) from the film’s standout vocal artists John Oliver’s Zazu, Billy Eichner’s Timone and Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa, while certain characters have been given more relevance like Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) and - the more scarier this time around - Hyenas. Overall though, Favreau’s film is very dedicated to the original text, overlaying the timeless tale with realistic animals astoundingly realised by the visually groundbreaking technology.
While undeniably familiar and perhaps more limited than the animation was by the decision for photo-realisitic animal designs, The Lion King is an optimistic and soulful ode to nature in all its savagery, beauty and brilliance. As the emotional connection is obtained through the character’s genuine wildlife mannerisms, looks and movements. And yes, that Mufasa scene is still as heartbreaking. There’s a real nostalgic rush in hearing Lebo M’s opening chant back in a cinematorium and all these years later it all still resonates, as the now grown-up fanbase take their own young cubs to witness Simba’s story. The circle of life indeed.
The ageless music endures, thanks to mostly effective tweaks by original team (Hans Zimmer, alongside songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice, with Beyonce helping in the musical reworkings) and a wisely chosen and placed lead voice cast, including Beyonce Knowles-Carter’s Nala, Donald Glover’s Simba and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Shakespearean and machiavellian Scar (who is perhaps the best of the film, tactfully narrowing in on the horrors of the character to avoid competing with the iconic Jeremy Irons take).
So, it may not a problem-free philosophy but it won’t stop you from feeling the love tonight for this spectacle a quarter of a century on.