On paper, adapting The Lion King for a new generation of fans seems like an absolute no-brainer. First released by Disney in 1994, the original Lion King blew the minds of audiences and critics alike as the story and songs inspired by the savanna took hold and, twenty-five years later, has not yet let go. Aside from the questionable sequels, video game, and merchandizing, the still-running Broadway musical, which debuted in 1997, proved that there are other ways to tell the story of Mufasa, Simba, and the Pride Lands, ways which transcend the magic and wonder of animation, bridging the gap between our imagination and the tangible world. So was born The Jungle Book director Jon Favreau’s idea to retell this classic Disney feature using photorealistic technology, taking the story to a completely new level. In making the film the most realistic it could be, even at its best, the emotions of the anthropomorphic characters, a big part of what invites audiences to lean in, are all but gone, creating an experience which is not just distancing, but is uncomfortable to behold.
For the spoiler-free review, make sure to read Thomas’s write-up. Otherwise, move on into spoiler-filled home review territory.
By and large, the story remains true to the one you know from the ‘90s: King Mufasa (still voiced by James Earl Jones) welcomes his new cub Simba (voiced by JD McCrary) to the kingdom, much to the dismay of Mufasa’s brother Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor). When tragedy befalls Mufasa, Scar encourages Simba to leave the Pride Lands and never return for fear he may be punished for the death of the king. Years later, Simba’s friend Nala (voiced by Beyoncé Knowles Carter) finds him living a care-free life and encourages him to return home. With an adapted screenplay from Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can), just about everything audiences remember is there, though some changes to characterizations and inclusion create a few surprises, all of which add up to an extra 30-minutes to the runtime.
The film itself can be regarded positively and negatively for what will appear to be the exact same reasons. Technologically, Favreau’s take is an absolute marvel. Digging through one of several special features on the home release, you’ll learn that the only shot in the entire film that’s real is the opening sunrise. The rest was designed, craft, and cultivated entirely within a VR system so that the creative team could location scout, set up cameras, and execute all the other traditional on-location work through a series of computers attached to VR headsets. Working in the same space, the team was able to brainstorm problems and find solutions that weren’t too far from what they would do in the physical world. All of this is present in The Lion King as the camera moves almost exactly like how it might in a typical feature or, as it may often feel, a documentary. Aiding in making the film feel as life-like as the animated feature is a cast of talented individuals providing rather fitting voice work. Having Jones return to his original role is enough to bring a tear to your eye and Donald Glover’s execution of Simba feels absolutely organic as he makes the role his own. Much of the supporting cast as well — Billy Eichner (Parks and Recreation) and Seth Rogen (Long Shot) as Timon and Pumba respectively; Eric André (Two Broke Girls), Keegan-Michael Key (Toy Story 4), and Florence Kasumba (Black Panther) as the hyenas Azizi, Kamari, and Shenzi; and John Oliver (Community) as Zazu — find new spins on characters audiences have believed to be pinned down for years. Even though the latest interpretations do take some getting used to, the logic behind the individual performances and characterizations makes sense within the framework Favreau creates. It certainly helps that Favreau created a black box-like environment for the actors to work in for post-production dialogue replacement purposes. In that space, the actors would literally perform the scenes in a physical space, enabling them to recreate, in an authentic manner, what occurs digitally. This aids in tricking the senses as we observe the photorealistic creations speak, laugh, cry, or make any other human-sound. By taking a more theatrical approach with his performers, Favreau instills within his Lion King a sense of actors embodying characters rather than just coding typed into a keyboard.
Additionally, something which really adds to the experience is the small changes to update the story. There’s been a long running theory that Zazu aided in Scar’s uprising in the animated feature. Any sense of this is removed here. In fact, the song that most point to for his betrayal, “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” is given a new introduction via altered dialogue and Oliver’s delivery of both word and song suggest a being who’s more used to dealing with children and has more patience. This is important subtext and is an aspect that does not go unnoticed. Similarly, the character of Nala is given more to do as she was given agency. This could be a byproduct of modernizing the story or because Beyoncé is doing the voice work for the adult version, but it works in offering some reasoning as to why Nala’s the one who left to find help. In the original tale, it was presumed because lionesses are the hunters and she just happened upon Simba. Though it could be argued that this particular aspect didn’t require explanation, it does shift a more side-lined character closer to the front.
But here’s also where we start treading into what doesn’t work as well in the film. From a zoological perspective, the lionesses are the members of the pride who should be feared the most. This can be overlooked in the original animated story because the narrative focuses mainly on the Musfasa-Simba-Scar conflict. However, a purposeful choice is made to make part of Scar’s motivation his rejection by Sarabi (voiced by Alfre Woodard) for Mufasa when they were younger. Ejiofor offers a different type of menacing from Jeremy Irons’s, going more personal and vindictive than arrogant. It’s a good change to allow for some freshness and doing so allows the lionesses a more prominent position narrativel, however, it’s strange to show them more often cowering before him. This if, of course, used to create the aforementioned adjustment for Nala’s story, but it’s nonetheless strange to see the strongest of the pride reluctant to take on Scar. Some of the other moments newly added (a dung beetle’s journey and the inclusion of Beyoncé’s song “Spirit”) stand out rather than blend in. As a result, the extra 30-minutes more frequently slow the already wonderfully paced narrative. It certainly doesn’t help that no matter how photorealistic the characters and scenery are, there’re several moments where voices are just slightly off, as well as movements, creating a slight perceived shimmer in action. This isn’t constant enough to put any off the film, but it does raise the awareness that something’s amiss. Combined with the fact that none of the animals emote anywhere near the extent that real animals do, it becomes harder to connect with the characters you know and love no matter how much you desire to.
The nearly one hour of bonus features provide a glimpse of just how much patience and insight Favreau utilized for this film and how seriously he took his custody of The Lion King legacy. In watching these features, it’s fairly easy to forgive some aspects of the film that are bothersome. Fans of any iteration of the story will also enjoy the sing-a-long edition that accompanies the home release, the director’s commentary, and all the little nuggets of information about the creative process. The most heartfelt piece is the inclusion of the Lion Recovery Fund, an organization which seeks to preserve the lives of lions in Africa. It may be a three-minute featurette, but it encourages audiences to take their love of the fictional and make it tangible. The best news for any Lion King fan is that even if this version isn’t to your liking, you only need to remember two words to make it all ok: hakuna matata.
The Lion King Bonus Features
Ultimate Collector’s Edition and Multi-Screen Edition Special Features
- The Journey to The Lion King
- Disney Song Selection (Sing-Along)
- More to be Scene
- Music Videos
- Filmmaker Introduction with Director Jon Favreau
- Audio Commentary with Director Jon Favreau
- Protect the Pride
DVD Special Feature
- Protect the Pride
Digital Exclusive Special Feature
- Pride Land Pedia Starring Dung Beetle
Available on digital beginning October 11th, 2019.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD October 22nd, 2019.
Final (Film) Score: 3 out of 5.