The Lion King is a film of legend. The loose retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the Egyptian mythos of Osiris, is an icon of many people’s childhood. Who can forget Simba and Nala romping through the jungle singing about love? Simba singing about how he couldn’t wait to be king. We all can still feel the soul shattering death of Mufasa, the lithe humor of Timon and the stumbling comedy of Pumba. For years we have held these things near and dear to our hearts. So, when they said that we were getting a live action adaptation, you can imagine people were both wildly excited and reasonably timid. How would it be? What would it do differently? The answer is…complex.
Jon Favreau’s adaptation of the Disney classic is a mix of originality and frame for frame reference shots. The director of Iron Man and Chef has had a pretty solid record in the last 10 years. He directed the adaptation of Jungle Book just a few years ago, and people loved that film, but here is the thing about Jungle Book. It is based on Rudyard Kipling’s novel of the same name. Novels, by default, are full of opportunities to expand on the original author’s intent. Because of that, Favreau had more of a window to do something truly unique with his Jungle Book.
All of this isn’t to say that the Lion King isn’t original. But I do think it is safe to say that Favreau’s vision with this film differs in its goal. This film is an homage to its predecessor. It is an evolution of what the Lion King would have been, had it been made today. With that comes a not unwarranted amount of, we will say, confusion. This Lion King is not exactly trying to do something new with the IP (intellectual property). Instead, it is refreshing a classic for kids that never saw the original, or who did, and wished it looked a little more updated. And let me tell you, this movie is gorgeous.
From the very first frame, and the iconic start to Elton John’s “Circle of Life,” this Lion King is breathtakingly beautiful. There isn’t a moment that I can remember, in my entire viewing, where I felt the animation, art, or direction lacked. The lions ripple with power, the cubs are adorable, the hyenas are creatures from a childhood nightmare, and Rafiki is—well—Rafiki. In fact, the special effects are so well done, I’m not sure if they used real animals or not. There was never a moment where I was like, “Oh, that’s CGI,” and that is a really gratifying thing to be able to say.
The recast talent is amazing as well. Of course James Earl Jones (Star Wars) reprises his role as King Mufasa. Few people’s voices have as much gravitas as Jones, and I would give anything to listen to Mufasa narrate my life. Beyoncé and Donald Glover (Spider-Man: Homecoming) are magical as adult Nala and Simba, respectively, and hearing them sing “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” together is absolutely incredible. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Doctor Strange) absolutely delivers as Scar, Sarabi’s velvet wrapped voice is reborn in Luke Cage alum Alfre Woodard, and John Oliver (Community), Billy Eichner (Parks and Rec), and Seth Rogen (Pineapple Express) combine for a comedic combination that feels well refreshed as Zazu, Timon, and Pumba.
For all of its shot for shot references to the original, this Lion King does do some amazing things with the source material. The Elephant Graveyard is far more menacing than drawn animation could convey to me as a kid. Similarly, the hyenas who call the Elephant Graveyard home are vile and grotesque beasts that are downright terrifying when they chase Simba and Nala. There is something really special to seeing all of this with today’s special effects. Call me weird if you want, but seeing Mufasa roar, and being unable to tell if he was a real lion or not, made every roar more thunderous.
You will hear people say that this movie is “just the original with better graphics.” That is, not only reductive, but plainly just untrue. Much of it is the similar, sure, but that similarity serves a purpose. It is an experience to be shared with the younger generation. As a father myself, I appreciated all of the homage to what I grew up knowing, at the same time that I really appreciated the changes that transpired. The cast is proudly black and magnificent. Every moment—Every. Single. One.—is beautiful. The strong emotional beats are all present and those that are added, feel genuine and well delivered.
This new Lion King is about renewal. It is a revitalization of a movie that I loved, and that this generation needed to see renewed. Don’t go into it expecting something new, because when you think about it, if Favreau had changed the movie completely it would feel like a bastardization. I cried as many times seeing Lion King as an adult, as I did when I was a child. It was transportive. Go see this movie. Enjoy it. Remember what it was like to hear a lion roar as a child. | Caleb Sawyer