Disney’s 1994 animated version of The Lion King was a huge hit. Not only did it win Academy Awards for original score (courtesy of the amazing Hans Zimmer) but also for original song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” by Elton John & Tim Rice. It also won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and went on to become a huge Broadway stage show in 1997, winning further awards and proving to be one of the most popular shows ever. Some movie sequels quietly came and went, along with a couple of TV series, but it’s the original movie which is still loved by millions to this day. While Disney currently feels the need to rework their animated back catalogue, and with considerable advances in photorealistic computer animation technology, it was only a matter of time before The Lion King had it’s turn in landing a remake.
Right now, I’m neither for or against this current wave of remakes. I don’t think they’re entirely necessary, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by one or two of them so far, so I’m happy to give them my time for now. The Lion King is the third remake to emerge this year though, following the disappointing Dumbo and the not as bad as I was expecting Aladdin. The term ‘live action’ has been used to describe this version of The Lion King, although it’s not really live – more of a CGI upgrade – and it’s been getting a lot of negativity online too, more so than any other Disney remake so far. Most of the backlash appears to be down to the fact that this is a beloved film, with the remake being more of a shot by shot recreation than any of the others so far, supposedly rendering it unnecessary in the eyes of the haters. But, while I agree that the original is an incredible movie, that certainly didn’t stop me, or millions of others, from going to view the stage show production of The Lion King – a retelling and re-imagining of the story and characters you know and love, just with a different set of tools to do the job. So, why not treat this new movie in the same way, at least until you’ve actually seen it? And, even if you do hate the new version, the original is still going to be there for you to enjoy afterwards.
The story here, as mentioned earlier, is the same as the original movie, with a pretty impressive cast lending their voices to the characters. We follow young lion cub Simba (JD McCrary), who is destined to succeed his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones reprising his 1994 performance), as King of the African Pride Lands. But his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has other plans, murdering Mufasa and forcing Simba into exile where he meets a warthog called Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and a meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner). As an adult, Simba (now voiced by Donald Glover) reconnects with childhood friend Nala (voiced by Shahadi Wright Joseph as a child, Beyoncé as an adult) and mandrill Rafkiki (John Kani) and returns to the Pride Lands in order to take his rightful place as King. The circle of life, etc…
The visuals are incredible. Director Jon Favreau, who also directed the 2016 version of The Jungle Book, has taken what was done on that movie to a whole new level here. But the imagery is both the movies strength and it’s weakness. As we sweep across the African landscape, in and around the animals as they go about their lives, you feel as though you are in a beautifully well shot documentary, the animals are that realistic. But that realism also means that animals cannot realistically convey human expressions or emotions, and there’s a lot to be conveyed in the story of The Lion King – laughter, anger, sadness – and the majority of the voice cast simply cannot stop it all from just feeling a little bit flat and lifeless.
The first half meanders along, hitting all the right beats and songs from the original, but never really feeling like an improvement on it. And then Timon and Pumbaa arrive on the scene, providing much needed laughs and proving to be the movie’s saviours. The film finds its feet, lightens up a little and becomes more enjoyable for its remainder, but it isn’t enough. This is yet another remake where it’s all style and not enough substance. Worth seeing, but certainly not better than the original.