The Lion King

Jon Favreau’s photo-realistic remake of The Lion King is a gasp-inducing visual spectacle, but the magic of the original isn’t quite there

Film Review by Joseph Walsh | 15 Jul 2019
  • The Lion King
Film title: The Lion King
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Release date: 19 Jul
Certificate: PG

Disney has always pushed boundaries when it comes to animation. From its earliest days with Snow White in 1937 to the photo-realistic backdrops of Toy Story 4, they’ve led the pack in the industry. With Jon Favreau’s new take on The Lion King, they go even further, producing a gasp-inducing visual spectacle, even if it loses some of the magic of the original.

A quarter-century on from the 2D animated classic that wowed audiences with that heart-breaking wildebeest stampede, Disney continues to break new ground. It feels wrong to call Favreau’s version ‘live action’ because it isn’t. It’s something else. From the blades of grass on the savannah to the cracks and crags of a rhino’s horn, everything has been digitally rendered with extraordinary realism. In the opening shots, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled into a nature documentary. It’s only when you hear the beat of Nants Ingonyama chime in that you remember what you are watching.

There are moments of rare beauty that differentiate Favreau’s film from its hand-drawn predecessor. When we watch the journey of a tuft of hair from a lion’s mane as it dances in the air, it echoes American Beauty’s plastic bag moment. The magic of the original story isn’t quite there, though. However artfully rendered, there’s something about watching life-like lions sing and prance that your brain just can’t compute.

The Shakespearean plot remains unchanged for the most part, but with more agency thrown in the direction of the female characters this time. For those of you unfamiliar with the original, we follow the princeling lion cub Simba, duped by his wicked uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) into believing he is responsible for the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones still lending his baritone majesty to the character). The lion cub runs off to the jungle before returning home as an adult to seize his crown.

The voice cast – which includes Donald Glover as the grown Simba, and Beyoncé as his cubhood friend Nala – is well-chosen. Seeing Simba and Nala sing a twilight version of Can You Feel the Love Tonight should prove a treat for Childish Gambino and Beyoncé fans.

Not all the songs work. Scar's bombastic number, Be Prepared, feels a bit too Gilbert and Sullivan. It isn’t Ejiofor’s performance that’s at fault, rather a lack of imagination about how the song is handled. And speaking of being prepared, the photorealism of the film creates a much darker feel than the original. Certain moments with the hyenas, especially Florence Kasumba’s Shenzi, are terrifying. The big hitters like I Just Can’t Wait to be King and the beloved Hakuna Matata still have the same magic, even if the visuals are now in a lower, less-pantomime key.

But it’s Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, as the vaudeville double act Timon and Pumbaa, who steal the show with their hedonistic outlook on life. Although they do offer up a moment that concerningly suggests Disney might be starting to treat their classics as yet another ‘universe’, akin to the MCU.

The Lion King is leagues ahead of Disney's recent animation rehashes (the sooner we forget about Aladdin the better), and up there with Favreau's earlier Disney remake, The Jungle Book.

Released by Disney