Twenty-five years after the original version opened in theaters and instantly cemented its status as a masterpiece, the beloved tale of a young cub in the African savanna who struggles to claim his rightful throne from his vengeful uncle roars back to life in “The Lion King,” a cinematic marvel that uses the latest technological advances to create a photoreal landscape that adds depth and visual splendor to the Disney classic.
Coming off yet another visually stunning Disney remake with “The Jungle Book,” director Jon Favreau remains faithful to the original version but uses the latest cinematic tools at his disposal, along with some talented and improv-ready voice actors, to update the story in fun and frenetic fashion. Grounding the proceedings in a breathtakingly realistic cinematic environment that will leave you wondering if it is in fact live action or animation – the answer is somewhere in between – Favreau’s fruitful collaboration with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and visual effects supervisor Rob Legato and animation supervisor Andrew R. Jones is in itself enough to awe audiences. Throw into the equation a savvy script by Jeff Nathanson that adheres to the original storyline but still puts his own comedic stamp on it, a slew of hilarious and heartfelt voice performances, and some touching renditions of the classic songs by Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice, and you’ve got a remake that somehow manages to recapture the magic of the animated Disney classic.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, “The Lion King” tells the tale of Simba (voiced by JD McRary and Donald Glover), the newborn cub and future heir to the throne of King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). Simba passes his time learning the ways of the king, understanding his role in the circle of life, and getting into trouble with his best friend Nala (Shahidi Wright Josesph and Beyonce), which his envious uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) decides to use against him. One night, hoping to clear the path for his eventual kingship, Scar sends Simba into the midst of a stampede, and when Mufasa comes to his rescue, it results in tragedy, for which Simba catches the blame.
Ashamed of his mistake and unaware of his uncle’s betrayal, Simba is exiled from the Pride Lands and travels to the jungle to seek solace. There, he befriends a gassy warthog named Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and a wily meerkat named Timon (Billy Eichner), who raise him in the ways of their “Hakuna Matata” lifestyle. In the meantime, under Scar’s reckless rule, Simba’s edenic homeland has turned into a grim shell of its former glory, as he soon discovers from a chance encounter with Nala. As the two old friends fall in love, Nala convinces Simba to return to their homeland, reclaim his throne, and restore the delicate balance in the circle of life.
Much as he did with “The Jungle Book,” director Jon Favreau remains loyal to the structure, scenes, songs and characters of the original film, but he uses all of the latest filmmaking tools to advance the original storyline in new and exciting ways, and the results are simply stunning. Working with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, Favreau somehow makes even more advances in his storytelling than his last picture, with his interplay between light and dark imagery building upon the story’s epic themes, and even bringing the humor out of the story visually. Helping Favreau’s updated version roar so loudly is Jeff Nathanson’s standout script that nicely navigates the original version’s delicate emotional balance while also updating the humor to more modern tastes. And of course one couldn’t mention “The Lion King” without noting the unforgettable music by Elton John, lyricist Tim Rice, and composer Hans Zimmer, which is back in memorable new versions as well as five new songs produced by Pharrell Williams.
And while the filmmaking is something to behold, the voice performances of “The Lion King” are equally impressive, and help considerably in eliciting the full range of the story’s epic emotions and playful humor. On the comedic side, Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner take top honors with their hilarious takes on the warthog and meerkat duo Pumbaa and Timon, while Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre score some big laughs themselves as the hyena henchmen Kamari and Azizi. On the dramatic end, Chiwetel Ejiofor is aptly villainous as the traitorous uncle Scar, Beyonce brings poignancy to the role of Nala, and both Donald Glover and JD McCrary nicely capture the young and grown versions of Simba.
“The Lion King” brings the classic children’s film brilliantly back to life.
By Lucas Mirabella
Running time: 119 minutes
Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements.