VOD film review: The Lion King (2019)
Ivan Radford | On 24, Nov 2019Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter
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In 2016, Jon Favreau managed the miraculous feat of remaking The Lion King ostensibly in live-action. Bringing a new sense of realism and danger to the familiar tale, the result was a gob-smacking, gripping and majestic interpretation of a Disney classic. Three years on, he’s back to do the same thing to The Lion King, but the revamped adventure is less a fresh spin of circle of life and more an exercise in going round in circles.
Favreau’s ability to juggle digitally rendered creatures and landscapes with a sense of tangible reality is perhaps unparalleled at this juncture in cinema. Assembling a CGI playground for his team, including DoP Caleb Deschanel, to gambol about in, it’s a jaw-dropping display of technical prowess; as in The Jungle Book, every animal feels real and every sequence could be taken right out of a BBC documentary.
Unlike The Jungle Book, though, which amplified its themes of belonging, peril, consequences and pack loyalty, The Lion King – which is, lest we forget, Hamlet with lions – loses some of its theatrical majesty by seeming so lifelike. That’s partly because of the higher number of songs, which raises one uncomfortable truth: photorealistic animals singing looks inherently unnatural, with the film often leaving characters looking down to the ground to avoid us seeing their mouths move.
It’s also because this remake hews so close to the original story, with little variations or embellishments to give it an identity of its own. And so we watch as Simba (JD McCrary, later Donald Glover), the son of Mufasa (James Earl Jones), flees his pack at the sinister behest of his treacherous uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), only to eventually return as an adult and try to reclaim the throne that is his.
Ejiofor brings a snarling theatricality to Scar’s scheming malcontent that rivals the original film’s Jeremy Irons for enjoyably despicable villainy. Glover, meanwhile, is charmingly enthusiastic enough as the hero, although fellow A-lister Beyoncé Knowles-Carter doesn’t get much of a chance to make an impact as his betrothed partner, and best friend, Nala. John Oliver tries to step out of Rowan Atkinson’s shadow as steward Zazu, but it’s telling that James Earl Jones simply reprises his role as Mufasa – a sign of how brilliant Jones’ voice is, but also of how overly reverent the production is to its source material.
Only Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as irreverent sidekicks Timon and Pumbaa really dare to depart from the 1994 movie, with a more improvised comedy double-act that surprises as much as it delights. The rest, right down to the editing and Hans Zimmer’s tinkered score, looks and sounds so much like The Lion King of Disney fans’ childhoods that the whole thing feels vaguely pointless.
“It belongs to no one, but it will be yours to protect,” notes Mufasa, in a slightly updated speech about the kingdom ruled over by his lion family. It’s a gesture towards an unexamined, unexplored question of this hierarchical adventure, but The Lion King in 2019 sadly avoids further discussion of the matter, preferring to keep its imagination on the surface. The result is visual treat, but this Lion King feels like it’s still working on its roar.