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The Lion King (2019)

Mufasa: "Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. While others search for what they can take, a true king searches for what he can give."

We've currently in an age where just about everyone has a fairly strong opinion on the live-action (or in today's topic's case, hyper-realistic) Disney remakes of animated classics taking the box office by storm every four months. And of course I'm not going to make myself exempt from that camp either, my judgment in this area boils down to heartily enjoying stories that put spins on or offer a reinterpretation of well-known Disney characters like Christopher Robin and Maleficent, while finding it more trying to have the same merriment towards films that more or less just recreate a Disney film shot by shot, e.g. The Jungle Book or Beauty and the Beast.

Jon Favreau's take on The Lion King falls into the latter category, but just assigning a film into a classification like that isn't meant to make it seem like the entire film is all uninspired. As he did with The Jungle Book, Favreau practically succeeds in his efforts to bring to the screen a Sahara that feels larger-than-life, with varieties of life brimming all around. It's trickier here though than in The Jungle Book to say with certainty whether Favreau can be credited entirely as the original 1994 The Lion King has already laid all the groundwork for Favreau to work with. What I mean by that is though this film's opening 'Circle of Life' montage may look grand and impressive at first, it's because it's the 1994's sequence recreated almost seamlessly.

For the three people that have been living under a rock for the last twenty-five years, The Lion King follows a straightforward narrative: Simba (JD McCrary and Donald Glover) is prepared by his father King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) to one day take his place as the King of the Pride Lands. Mufasa's brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) feels cheated out of inheriting the throne and conspires to have Mufasa killed and Simba driven out of the Pride Lands. When Scar's reign ultimately diminishes sources of food and water for the other animals, it takes the help of Timon and Pumbaa (Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan) and Simba's childhood friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Beyoncé) for Simba to embrace his destiny and challenge his uncle for the throne.

The animals in this story are only as captivating as their voice actors, and for the most part, the actors do a brilliant job of emulating the personalities and mannerisms we've come to associate with these creatures ever since their first appearances back in 1994. Specifically, the highlights for me were John Oliver as the hornbill Zazu, and admittedly, Eichner and Rogan do bring an enormous amount of personality to the meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa, roles I was skeptical were a bit miscast at first. There's also something to be said about Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre as the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed respectively, who were my personal favorites from the original flick. Though they aren't really sources of comic relief like they were twenty-five years ago, they are instead re-envisioned as truly menacing antagonists. In broad daylight, spotted hyenas don't look all that chilling, but stalking about in the darkness and illuminated only by moonlight is another thing.

James Earl Jones is synonymous with many of his roles, and Mufasa no doubt is one of them. I suspect that this was the sole rationale Favreau used to bring Jones back to voice the character in question, but part of me felt his performance here was not as commanding or as powerful as it sounded in 1994. Something a tad bizarre for me was how this film's script seemed a fusion of dialogue pulled straight from the 1994 film and dialogue penned by Jeff Nathanson for the remake. This resulted in some scenes (take the confrontation between Mufasa, Zazu and Scar at the beginning) feeling like the actors were reading lines off of two entirely separate film's scripts, and in turn, a jarring aura settling to them as back-and-forth transitions between dramatic tones and more witty tones occurred. Perhaps Jones was simply going through the motions with this film, and in that sense, perhaps it was for the best then that Jeremy Irons did not return to reprise the role of Scar as he may have had a similar approach. Ejiofar as Scar isn't a deal-breaker, but he's not particularly memorable either. In any film's case, it's difficult for a viewer to get into a character's head when their voice and their words are expressive, yet their faces aren't.

Yes, probably the most glaring issue with The Lion King is that when the decision is made to make the animals all hyper-realistic, the film immediately loses an advantage animation has, and that is expressions. With animation, it's much easier to allow animals to resonate with an audience because they can feature humane aspects and distinguishing color schemes and characteristics. All of that is lacking here, and if you want to see for yourself, you needn't look further than the 'I Just Can't Wait To Be King' sequence. Music-wise, it's my favorite sequence of the film, but it's near-impossible to tell apart the young Simba and Nala when they're racing among herds of animals, for no reason other than they look the same. Take another film for example, Andy Serkis' Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, a film which also features hyper-realistic animal characters that speak, but the difference here is that Serkis knew it was important to incorporate motion-capture performances from actual actors into the film, and overlay those performances onto the animals, therefore allowing those characters to also be expressive.

For those still on the fence about this film, my sincere recommendation goes out then to viewers who are more impressed and affected with seeing how far computer generated imagery has come since 1994, as there isn't much doubt that this film's graphics aren't awe-inspiring at times. However, for those that have a genuine love and appreciation for the original animated The Lion King, I'd say you're better off just popping that one in the disc player for old times' sake, as 2019's The Lion King will over and over again just remind you of it. I think I've had my fill of the Disney Renaissance remakes, I just shudder to think of what will happen when Disney takes aim at Hercules next, and we'll have to all find a way to make sure people know when we're talking about Hercules, and not Hercules, Hercules, or The Legend of Hercules.

Aaron Studer loves spending his time reading, writing and defending the existence of cryptids because they can’t do it themselves.

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