Let me just start by saying I love The Lion King. I’ve watched it dozens of times, and even more recently because I’ve introduced it to my five-year-old daughter, and have been playing the soundtrack CD on loop in the car for her. The opening Circle Of Life sequence still gives me goosebumps each and every time I see it.
So, how does this new live-action, sorry, ‘photo-realistic’ version compare to the 1994 classic Disney animated feature?
Well, this being The Lion King, the overall story still holds up for the most part and would still make for an excellent watch for those who are not quite as familiar with the original as some of us are. The original is still the reigning box-office king among traditionally animated films, and Elton John’s Oscar-winning songs are still as timeless as ever.
In case you’ve been living under a stone under Pride Rock all this while, The Lion King is about Simba (Donald Glover/JD McCrary), a young lion cub who just can’t wait to take over his father, Mufasa (voiced once again with immaculate majesty by James Earl Jones), as king of Pride Rock.
But neither of them could be prepared for the murkiest scams from his uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was meant to be next in line for the throne and will stop at nothing to get his crown.
When the trailer to the live-action, sorry, ‘photo-realistic’ remake was released, my first thought was, ‘please don’t let this be a shot for shot remake of the animated film’.
Well, as it turns out, that is exactly what it is – I estimate around 80% of the film is completely faithful to the 1994 version, from the dialogue down to the mannerisms of each character.
While this is not exactly a bad thing (hey, it’s The Lion King after all), it does pose the question: does this mean the new film is just a remake of the 1994 classic animated feature, but with much, much more realistic animation? If so, then what’s the point?
Director Jon Favreau is no stranger to films starring photo-realistic CG-animated talking animals of course. But in The Jungle Book, he had more room to be creative with the story and did not remain completely faithful to the original animated feature.
Here, however, he is a slave to the might of the original and doesn’t stray very far from its blueprint. However, while the likes of Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin have gotten away with simply turning animation into live-action, this poses a different sort of problem.
The Lion King worked well as an animated feature mainly because they could get away with giving the characters human-like expressions and characteristics. Because it was animated and cartoon-like, one could buy into the whole fantasy of talking animals without any questions.
With the realistic depiction of the animals in this live-action version, however, the audience is taken out of that fantasy state of mind and forced to suspend their disbelief even more.
At times, it can get a little weird to see these real animals talking and interacting with each other like humans do, like a National Geographic documentary gone wrong.
Favreau also isn’t able to enjoy the liberties the animated film took with its characters’ emotional expressions and mannerisms, which sometimes results in certain scenes seeming a little soulless and flat.
Because it is entirely CGI and so faithful to the original, there is also not much room for the voice actors to really put their own stamp on the characters.
For the most part, however, the voice cast does well with what they’ve been given. It’s certainly a treat to have Jones reprising his role as Mufasa, and while Ejiofor’s voice is not quite like Jeremy Irons, his Scar still drips with enough menace and malice to make him a powerful antagonist.
Donald Glover and Beyonce as the adult Simba and Nala work well together, though Beyonce’s vocals flourishes during the Can You Feel The Love Tonight sequence are a bit distracting and overshadow Glover’s voice way too much.
Still, the biggest stars of the film are Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner’s Timon and Pumbaa. The comedy relief duo get the, er, lion’s share of original dialogue here, and completely steal the show from the minute they appear (even managing a hilarious homage to another Disney classic).
While there’s no doubt that this will still make Disney a ton of money and keep fuelling its desire to make more live-action remakes of its animated classics (Mulan and The Little Mermaid are already in the works), it also begs the question of whether these films actually add to the legacy of its originals, or diminish them.
Judging from the debate over the lack of Mushu and songs in Mulan, and the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Disney fans themselves seem torn between wanting carbon copy remakes or original reimaginations of their favourite classics.
In the case of The Lion King, this new version is a nostalgic trip that retains the majesty of the original, with much more to see than can ever be seen. It still has the power to move us all, but in terms of its place on the path unwinding, it’s more of a recycled circle of life.
The Lion King
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and James Earl Jones.