Courtesy of Disney
I guess it’s still good to be king.
At least, that’s how I’d perceive Disney’s latest live action spectacle “The Lion King,” arguably the mouse-house’s most cherished property. Dropped in the hands of “The Jungle Book” filmmaker Jon Favreau, who clearly knows his way around the vast advancement in photo-realistic technology, finds ways to give these live-action remakes a reason to exist - unlike “Dumbo” or “Beauty and the Beast” which only seem to matter as numbers on a chalkboard- “The Lion King” is a gorgeous retelling that manages to justify its existence without feeling like a shameless cash grab.
In “The Lion King” - though it might seem unnecessary, then again do we ever need a movie? - Favreau is working entirely in a digital playground, composing real scenery out of state of the art technology and assembling an array of talent that could only come together for such a massive project. And yes, James Earl Jones is back as the commanding leader of the Pride Lands: the beastly lion Mufasa.
In addition to Jones, Donald Glover tackles the older, wiser, version of Mufasa’s son, and heir to the throne, Simba who is banished from his homeland following a grueling attack lead by his sinister Uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). This, of course, keeping in step with the trajectory of Simba’s journey, as the narrative beats are exactly as you remember them, down to the opening sequence set to the iconic “Circle of Life” (which is a shot-for-shot remake from the animated classic) except now, it’s in the frame of stunning HD with glistening detail, right down to the water residue on a plant or the whiskers imposed on a small mouse that scurries in and out frame instantly. Even the fur on the walking creatures shines with authenticity.
It’s that attention to detail that elevates Favreau’s interpretation, and though it can lose some of the lasting emotional impact, “The Lion King” has the vibe that you just switched on a nature documentary and the filmmakers go to exceptional lengths to capture the animals sensibilities and mannerisms as to give things that aloft sense of legitimacy.
The flamboyant lemur Timon (Billy Eichner) and the bulky warthog Pumbaa (an almost tone deaf Seth Rogen) fill the voids of the comic sidekicks who shimmy into the second act to conjure many well-earned belly laughs and to help Simba on his redemptive safari. Here, you can instantly feel the repertoire between Eichner and Rogen as their childish banter serves up more chuckles than its animated counterpart, even if the singing doesn’t quite land as soundly.
But this is still “The Lion King,” and the songs, even when they feel lackluster, find a middle ground. Beyonce shows up and flexes her chops as Nala against the likes of Glover, who both sing a soothing rendition of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” meanwhile their younger compatriots JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph (playing Young Simba and Nala respectively) add the right amount of spunk and charm to the likes of “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” in ways that seemed untouchable prior to its inception.
Likewise for Ejiofor who gives Scar vast new depth. Like Idris Elba did for Shere Khan, Ejiofor uses his commanding voice to find cunning ways of invoking sinister snarls and making it as though we’re just meeting this character for the first time. Following in the footsteps of Jeremy Irons - who originated the role - would prove a daunting task, but give major credit to the Oscar nominee for opening the door on what’s possible for new interpretations. There’s even some political subtext that feels more timely today than 1994. The whole idea of Scar manipulating his followers, and using fear to instill loyalty seems as resonant today as it ever did in the nineties.
Keegan-Micheal Key, Eric Andre, Penn Johnson Jerald, and Florence Kasumba get mileage out of their brief screen time as the pack of flesh eating Hyenas, who become Scar’s enforcers as he ascends the throne from Mufasa; building to the final climactic showdown that’s so realistic, and lifelike it felt like I was actually in the scene. The only character that appeared out of touch was John Oliver’s Zazu, who seemed to be doing his best Rowan Atkinson impression, and he could be part of the fire that fuels online trolls who can’t stand to see another Disney remake hit the silver screen.
That said, I understand how audiences feel about the current trend of these live action retellings and how Hollywood is failing to grasp with new ideas, but audiences show up in droves, and “The Lion King” will prove that investment was worth the gamble. Not to mention, this is a solid example of how you push the envelope and envision this world in a visually appealing new point of view. Hakuna Matata!