The Lion King is the third Disney remake this year to offer a new spin on an animated classic, and it also happens to be the studio’s best. Far surpassing both Aladdin and Dumbo, The Jungle Book director Jon Favreau’s return to the world of computer-generated animals is a visually stunning success that will win over fans of all ages as well as making a whole bunch of money for Disney. Taking on one of the animation powerhouse’s most beloved films was always going to be a risky endeavor, but the epic, photorealistic approach feels groundbreaking and offers the impression of something different, even though the narrative and many of the shots are practically beat-for-beat identical to the 1994 movie.One of the things that immediately makes 2019’s The Lion King stand out from its fellow Disney remakes is that the voice cast is absolutely brilliant. Both young Simba (JD McCrary) and Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) are bundles of frenetic energy and joy, with strong singing voices that are showcased during their awesome rendition of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”. That scene also features John Oliver who shines as Zazu, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Simba’s avian advisor. The British comedian does a great job of crafting a performance that echoes Rowan Atkinson’s original portrayal whilst adding a much needed balance of snark and compassion that was lacking in the original.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is an absolute highlight as the villainous Scar, bringing a Shakespearean pathos to the proceedings. His splendid singing voice is briefly teased but sadly underused in a scene that will likely delight and disappoint longtime fans in equal measure. The Doctor Strange actor is joined by a group of hyenas voiced by Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key, and the powerful Florence Kasumba as their leader, Shenzi. The group are solid as Scar’s minions, but the more serious tone of the story this time around means that the hyenas don’t manage to recreate the crazed, frenetic, and often slapstick energy that made the outcasts such fan favorites in the classic film.
Beyoncé is wonderful (if slightly underused) as a passionate and fiery adult Nala and Donald Glover adds a relatability and thoughtfulness to Simba. The standouts of the cast, though, are Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, respectively. The pair light up every scene they’re in with their dedication to doing nothing, their bleak, nihilist humor and Eichner’s awesome singing voice.
Timon and Pumbaa add most of the new content to this retelling, with the pair riffing off each other with hilarious results. They also star in what was, for this reviewer, the most goosebump-inducing scene of the whole endeavor when they join JD McCrary (who kills it) and then Donald Glover in an astonishingly fun and moving rendition of “Hakuna Matata.”
Whilst the voice cast definitely elevates the film, The Lion King is at its heart all about the visuals. At the premiere, Jon Faverau revealed that every single scene in the film, aside from one shot, was completely computer-generated; not that you’d know as you watch it. If The Jungle Book showcased the potential of what could be done with computer animation, The Lion King pushes the boundaries even further, often feeling like you’re watching a nature documentary rather than an animated feature.
Favreau leans into this with one of the biggest strengths of the film: longer, extended shots that showcase small moments in the stunning Pride Lands, like a trail of ants making their way up the branch of a tree, a mouse washing in a puddle, or a piece of fur floating across the vast landscape.
From the cute baby lions to the eclectic roster of animals that fill the screen, the animators of The Lion King do a brilliant job of bringing the wildlife of the Pride Lands to life, and for the most part it works. However, something that’s lost in the retelling is the visual emotion of the characters, as the film goes for a photorealistic tone that leaves the core cast of animals looking like… well, animals.
Although that might not land with younger audiences in the same way as the emotive animated creatures that usually fill Disney movies, it doesn’t mean that the more fantastical and musical moments don’t work. There’s a gravitas that suits the Shakspearean story that wasn’t there before, but some of the emotional beats don’t hit quite as hard.
Despite all of the successes of the film, it’s hard to judge The Lion King completely objectively as it is really just a scene-for-scene remake of a film that already exists (and was arguably ripped off from an existing Osamu Tezuka anime — google Kimba). But with that in mind, Favreau and co. do a great job of making The Lion King feel like a worthwhile endeavor that’s game-changing in terms of the artistic techniques that were used to create it. The film will undoubtedly introduce a new generation of fans to the story whilst still offering up something different enough visually that fans of the original will likely still find something new to love.