Though its characters certainly look realistic, it would be a mistake to call the newly reimagined The Lion King a “live-action version” of the 1994 Disney classic (as some have done), when it’s really just a different form of animation. But most people will just be calling it “spectacular.”
The Lion King was arguably the high point of Disney’s ’90s renaissance, so director Jon Favreau and his crew didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. They just made it a shinier wheel. The story and characters are essentially unchanged from the original, but they’re painted on an entirely new canvas. And it’s the canvas that’s the real star of the movie.
More than any of the voice actors’ work, more than any of the animators’ work, I found myself most impressed with the breathtaking landscapes filmed by Favreau and his MVP, famed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. These stunning shots, filmed in Kenya, provide a superior backdrop for the animators, who respond with top-notch work of their own. Clearly, countless hours have been spent studying the biomechanics of these jungle animals and their rippling, sinewy muscles, because there are times when it’s easy to wonder whether these animals are real or animated.
This heightened realism means the fights and stampedes are a lot more intense than the original, and even the emotional impact of Mufasa’s death is greater when you see young Simba nestle himself into his father’s still-warm body, his face showing carefully nuanced anguish, rather than old-style cartoon sadness.
Having voiced Mufasa in the original, James Earl Jones and his classy baritone return to provide a tangible link between the old and new versions, and his presence here is welcome. Among the new voices, Seth Rogen is the standout as Pumbaa, the malodorous warthog. Beyoncé brings a lot more sass to the grown-up Nala than in the original movie, but she also provides one of the film’s rare missteps — her melisma-laden performance of Can You Feel The Love Tonight? is far too over-the-top compared to her duet partner, Donald Glover’s. There’s no denying Beyoncé’s talents as a singer, but her vocal acrobatics throw the duet’s balance jarringly out of whack.
(The film’s other holdover songs, mostly produced by Pharrell Williams, have been pretty faithfully updated. A new Beyoncé track, Spirit, is nice but not as memorable as the original songs, and another new addition — a new Elton John song that plays over the end credits — finds the Rocketman rocker sounding surprisingly spry at age 72.)
As with the other recent Disney remakes, there have been a few updates to bring the films in step with today’s culture. In addition to Nala being a much more feisty and ferocious female than the 1994 version, Rogen’s Pumbaa has a made-for-social media moment when he proudly stands up to body-shaming bullies.
Knowing that the current crop of Disney do-overs are inevitably judged against their predecessors, it feels like Favreau has gone out of his way to pay homage to the original, as some of its most iconic shots have been painstakingly reproduced here. But again, with the story remaining the same, the key difference here is the cinematography and animation. And while the original certainly has that old-school Disney animation charm, this new version is absolutely spectacular in its realism. It’s clearly the best of the Disney remakes so far, and this new version will likely stand beside the original as a classic.
The Lions King opens in theaters tomorrow.