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‘The Lion King’ Review: Sure to Make a New Generation of Fans

Photo Credit: Disney Enterprises

I didn’t realize until I forced myself to reflect on it, but The Lion King is probably the single most formative and influential movie in shaping me into the film watcher I am today. Released less than two months before I was born, the clamshell VHS box of the Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff classic had a permanent place in my family collection before I even learned to talk. It was the first movie that truly affected me on an emotional level and it opened my mind to how good entertainment can be. It might even be the movie I’ve re-watched and unpacked the most—which is ironic because there was a near 10-year period where I was so traumatized by seeing Mufasa’s lifeless body that I couldn’t bring myself to watch it.

I have seen The Lion King so many times that I know every shot, angle, color, cut, music cue and inflection on every word of every line. I consider it a virtually perfect film, where not a single frame goes to waste. To say it means a lot to me is an understatement. Typically. that level of cherishing would burden a remake with an unfair obligation to maintain or surpass the quality of the film in my childhood memories merely to justify its own existence. That is impossible.

As far as I am concerned, the only task Jon Favreau and his cast and crew had was giving new generations of kids a The Lion King story that they could latch onto the way my generation latched onto the original. I believe they succeeded. Though the specter of comparison casts a long and inescapable shadow over how I and my generation will interpret this new film, at almost no point do the narrative differences in Favreau’s film weaken the storytelling and powerful drama the basic story lends to it.

The original The Lion King offers a more than strong enough template to work off of that it would be very difficult to make into a bad movie. As practically a shot-for-shot remake of the original, the story is nearly as effective. Favreau’s film is 30 minutes longer, though it is hard to pinpoint exactly where. Lines omitted from the new screenplay are noticeably missing, and this leaves arguably the most important line on the cutting room floor. But new lines do add splashes of color to the new versions of the old characters.

As many inferred from the trailer, the limited range of facial expression on realistic animal faces does prove to be a challenge. For a story so heavily dependent on its full range of emotions like terror and insight or an exaggerated sneer of ambition and envy, this becomes a major setback. The film attempts to circumvent this limitation by adding more overt dialogue to convey the complex emotions the faces no longer can. It’s better than nothing, but the air of comparison makes the new dialogue and scenes more noticeable as an indicator where 1:1 recreation cannot work.

The new cast joyously modernizes much of the dialogue with unexpected jokes and emotional beats that make the characters their own. James Earl Jones reprises his iconic role as Mufasa, but he seems less interested in doing the part the second time around. Billy Eichner is the ultimate standout as this film’s Timon, and a more perfect Nathan Lane surrogate could not be asked for. The “live bait” scene in particular was a hilarious surprise that should stay unspoiled.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is not as distinctive as Jeremy Irons, as Scar is far less sarcastic and flamboyant, but the performance is solid as a worthy antagonist for the story. For a film attempting to revitalize Disney’s highly lucrative Lion King brand and etch itself a place in an entire new generation’s development, it is a welcome update and necessary sacrifice to rid itself of archaic and problematic shorthands. The original Scar is terrifying and one of Disney’s all time great villains. Ejiofor’s Scar is unable to reach that level of characterization, which unfortunately alters the movie’s DNA by undercutting the high stakes and palpable drama between the principal characters.

One characteristic that was maybe implied in The Jungle Book but is unfortunately confirmed now, is that Jon Favreau has absolutely no understanding of musicals. His incorporation of the iconic soundtrack into his new film ranges from harmless to painfully awkward, and some songs truly suffer as a result. “Be Prepared” is the film’s biggest victim, as it is missing both Scar’s showmanship and sense of purpose. It does not help that the lyrics are heavily altered, but even removed from comparison, the song is over as quickly as it starts and stems more out of expectation rather than organic storytelling. Donald Glover and Beyoncé’s rendition of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” turns out to be the film’s highlight, with the two stars’ voices working better together than anyone could realistically dream. Beyoncé’s new track “Spirit,” on the other hand, feels jarring and out of place, as her style clashes heavily with the distinctive Elton John and Tim Rice musical identity of the rest of the film.

As much snark and cynicism as we level at the live-action appearance of the film, the effect is undeniable. The CG work is utterly spectacular. This is an incredible world to be in, and the movie theater setting helps for a full immersive effect to take hold. It is both expansive and clearly visually defined. Every hair on every creature is breathtakingly rendered, and the cinematography ranges from eye-popping to some of the most gorgeous shots I’ve ever seen from Disney. The effects work is next level, and while I do think the film might have benefited from borrowing more of the original film’s color palette and stylization during set pieces, I’m almost glad it didn’t just to leave the painstaking photorealistic atmosphere intact. Give out the Visual Effects Oscar now, because it’s hard to imagine anything beating the Pride Rock battle at the film’s climax.

Favreau’s The Lion King will never be the version of the film I continuously return to, but the fact is it was never intended to be. My generation got its version 24 years ago and it has been more than satisfying every time. I’m honestly glad that newer generations will get to experience and return to this film as I did the previous one. No, it’s not as good as the original, but it was never going to be. The Lion King is a story so well told that it simply works regardless of the medium and there is great work plainly on display. Cynics can rip it apart, nitpicking every deviation and I am sure that they will, but as a wise baboon once said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s in the past.”

The Lion King is now playing in theaters nationwide.


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