Disney's live-action The Lion King attempts the near-impossible task of reimagining one of the most-beloved animated classics of the 25 years. While the visuals are absolutely stunning and showcase the talents of director Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book), the new concepts don't always pan out in this extended cover.
The broad strokes of the narrative are the same as the 1994 original. On the African Serengeti, the lions rule over the kingdom of Pride Rock. Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is lord of the land and father to the headstrong prince Simba (JD McCrary and Donald Glover). When Mufasa's devious brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lures him into an "accident" that kills the king, he lays the blame at Simba's feet. The young prince runs away, leading to a journey of self-discovery that eventually bring back home to take his place as the rightful king.
It's a classic story, and the new film doesn't change much of the overall plot. That means that, for most of the run time, audiences will know exactly what's coming next. The script by Jeff Nathanson (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) does introduce welcome new wrinkles, which at least keep the experience engaging. The narrative is played much more dramatically, with the supporting cast receiving more nuanced motivations and actions. These changes improve the story in some places, but most of the tweaks are insubstantial.
The star-studded cast is uniformly talented, but some actors seem more invested than others. Donald Glover, John Oliver and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter are solid, but they feel as if they've phoned in their performances. On the other hand, Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner display an easy back-and-forth that makes Timon and Pumba the comic highlights of the film. Chiwetel Ejiofor instills Scar with an understated pathos that works with the overall tone shift, and what little screen time Alfre Woodard gets as Sarabi, she knocks out of the park. The surprise MVP, however, may be Florence Kasumba as the hyena pack leader Shenzi. Previously played for laughs on Broadway, this new version of the character is threatening and instantly memorable.
While the cast has garnered a good amount of attention, ultimately the real draw of is the visuals. Disney has produced one of its most impressive-looking films with The Lion King. Any fears that the film would feel stilted or repetitious are resolved within moments of the first song. It's genuinely a marvel to behold at times, from the smallest animals to the biggest set pieces. The famous sequence of Simba speaking to the memory of his father among the clouds is reimagined in this version with gusto, although other scenes feel too dependent on recreating the animated original to work as well as they could.
Building upon his experience on The Jungle Book, Favreau draws surprising amounts of emotion from small character beats. He has a great deal of help from cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff), who frames The Lion King more as if it were a documentary rather than a movie about talking animals. It results in a more dramatic interpretation of the source material, often at the expense of the cartoonish comedy elements. The Lion King is still funny, thanks in large part to the interplay between Timon and Pumba, but it's a more extreme interpretation of the original.
Ultimately, however, The Lion King is beholden to the original in a way it can never escape. This film, perhaps more than any of Disney's previous live-action adaptations, stands in the long shadow of the source material. While The Lion King isn't a shot-for-shot remake, and takes interesting liberties here and there, most of the film feels like little more than a cover of the original. Dialogue, shots and scenes are recreated, more for the sake of appearance than for storytelling. It's not wholly fair to compare this movie to the original, but it's unavoidable.
The Lion King is certainly a visual triumph for Favreau and for Deschanel, but the original still holds up better than the live-action cover. cover.
Opening July 19, director Jon Favreau's The Lion King features the voices of Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Florence Kasumba, Eric André, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and James Earl Jones.