• James Green

'The Lion King' (2019) Review


CREDIT: DISNEY

Disney has found relative success in revamping their animated classics. Alice in Wonderland kicked things off in 2010 when the live-action, Tim Burton take garnered over $1 billion at the box office. Since then, Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella have all gone through the 'live-action remake' process, each one prospering at the box office. There's something a bit different about The Lion King, though. The film is, for many, already an undoubted masterpiece, and if Ghostbusters (2016) didn't already make it obvious, millennial nostalgia is a force to be reckoned with. 

While this film doesn't actual depict any real animals, The Lion King (2019) hopes to convince audiences that this could indeed be a live-action film. The trailers seemed to promise a genuinely spectacular leap in animation and the voice cast is bewildering. As a result, I was surprised that Jon Favreau's stunningly animated remake of the 1995 original was immediately met with negative reviews. After seeing the film last night though, albeit with significantly lowered expectations, I was floored. The Lion King (2019) is one of the most impressive Disney offerings I've seen in years, and while it certainly fails to live up to the magic of the original there is a lot of fun to be had here.  The animation here is the star of the show, make no mistake. From the moment the film began I genuinely could not believe that everything I was seeing wasn't real. Every animal feels tangible, every blade of grass is affected by the savannah wind, every hair in Mufasa's mane sways as he patrols his dominion. It's art, and it is unlike anything I have ever seen on film before. Even Jon Favreau's take on The Jungle Book (2016), which introduced audiences to this form of hyper-realistic animation, pales in comparison to the scope and accomplishments of this. Favreau himself has explained how he wants audiences to feel like they're watching a nature documentary with this remake, and it really does feel that way. At times, he even winks at the viewer with 'camera' placements that mimic documentary film-making techniques. It's honestly really great fun. The cast of animals obviously aren't as expressive as their 1995, cartoon counterparts, but I had no problem interpreting their emotions for the most part. The character's eyes proved surprisingly easy to read, helping me to form connections with the beasts depicted, but any real characterization was carried by the voice cast. James Earl Jones, the only returning voice actor from the original, is majestic once again as Mufasa. He adds buckets of warmth to every scene he's in, and when we say goodbye to the character midway through the film there's a definite sense of emptiness left behind.  

Billy Eichner, Seth Rogan and Chewitel Ejiofor are stellar, too. Eichner's admittedly bitchy take on Timon allows the dynamic between him and Rogan's Pumba to feel fresh and modern. Eichner and Rogan steal every scene they're in and deliver genuine laughs whenever they show up. The voices behind young Simba (JD McCrary) and young Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) are also deserving of a shout out. Ejiofor is truly chilling as the villainous Scar and he delivers a performance that might even be better than Jeremy Irons' iconic rendition in 1995. Beyonce Knowles-Carter here displays some genuine growth in her acting skills, her version of Nala is far more driven and independent, and while Donald Glover is good as Simba, he offers one of the least impactful performances.  I will admit that the new The Lion King's soundtrack is far inferior to the original. While it was nice to hear Childish Gambino's take on 'Hakuna Matata', and while Beyonce's effortless trills throughout 'Can You Feel The Love Tonight?' offered one of the film's highlights, the musical production itself felt less...impactful overall. None of these new renditions felt particularly powerful. Don't get me wrong, these re-recorded songs aren't bad by any means, I just think they could have been better; maybe that's nostalgia speaking, though. 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight?' was the only time the film decided to go overtly stylistic with its musical numbers, offering a sense magic that the rest of the film lacked. The iconic, neon-green of 'Be Prepared', for example, is here replaced by...a bunch of rocks, and the charming, visual whimsy of the first 'I Just Can't Wait to Be King' is, here, nowhere to be found. It feels like a downgrade, but when everything else verges on being a carbon-copy of the original then at least these changes stand out as being a bold dedication to the film's 'National Geographic'-esque realism.

This film implements a great new song 'Spirit' (sung by Beyonce's Nala) into the narrative of the film, but for some reason it has been spliced up and butchered to the degree that the number feels like a rushed add-on. While most film's original songs are boosted by their cinematic context, 'Spirit' offers a far superior experience with it's largely unrelated official music video. Elton John's end-credits offering, 'Never Too Late' is okay, but decidedly underwhelming, and feels far too tame to follow The Lion King.  Considering so much of The Lion King's identity is rooted in its music, these mistakes are confusing. It's also bizarre how Disney have massively under-promoted and under-serviced The Lion King's accompanying soundtrack, The Gift; a compilation album produced and curated by Beyonce and featuring various African artists including Thierra Whack, Salatiel and WizKid. The album operates much like Kendrick Lamar's Grammy nominated Black Panther record, but while Kendrick and Sza's stunning 'All The Stars' closed Marvel's Black Panther, none of the African talent featured on The Gift benefits from the same, in-film exposure. This move seemingly defeats the actual purpose of the album, especially when Tiwa Savage's 'Keys to the Kingdom' would far better suit the end credits. Despite all of my rambling, this is - at the end of the day - The Lion King; while some aspects at play feel diluted in comparison to their 1995 counterparts, this is one of the best Disney stories played out in a level of animation never before seen in cinema. It's historical in that regard, and a genuinely fun time all things considered. If you loved The [first] Lion King, you'll like The Lion King too, and it's really as simple as that. 


★★★★


Written by James Green


Originally published at www.jg-review.blogspot.com

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