I may have said this before, but in my opinion the high-point of the Disney ‘live-action’ remakes has so far been The Jungle Book. It updated and refreshed a film that was long enough ago to warrant a fresh coat of paint with a stellar cast and a lovely new visual style.
So, when the man who helmed that film (Jon Favreau, who also brought Iron Man to the screen for the first time) was signed up for a remake of the modern masterpiece that is The Lion King, it’s fair to say I was excited, and as time went by, and casting was announced, it only seemed to get stronger.
Now, I don’t mean to be the one to rain on any parades (oh, who am I kidding?) but despite all the marketing in the world, this version of The Lion King is absolutely, positively, one-hundred percent NOT ‘live-action’. It is just as animated as the original, if not more so. CGI after all, is just another form of animation no matter how close we get to the uncanny valley of absolute realism.
After all this, will we get a worthy successor to the 1994 original?
Simba, the Son of the great King Mufasa, must learn what it is to be a king, all the while fighting his inner conflicts, and his treacherous uncle Scar, to become the rightful King of Pride Rock.
I was considering not even including a synopsis of the story, after all, who doesn’t know the story of The Lion King? It’s only a cultural touchstone and held-up as a beacon of great animation, surely not much more can be added to it?
In truth The Lion King is one of the most difficult films to review; it is still by-and-large the same Lion King that we loved twenty-five years ago, so it must still be great right? Well, almost, but not quite.
I could fill a full review parroting the same points about the need for all these remakes when the originals are still readily available and are just as good as they ever were, but as much as I’m REALLY trying to steer clear of that as much as I can, it can’t really be ignored when the films are so similar.
Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, the broad strokes are the same, right down to replicating certain shots from the original, which I’m not sure I like, surely the point of a remake is to take the old story and give it extra polish, fixing the things that didn’t work before, but in this case, there wasn’t really all that much to fix.
As much as it can be written off as another cynical Disney cash-grab, there are some really nice moments in The Lion King, especially in the visuals, but something is taken away from a moment when it’s something the audience has seen before and know is coming, Mufasa’s death springs to mind (I know I try and avoid spoilers, but you’ve had twenty-five years to see the original).
Sure, the moment was effective and well animated and acted, but it’s hard to praise it too much when it’s practically tracing the scene verbatim from the original.
There are times when the film feels like a shot-for-shot remake, but it’s when it embraces its own charms when it truly flourishes. I mentioned the visuals before, and true they are staggeringly beautiful, the settings and creatures all look real enough to touch, even if the characters linger by the uncanny valley at times (which I think is inevitable when you animate a photo-realistic animal to talk) they’re all incredibly well-realised and this alone helps build a nice atmosphere around the world.
The voice cast is also stellar, with the great James Earl-Jones reprising his role as Mufasa, they really couldn’t have replaced his soothing, yet authoritative tones, even with his advancing age his voice is as smooth as velvet. Chiwetel Ejifor absolutely kills it as Scar (ironically) his voice dripping with menace from the moment he first appears. It just goes to show what a mine-field this must have been to cast, they couldn’t bring themselves to replace James Earl-Jones, but there’s a lot to be said also for the performances of a lot of the original cast; Jeremy Irons was, of course, fantastic, and then there’s the pairing of Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella.
Which brings me nicely onto Timon and Pumbaa, who are responsible for some of my favourite moments in the original. Their portrayal in this new style is a rather jarring one, but they still offer great moments of levity in the film, I particularly liked Billy Eichner who voiced Timon, but overall I think both him and Seth Rogan brought enough of themselves to the part to make it their own.
In conclusion then, it really depends on your own tolerance of the modern-day Disney remakes as to what you’ll make of The Lion King. Personally, as a fan of the original, I enjoyed seeing it once again in a different style, and all the effective moments are still very effective, but I’m not so keen on it as a critic, who sees this route to be a creative dead-end for the film industry. Jon Favreau and his cast did their best to make a film to live up to the original, and in some ways they succeeded, but I still feel the effort was mis-placed when there wasn’t that much to add to begin with.
A good remake, or re-imagining, should use some of the originals ideas and jump of with some of their own, simply remaking films we already know to be good almost beat-for-beat gets us nowhere, apart from walking round in circles, I’m not opposed to the idea of remaking old properties, I just ask that there be a reason for it, and simply put, there is no reason to remake The Lion King, no matter the eventual merits.