Review: THE LION KING Returns, Without Spoilers
Jon Faverau's photo-realistic remake stars Donald Glover, Beyonce, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogan and more.
The box office circle of life preys on via Disney’s latest immaculate “live action” redoing of one of its popular animated classics, The Lion King.
“Live action” earns its quotation marks this time, since in reality, this updated version of the familiar tale of lion cub Simba’s tumultuous ascension to the throne of the animal kingdom is no less animated than the original 1994 version. That film, all these years later, remains one of the most beloved films of Disney’s animation renaissance, perhaps of the studio’s entire oeuvre. With its latest live-action adaptation, the studio is looking to make us feel the love again, in a whole different way.
Having accomplished something wonderfully similar in terms of photorealistic animation with 2016’s The Jungle Book, director Jon Faverau is unquestionably the man for the job. This time, with no human characters and far more variety of wildlife, Faverau pushes the scope and technology even further. Unlike The Jungle Book, though, he takes noticeably fewer detours from the beloved source material. As in, virtually none. The result is a remake that is as beautiful as it is unnecessary. The Lion King 2019 seems to exist only and entirely because it can.
(Before this review advances any further into the thicket, a friendly note to critics from Disney, sent as part of their press screening invite…. “In order to give audiences around the world the opportunity to enjoy our movies to the fullest and allow them to discover any surprises and plot twists, we respectfully ask that you as press refrain from revealing spoilers and detailed story points in your coverage.” Say sayth The Mouse, so shall it be done. Just as when the same text was used in the service of Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel, I assure that you will find no spoilers for Disney’s The Lion King here. I couldn’t spoil The Lion King if I wanted to.)
From the songs to the story to the pacing and vibe and even many of the camera angles, so much of this new version remains the same that one wonders why and how the original’s directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers do not receive co-directing credit. Indeed, the film states that it is based upon the screenplay by Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts, with Allers and Minkoff having to settle for a glorified special thanks.
What we’ve got, then, is a very state of the art reconstruction of a beloved previous film, quite often shot-for-shot, but with new actors and a more contemporary veneer. In those respects, The Lion King 2019 is not at all unlike Gus Van Sant’s ill-advised 1998 recreation of Hitchcock’s Psycho. This Lion King has more in common with that in terms of method and direction than it does its fellow recent Disney live action remakes. (Aladdin, Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella).
But, for all of its familiarity and adherence to its predecessor’s ways, Favreau’s Lion King is all the more successful than most 2019 would-be summer blockbusters. Favreau is able to key in on the magic of what makes the 1994 Lion King immortal, as opposed to just cloning it. This version, like that one, is very much alive. At times- fleeting moments, really- it is even better. Even transcendent.
The cinema has often been compared to a house of worship. A film like The Lion King, with its grandiose visuals, breathtaking presentation, and firm moral voice, does its part to entirely back up that equation. Though famously derived, at least to a point, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Disney’s The Lion King has pounced over the line separating what people consider a mere children’s movie to something powerful, something greater.
Thus, at least in the Christian Church circles with which this critic can claim familiarity, it’s often- quite often- utilized at fodder for sermon illustrations. If anything, preachers the world over will be thankful to Disney for this new version, which eliminates their self-imposed need to justify referencing a cartoon. And the positive takeaways are even more pronounced this time. What these preachers, and so many others who chose to utilize popular culture as some sort of intellectual open buffet, commonly fail to understand is that The Lion King isn’t the sermon illustration- it’s the sermon.
If it’s true that people today are more prone than ever to believe anything, then photo realistic talking animals fit the bill more-so than most things that we’re dubiously prone to accept as fact. Of course, everyone knows that what we’re seeing in the new Lion King isn’t real. In fact, the biggest selling point it has is how spectacularly convincing everything about this completely digitally rendered tundra is.
Ironic then that, with its anthropomorphic celebrity-voiced animals (Donald Glover, Beyonce, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, Keegan-Michael Key, Seth Rogan, Alfre Woodard, JD McCrary, Amy Sedaris, Chance the Rapper- the film’s second biggest selling point), the new Lion King feels like the biggest, most expensively-produced and most dramatic Disney nature film ever devised. This, in some strange way, is something more for Disney traditionalists to celebrate.
After all, decades before “Disneynature” was a subsection brand, the Disney company had been contriving character-based cornpone from its own National Geographic-esque footage, in efforts make learning about wild animals fun. Those films, as well as this one, may take more liberties with its humanized wildlife narratives than not, but hey, kids sure do love them. Isn’t it time they poured $100,000,000+ and untold hours (years?) of render time into making one?
Despite the considerable “wow” factor of the technical accomplishment, there are some aspects of the original that simply can’t be redone within this “real world” conceit. Two prime examples are the musical numbers “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” and “Be Prepared,” both splashier surreal affairs that boldly took advantage of the freedoms of 1994’s cartoon-based cell animation medium.
On the flip side, though, the hyena shenanigans are toned down considerably from the Whoopie & Cheech Show of the original (No doubt intended as a follow-up to Robin Williams’ crowd pleasing Genie in 1992’s Aladdin. Up to that point, such celebrity grandstanding was ultra-rare in Disney animated films). This time, Keegan-Michael Key and friends make funnier use of less screen time.
Essentially, for those looking to experience The Lion King in a whole new way, yet retain essentially the same experience, Disney has taken essential extensive care to assure that that will be the case, essentially. Because however else one chooses to receive The Lion King, one thing is for certain: it ain’t no passing craze.