The Lion King, 2019.
Directed by John Favreau
Starring Donald Glover, Beyonce Knowles, James Earl Jones, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Chewetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph
When the heir to the throne of the Pride lands believes he’s responsible for the death of his father, he flees his destiny to embark on a journey that will bring him full circle.
Say what you will about these Disney do-overs, but they’re making plenty of dollars for Scrooge McDuck to dive into, and the most recent evidence to present to the jury, Guy Richie’s Aladdin, turned out to be surprisingly infectious fun.
The Lion King is a different animal altogether though, with its problems evident from the moment that iconic red sun rises over the horizon. In 1994 the opening sequence bumped geese, with its stunning score, and the way you felt each individual step of an elephant reverberate through your chest. Even the stage play manages to make that sequence something unforgettable. Here, it just feels like a beautiful echo. You sit there waiting for this spectacle to make the hairs on your arm stand to attention like the animals before their newly anointed king, but sadly that moment never arrives. At all.
The much discussed photo-realistic animals are stunning to behold, with only the absence of David Attenborough’s narration telling you that this isn’t documentary footage. The way in which young Simba navigates his terrain, rolling and jumping like a playful house-cat, will have you rubbing your eyes in disbelief.
However, in attempting to be so realistic, the menagerie of creatures end up losing their personalities. Favreau’s The Jungle Book managed to imbue the animal characters with a cartoonish edge, which is wholly absent here. It makes everything feel so po-faced and lacking in emotion. It’s telling that the most moving aspects of the film are those that are dialogue free: nuzzling lions, or the way in which Rafiki strokes the face of his king.
The shot-for-shot approach is also extremely frustrating, especially when a joke that landed in 94, and again during multiple rewatches, is recreated in a half-hearted manner. It’s when Favreau strays from his slavish template that The Lion King intermittently soars. A Forrest Gump feather style sequence, in which a piece of Simba’s mane travels across the African plains via a series of wonderfully inventive means, is absolutely gorgeous.
So if nostalgia isn’t going to work, and the technology, as impressive as it might be, still feels a little hollow, then The Lion King plays its final hand when Timon and Pumba ride into the film, bringing with them a huge uptick in enjoyment.
Much was made of the new voice-casting decisions, but Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner are hilarious as the flatulent warthog and smart-talking meerkat. It’s testament to the two as performers that not only are their interpretations of the characters free to take on-board their own recognisable personalities as actors, but they’re both so good in their respective roles that they’ve been given the most room to manoeuvre from the original. They’re a film stealing and saving triumph.
Credit must also go to Chewetel Ejiofor, who perhaps had the most difficult task of being the successor to Jeremy Irons deliciously evil Scar, but manages to bring his own successful take to the character by employing a Shakespearean lilt to his delivery that’s befitting of the duplicitous villain.
Ultimately, this is like when you visit the lion enclosure at the zoo. You’re initially blown away by the scale and majesty of what sits before you. Then you take a closer look, and the years of captivity have removed something from behind their eyes, and they’re just not the same beast they once were. That’s The Lion King.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter