Before discussing director Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, there’s a Pride Lands-sized elephant in the room. People keep asking one question about Disney’s latest live-action remake: Does this movie need to exist?
A story may be timeless, but the storytelling delivery system can be modified. Why not give a new generation of moviegoers a film that speaks directly to them? Matthew Broderick, the guy who played Ferris Bueller way back in 1986, is the original voice of Simba. What’s wrong with swapping him out for Donald Glover, this generation’s Lando Calrissian? Why not gift viewers with musical numbers from this century’s R&B goddess Beyoncé? Let the film reach today’s audience on their terms; with modern-day stars and cutting-edge animation. I received a The Lion King story custom-built for my generation, now let the next generation have theirs.
End of rant.
The reigning lion king Mufasa (James Earl Jones) may be the most benevolent animal in the jungle. And it’s a good thing too since he’s also the most imposing. Mufasa rules his kingdom by one guiding principle: the circle of life. He believes that all life exists in a delicate equilibrium, and as ruler of the land, Mufasa must keep the scales balanced. But his resentful brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives by another creed. Scar thinks the strong should take what they want.
Scar stood next in line to the throne until the birth of Mufasa’s son, Simba (JD McCrary). So, Scar kills Mufasa, makes it look like an accident, and convinces Simba it’s all his fault. Overcome with guilt, Simba flees the kingdom, too ashamed to return.
With Mufasa and Simba out of the way, Scar becomes the ruler of the jungle. And as the years pass, his selfish desires threaten to destroy the jungle’s ecosystem. With the help of two new friends, Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), a grownup Simba (Donald Glover) must find the strength to return home and overthrow his uncle before his greed destroys the Pride Lands.
The Lion King may be the most-watched Disney movie of all time. A generation of children grew up wearing-out their Lion King VHS tapes and scuffing up their DVDs. All these years later, adult Lion King fans know the plot beat for beat. But knowing all the spoilers doesn’t lessen the story’s impact. Familiarity often helps foster a better understanding of a movie’s themes.
Romeo and Juliet is one of history’s most popular tales. People love returning to the story to see it through a new lens. Think of how different watching Star Wars feels when you know Luke’s ties to Vader. That knowledge makes the story more meaningful. You can feel the invisible hand of fate thrusting the story ahead. Knowing Mufasa’s tragic fate, right from the onset, makes our time with him more meaningful. It also makes Scar’s machinations feel more sinister.
You savour every second Mufasa and Simba share, wishing against all reason that this time, fate won’t be so cruel. When Scar springs his evil trap, it still feels like a heard of wildebeests stampeding through your chest. Despite knowing the plot, the moment still hurts, and the story still matters.
This film features an extraordinary cast, but with so many talented folks on the roster, the film relegates most to minor roles. Ejiofor stands out as Scar, exuding a malicious condensation with every word. Glover’s Simba and Beyoncé’s Nala left me wanting. Adult Simba and Nala don’t turn up until well into the movie, and their personalities didn’t pop like other characters in the film. Your attachment to their predecessors in the 1994 classic will inform how much you care about them here.
I thought that Toy Story 4’s Ducky and Bunny were 2019’s breakout comedy duo. But Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) have made it a close race. I would gladly watch a spinoff movie where these two silly beasts go on adventures. The duo shares an entertaining rapport, but Eichner’s Timon lights up the screen. Eichner plays the facetious meerkat as a shrill little snark-machine who is bursting with personality.
The special effects in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi flick 2001: A Space Odyssey were so ahead of their time that people believe he colluded with NASA to fake the 1969 moon landing. It’s a case of people mistaking real-life for movies. Favreau’s VFX work in The Lion King is so ahead of the competition, viewers will believe they’re watching flesh and blood creatures. It’s a case of people mistaking movies for real life.
Every creature that shows up onscreen is 100% CG. At times, their CG fakery is more evident than others. But there are instances of absolute photo-realism. As a nerd and someone obsessed with new tech, the visuals had me over the moon. I want to stare at these moving works of art and break them down pixel by pixel. But there is a trade-off for such cutting-edge effects. By making the animals look so real, it limits the animation department’s level of artistic freedom.
It’s easier for a cartoony-looking character to show emotion. Think of the eyeballs bugging out of Jim Carrey’s head in The Mask. We don’t need humans to make such broad gestures to get their points across. We’re attuned to the smallest human expressions because we spend our lives looking at each others’ faces.
But animals aren’t built for verbal communication. And live-action Simba can’t make broad, cartoon-style expressions to convey feelings as he does in the original film. If these realistic-looking creatures did, they would look creepy and weird. Subdued performances are the trade-off for The Lion King’s artistic direction. I can see people finding the talking animals dull and tough to empathize with – I don’t agree with this stance.
Favreau and his DP, Caleb Deschanel, compensate by using every visual storytelling trick in a filmmaker’s arsenal. They rely on a scene’s lighting and environment to set the tone. Lighter moments happen beneath the warm pink glow of golden hour sun and give the film a fairy-tale feeling. Seeing water glisten like diamonds as tall green grass sways in the wind like dancers, looks sublime. Darker scenes play out beneath harsh lighting or by the cover of night, often bathed in cold blue hues. We often find Scar and the hyenas scheming in desolate, rocky caves full of sand and jagged rocks. We don’t need a line of dialogue to tell us how we should feel in these moments.
Fans share such a meaningful connection with The Lion King because of its simple, yet resonant themes. Jeff Nathanson’s script doesn’t over-complicate the material. The subtext is text in this movie, and there is beauty in that simplicity. The Lion King tells a tale brimming with universal conflicts; excess versus moderation, chaos versus order, truth versus lies, and ultimately, good versus evil.
Favreau’s take on the material tracks as deeply existential. There’s a sequence late in the movie that expands on a scene from the original film. Simba shakes some of his fur loose, and it flutters in the wind. And the story takes a backseat as we follow a series of shots reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. We watch as the fur travels through the wild; placed in a bird’s nest, carried by ants, ingested, defecated and rolled along by a dung beetle. It’s a beautiful statement about existence, and how we’re all small pieces of a big beautiful whole and connected to each other in ways we can’t comprehend.
The Lion King’s story tells us that we play a small and brief role in a never-ending circle of life, but our existence is still meaningful. No matter how we choose to live our lives, we’re all connected. Our choices ripple through time and affect future generations, long after we’re gone.
This animated “children’s movie” asks us to look our mortality in the face and greet it not with dread, but with a warm smile. Even when we’re dead and gone, our memory will still roll high in the sapphire sky, and cast our hope, faith, and love, down from above. Hakuna matata.