The Lion King (PG) ★★★

JD McCrary stars as the voice of young Simba in ‘The Lion King.’ Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

The Return of the King

For those who have never seen the 1994 Disney animated masterpiece The Lion King, they are most certainly living under, let’s say, Pride Rock. The film remains one of the top most memorable in Disney’s lineup and some have even claimed it’s the best animated film of all time. That said, you may be asking yourself, “why did they remake it then?” You are not alone.

In Jon Favreau’s Disney live-action remake of The Lion King, the plot stays true to the original. Set in picturesque Sub-Saharan Africa amongst more animals than you can think of, a cub named Simba (JD McCrary, Little, 2019) is born and presented to the land that he will one day rule. Simba idolizes his father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, Warning Shot, 2018), and will do whatever it takes to prove to Mufasa that he is brave enough and capable of ruling one day. While Simba’s arrival is met with overwhelming joy in the Pride Lands, there is someone who would rather eat only grubs for the rest of his life than celebrate his nephew. Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave, 2013), Mufasa’s not-so-loyal brother (and former heir to the throne), decides to take matters into his own paws.

After staging an unfortunate tragedy to Mufasa, Scar advises Simba to, “Run. Run away and never return.” A naïve Simba believing he is responsible for his father’s death starts out on his lonely journey before running into a pair of newfound friends, a warthog named Pumbaa (Seth Rogan, Long Shot, 2019) and a meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner, Friends from College, 2017-2019). The duo, who couldn’t be more opposite, are just what Simba needs as he figures out how to grow up and eventually take back his animal kingdom.

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

Within the first few minutes, audiences are treated to the remarkable scenes of the animal kingdom coming together to celebrate the life of their future king, Simba, alongside the renowned anthem, “Circle of Life.” Growing up, I remember feeling goosebumps as the theater would rattle from the intense and dramatic song accompanying hundreds of animals running toward Pride Rock. In the remake, the same sequence did not conjure the same emotion for me.

The use of CGI (computer generated imagery) certainly brings the 1994 version to life, but is that necessarily better? The CGI is pretty incredible as the animals look entirely real. To say young Simba is the cutest thing I’ve seen in a long time would be an understatement. While CGI provides that life-like quality to the film, it is simultaneously dulling the emotional impact. There are countless times when a character is conveying fear, sadness or excitement and while it’s evident in their voices, it is not matched with facial expressions.

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.

There is quite a bit of star power behind the characters’ voices in this remake, although they luckily don’t overshadow their roles. Donald Glover (“Atlanta,” 2016-2018) and Beyoncé shine as the adult versions of Simba and Nala, respectively. The voice of Pumbaa was perfectly cast by Seth Rogan as was his sidekick, Timon, voiced by Billy Eichner. John Oliver was another example of excellent casting as he seamlessly played the part of know-it-all chief of staff, Zazu.  James Earl Jones’ deep, commanding tone is still a match for Mufasa and is the only voice actor to reprise his role from the original. Audiences will likely expect more from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar. As such an impactful and intense character, he just doesn’t live up to Jeremy Iron’s take on Scar.

Luckily, the soundtrack still includes all of the favorites including, “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” (sung by Beyoncé), “Hakuna Matata” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” There are new tracks peppered throughout the film too, including, “Never Too Late” by Elton John and “Spirit” by Beyoncé. In fact, Beyoncé just released an album inspired by the film called, “The Lion King: The Gift.”

Like the original, audiences of all ages will be entertained as jokes that fly above a child’s head will immediately strike an adult. From an emotional standpoint, adults should be warned that the nostalgia could get the best of them during at least one point in the film. A tear or two may be shed.

The film itself is good with cool CGI work, though there are improvements that could be made.  As with most remakes, it’s difficult to top the original, especially when dealing with such a masterpiece.

Bottom Line: While the live-action version of The Lion King is entertaining and visually satisfying, why try to improve something that was already nearly perfect?

Credits: Directed by Jon Favreau; Written by Jeff Nathanson

Starring (Voices): Chiwetel Ejiofor (Scar), John Oliver (Zazu), James Earl Jones (Mufasa), John Kani (Rafiki), Alfre Woodard (Sarabi), JD McCrary (Young Simba), Shahadi Wright Joseph (Young Nala), Keegan-Michael Key (Kamari), Erica Andrew (Azizi), Seth Rogan (Pumbaa), Billy Eichner (Timon), Donald Glover (Adult Simba), Beyonce (Adult Nala)

Studio: Walt Disney Pictures

Running Time: 110 minutes

Jessica DeLong © July 20, 2019