Ready for the mane event? The Lion King is the latest Disney classic to complete its own circle of life by hitting the silver screen again as a live action re-imagining. Helmed by director Jon Favreau (who also steered The Jungle Book to major success), the film is a stunning – if not strictly necessary – treatment of the original fan favorite that still made us feel the love tonight.
Let’s be real, you know this story. A young cub, Simba, is set to become the king of the Pridelands – until he is forced to watch his father, Mufasa (voiced again by the legendary James Earl Jones) die violently in a stampede. Simba’s evil uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) makes him think the death is his fault and encourages him (read: threatens) to run away and never return. Simba lives it up and grows up (hello, Donald Glover!) in a desert oasis, before his past catches up to him in the form of his future queen, Nala (Beyoncé!), and he returns to his home in order to save it from Scar and take his rightful place as king.
The Lion King is generally very faithful to the magic of the original, with some scenes (such as opening number “Circle of Life”) functioning essentially as shot-for-shot homages. As a child of the 90s with the original animated classic apparently deeply embedded in my brain, this worked to mixed effect for me. The visuals (which we’ll get to in a minute) made that opening number truly stunning, the comparisons to the original so evident in the familiar scene. However, when it comes to dialogue and music, you can’t help but compare the scenes (in content and delivery) to the original – which sometimes works and sometimes falls flat.
The film works best when it distinguishes itself from the original and takes bigger swings. Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) are standouts, with even more sassy commentary that comes close to breaking the fourth wall at several points. A moment fans will recognize from the original that involves Pumbaa offering himself up as live bait to a pack of hungry hyenas in a diversion takes a turn that was maybe my favorite surprise of the movie. Their oasis is also populated with a broader group of animals who add to the humor, especially in a re-imagining of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
Where King truly succeeds is in the visuals. This movie is straight-up stunning, and photorealistic to the point that many scenes could be confused with Planet Earth. From the wind blowing through Simba’s mane to swirling stars showing the passage of time – and even a dung beetle doing its thing (yep, a dung beetle) – you can’t help but wonder at the incredible care and technical prowess that went into making this movie.
The Lion King has to walk a tricky line of paying homage to the original while distinguishing itself enough to feel relevant and necessary. It doesn’t quite do enough to hit the “necessary” category, but it’s still an absolutely gorgeous and enjoyable film that we’d recommend for the visuals alone (and hey, bonus new Beyoncé song!).
The Lion King hits theaters July 18, 2019.