When it comes to Disney animated films, The Lion King is considered to be one of the studio’s shining crown jewels. Released 25 years ago, the film raised the bar on animation and storytelling so high that it made it nearly impossible for any other animated feature from other studios to come close to its quality and standards. As such, there is no denying the film’s place within the Disney animation pantheon.
Like the animated original, The Lion King follows Simba (JD McCrary), a young lion cub who is being groomed to succeed his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) as king of the Pride Lands. Eager to prove himself and a young Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) at an early age, Simba learns the responsibilities of kingship and how all things are connected in the great “Circle of Life.” However, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mufasa’s younger brother, yearns to take the throne for himself by killing his elder brother and Simba. He aligns himself with the hyenas, who are led by the ruthless Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), and her henchmen Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) and Azizi (Eric Andre). Together, they devise a plot that ultimately kills Mufasa. Scar then manipulates Simba into believing that he killed his own father.
Driven into exile and on the verge of death, Simba is then rescued by Timon (Eichner), a wise-cracking meerkat; and Pumbaa (Rogen), a warthog with a big heart. And the once young cub lives the life of Hakuna Matata up until he becomes a full-grown lion (Glover). But when the once lush and beautiful Pride Lands are decimated due to overeating and overhunting by the Hyenas, an older Nala (Knowles) takes it upon herself to find help. Her long journey takes her to Simba. While she is overjoyed to learn that he is alive, she is shocked at his lack of maturity. So she reminds him of his duty and responsibility to be king. And with some additional perspective from Rafiki (John Kani), and the spirit of his father, Simba reconciles with his past, and journeys home to dethrone Scar, and take his place in the Circle of Life as the rightful king.
The story for the animated original is already perfect as is, and as such, it doesn’t leave much room for expansion. Looking at what the reimagining has done, any additions that are seen or heard merely feel like an effort to pad the runtime so that it could feel more theatrical. Yes, there are some slight story adjustments that help separate this take from the animated original, but it doesn’t add or do much for the overall film.
The biggest flaw is how this reimagining is almost identical to the animated original, in terms of script and music. Every moment, vocal nuance, and music from the score and songs. Although there is some improvisation, there is very little of it, and most of it comes from Eichner and Rogen, both of whom do a splendid job bouncing humor off of each other with ease. It’s as if the two were destined to play the roles, with Eichner matching Timon’s high-energy spirit and wise-cracks, and Rogen’s natural charm and big heart taking the form of Pumbaa.
It is not as though the film playing it safe hurts the viewing experience – far from it. Favreau is able to use these tools and storytelling techniques to show The Lion King from a brand new perspective. He strips away some of the cartoony aspects of the animated original by taking out some of the larger gags and comedic bits and replaces them with grounded nuance and realism.
The film comes off as a DisneyNature feature that has the spirit of the animated original. A lot of that has to do with Caleb Deschanel‘s work on the film’s cinematography. Long tracking shots of these animals in their natural state goes to show how far the visual technology has advanced since Favreau’s The Jungle Book. They do not do anything that would be unnatural. The animals’ movements in the film are reflective of the ones that we would see in real life.
This only adds to the already high level of authenticity. And because it takes such a grounded approach, the quality of the animals’ Savanna surroundings have to be just as high. Every single element from the lion’s mane, the blades of grass, the grains of sand, the running water, and the wind looks and feels so real that you could reach out and touch it. The fact that it looks so real makes it even harder to believe that everything but one shot was created on a computer. And it’s clear that Favreau cares about crafting movies with love and care.
The Lion King may play it safe and take very few risks in its story and music, but this reimagining’s strength comes from the terrific voice cast and stunning visuals. And though there weren’t many additions or changes, Favreau knows how not to let the spectacular VFX work overshadow a beloved story. Favreau’s take is simply using a set of tools that he is familiar with to tell a beloved story in a new way. So Disney’s live-action adaptations may not be for everybody, but they are a nice reminder of what made the animated originals so wonderful and unforgettable.