'The Lion King': Film Review

The same old story in spiffy new pictures.
7/19/2019

Jon Favreau's photorealistic computer-animated remake of the Disney favorite features voice work by Donald Glover, Beyonce, James Earl Jones and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

There has perhaps never been as surefire a hit film as this new version of The Lion King. The original 1994 animated feature was a global smash, the 1997 musical stage adaptation now stands as the third longest-running show in Broadway history and its more than 20 spinoff international productions have grossed more than $8 billion.

The property serves, in other words, as the ideal Disney template, a cash cow not to be messed with. What this means for the new big-screen take on the story, which is entirely animated but to such a realistic degree that it could practically pass as a live-action film, is that it may be the most conservative, least surprising, least risk-taking film of the current century. Nearly a scene-by-scene remake of the original, albeit a half-hour longer, it serves up the expected goods, which will be duly gobbled up by audiences everywhere like the perfectly prepared corporate meal it is.

With a property as time-tested as this one and generations who regard the appealing story as a childhood touchstone, it would be foolhardy to rock the boat. Who's going to object other than curmudgeons and resisters to the advent of Disney taking over the global entertainment universe?

After the initial fascination and moments of enchantment in watching the extraordinarily lifelike animals talking and relating to one another as human beings do, you begin to get used to it to the extent that it's no longer surprising, which in turn allows the familiarity of it all to begin flooding in. The film's aesthetic caution and predictability begin to wear down on the entire enterprise in the second half — the original animated Lion King ran 88 minutes, while this one lasts two hours. You can feel the difference.

In a moviegoing environment where originality is shunned and the familiar is embraced like comfort food, this Lion King will rule, just as it always has. The ostensible creative reason for the update is the advance in computer animation, yielding imagery so realistic that the result is called "virtual cinematography," meaning the animals and dramatic African backdrops indisputably look like the real thing, as if shot on location.

Overseeing this protean effort are the great veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and visual effects supervisors Robert Legato and Adam Valdez, who previously collaborated on Disney's The Jungle Book. The highest praise one could bestow upon their labors for director Jon Favreau is that all the images look real, which they really do; there's even one shot with pretend camera glare.

The character animation is similarly spot-on, to the extent that you very quickly accept it as a norm that can be taken for granted; absorption of new technology gets easier by the moment now. Lording over all is the titular royal Mufasa (James Earl Jones, commanding as ever at 88), who has long kept his malcontent brother, Scar, at bay, and hopes to do so long enough to allow young son Simba (energetically voiced by Donald Glover) to mature into monarchical status.

As often happens, the villain here is arguably the most interesting figure. Some of this is attributable to the vocal work of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who mixes threat with an equal measure of what sounds like genuine world-weariness. His Scar is an outcast made to look a bit scrawny and more ragged and unkempt than his brawny brother; this is a lion who has lived in defeat and disregard for so long that he suspects he may well be done for. Still, he harbors enough malevolent resentfulness that he's able to come back to sinister life with the right opportunity.

But so much for multifaceted characterization. There are some beguiling enough moments of playfulness between Simba and the young female Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), as well as pro forma comedy involving Seth Rogen's warthog Pumbaa and John Oliver's goofy hornbill Zazu. Still, it soon becomes apparent that Jeff Nathanson's new screenplay will be following very closely in the footsteps of its predecessor, leaving the remake to function largely as a more physically vivid version of the same story.

The more pronounced realism delivers some scenes with a shade more power, notably the sight of the elephants' graveyard and Simba's multiple (too many, actually) encounters with the ever-prowling, teeth-baring hyenas; the new vividness no doubt accounts for the shift from a G to PG rating. There's a spiffy cover of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" sung by Beyonce (who voices Simba's childhood friend Nala) and Glover, along with a new Beyonce number, "Spirit." Perhaps the greatest special effect of all is the luster of the lions' fur and coats.

But by and large, very few remakes, other than Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot reproduction of Psycho, have adhered as closely to their original versions as this one does. Everything here is so safe and tame and carefully calculated as to seem predigested. There's nary a surprise in the whole two hours.

Production company: Fairview Entertainment
Distributor: Disney
Voice cast: Donald Glover, Seth Rogan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Beyonce, James Earl Jones
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: Jeff Nathanson, based on
The Lion King screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton
Producers: Jon Favreau, Jeffrey Silver, Karen Gilchrist
Executive producers: Tom C. Peitzman, Julie Taymor, Thomas Schumacher
Director of photography: Caleb Deschanel
Production designer: James Chinlund
Editors: Mark Livolsi, Adam Gerstel
Music: Hans Zimmer
Original songs: Tim Rice, Elton John
Visual effects supervisors: Robert Legato, Adam Valdez
Casting: Sarah Halley Finn

Rated PG, 118 minutes