The Lion King review: Disney's live-action remake is a technological marvel of unprecedented hyperrealism
Director Jon Favreau uses nostalgia as a springboard for experimentation, finding new ways to tell old stories
Dir: Jon Favreau. Starring: Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, and James Earl Jones. PG, 118 mins
If you were dropped in the middle of Disney’s remake of The Lion King, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was just another National Geographic documentary about the Serengeti. That is, until one of the lions opens its mouth and starts crooning in the voice of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.
Director Jon Favreau has returned to, and evolved, the techniques he used on 2016’s The Jungle Book in order to create a film of unprecedented hyperrealism. At times, it’s hard to believe that everything we’re seeing on screen is an artificial creation – each frolicking creature, every blade of grass, and all the cracks that line Pride Rock. The Lion King is undoubtedly a technological marvel that, much like Avatar, will come to be viewed as a milestone in special effects history, yet it’s just as interesting to see how all this innovation has been employed.
It’s no surprise to learn that The Lion King is as obsessively faithful as Disney’s other remakes of its 1990s classics (lovingly known as the “Renaissance” era). The irresistible pull of nostalgia ensures that. We know the story: the Circle of Life, in which all living things exist balanced and in harmony, is threatened by the ambitions of Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the brother of King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), who rules over the Pride Lands. Not only does he desire to overthrow the ruler, but also to do away with Mufasa’s young son Simba (JD McCrary), who is next in line to the throne. Yet, what separates The Lion King from the near-mechanically reproduced Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast is how Favreau has translated his remake into an entirely different cinematic language – that of the nature documentary – allowing us to experience something so familiar in a new way.
At one point, there’s a time-lapse shot of the night sky. At another, a bush baby leaps up in slow-motion to grab a butterfly in midair. At the emotional climax of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”, the camera soars above the two amorous lions like it was shot using a drone. You half expect David Attenborough to cut in and start explaining the mating rituals of big cats. And, while a hyperrealistic Simba could never replicate the facial expressions of his animated original, it’s impressive how much emotion can be communicated through simple animal behaviour, in Scar’s snarl of disgust or the way a lion cub might hold out a small, quivering paw to swat at a dead patriarch (don’t worry, that scene is still just as upsetting).
Favreau’s Lion King is less about actively anthropomorphising lions, and more about our tendency to map human emotions onto animal behaviour. It’s the same psychology that’s been behind every talking animal film to have made us cry over the years, from Babe to Homeward Bound.
Of course, The Lion King benefits massively from the fact its music is as good as ever, with Hans Zimmer’s score, created once again in collaboration with South African composer Lebo M, getting a little extra kick in grandeur, as befitting the film’s epic scale (and budget). Surprisingly, the musical numbers still feel like musical numbers, even without the colourful fantasy sequences of the 1994 animation. There are some clever workarounds: during “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”, Nala and Simba dash under the necks of a line of giraffes, all bowing down for a drink from the watering hole. It looks almost as though they’re running through the legs of Busby Berkeley dancers.
The new voice cast is equally as stellar, with the film’s younger stars (McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph as Simba and Nala) making a strong impression, even in the face of their starry adult counterparts, Donald Glover and Knowles-Carter. Although it’s hard to listen to an adult Nala and think of anything other than the global icon who voices her, the film moulds the character in a way that feels at home with Beyoncé’s persona – strong to a fault and with a voice that sounds like it’s descended from the heavens. That said, the film’s real highlight is Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen and their take on Timon and Pumbaa. It’s the perfect contrast: Eichner’s Timon sounds like he’s been stuck in a Starbucks line for five minutes too long, while Rogen’s Pumbaa (as usual) just sounds like he’s taken a hit from a bong.
As with Disney’s other remakes, there’s an attempt to rectify a few lingering issues. The female characters are given more prominence than before, Scar no longer falls into the old trope of equating effeminacy with villainy (as wonderful as Jeremy Irons’s original performance will always be), and even the hyenas feel more fleshed out, especially thanks to Florence Kasumba’s formidable performance as their leader, Shenzi.
As much as this new version can never hold a candle to its predecessor, there’s never a sense that it’s trying to. If anything, The Lion King uses nostalgia as a springboard for experimentation, finding new ways to tell old stories, while reminding us what makes those stories feel truly timeless in the first place.
The Lion King is released in UK cinemas on 19 July