The first announcement of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King went as follows: “First, it was an animated film. THEN it was a Broadway Musical sensation. NOW it’s a photo-real reimagining –” <insert “record screech”>. Yes, this sounds like a classic tagline for a trailer or a poster advertising the latest film.
The joke is also meant to convey that, in spite of Jon Favreau’s photo realistic The Lion King being a near beat-for-beat re-imagining of the animated classic, the truth is that this version enhances what has come before it. The mileage you get out of this new movie will be completely based upon the emotional baggage you bring with you. And for an entire generation who grew up on Disney’s 1994 animated classic, that could be an awful lot of baggage.
Using the original script by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton, Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal) and Favreau set out to honor the animated classic’s legacy and its emotional beats. For me, it had been a good 20 years since I’d seen the animated film and though I don’t remember the film intimately, I did remember the emotional beats that made me fall in love in the first place.
For those who aren’t familiar with this story, King Mufasa is the leader of the Pride Lands; James Earl Jones reprises his voice work from the original animated film. His son Simba is the crown prince and adores his father, always seeking his approval and attention; JD McCrary voices the younger Simba while Donald Glover voices the adolescent Simba. Family politics comes to the forefront in this modernized drama, for the scorned Scar, Mufasa’s brother, has plans to take over the Pride Lands; Chiwetel Eijofor voices Scar.
Favreau treaded the line between the classic story audiences fell in love with very carefully by augmenting the story with more character development. Simba’s exile and his relationship with Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogan) benefitted the most from these changes, giving us a richer sense of Simba’s journey while relating “Hakuna Matata” to the larger meaning of “Circle of Life.”
That’s the beautiful thing about this version of The Lion King. Favreau’s digital canvas was already laid out for him; the foundation was solid. Now, he needed to build on that foundation with a stronger, more dramatic story and by in large, the photo realism of the animals could possibly have a five-year-old scared. For the older kids in the crowd, there is enough electricity moving through the fiercest of creatures that they should be glued to their seats for the 118-minute run time.
The effects are nothing without other wizards behind the camera, though.
As an example, the camera pans over the savannah, with Mufasa’s flock gathering at Pride Rock for the unveiling of Simba, never mind the digital ones and zeros that float across the screen in ways you couldn’t possibly imagine even just five years ago. The thing that stuck out to me the most was Caleb Deschanel’s (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff ) cinematography because it is simply majestic. Even in the darkest of scenes, the photo-realism shines through.
The digitally animated world allowed Deschanel to create a depth of field between the characters and the environment, giving rise to the dramatic action that Favreau was looking for. I honestly felt like I was watching a Disney Nature documentary, the visuals were so lifelike.
The stampede and the stand-off between Simba and Scar are probably the best examples of where this depth and the drama were the most apparent. However, the sequence where Simba wanders off and into the desert, the bleached out floor and the mercilessly cloudless sky frame the fragile Simba in a very unique way that I don’t think conventional animation could capture.
Speaking of, missing from this version are facial expressions, more appropriately replaced with the physicality of body language and emotionally laden vocal performances.
From the majesty of James Earl Jones and the always fun John Oliver (Zazu) to the boisterous Seth Rogan, and the charming Donald Glover, this voice cast is amongst the best I’ve heard in a long time.
Ejiofor had his work cut out for him. Jeremy Irons, who voiced the original character, had a charm about him where Eijofor gave this Scar a sneering quality that made him much more dangerous. Alfre Woodard voiced Sarabi and I liked the undertone of her vocal performance; she remained strong in the face of adversity. Beyonce’s Nala also gave the character a courageousness, which stood exceptionally well next to Glover’s Simba; her vocal performance matched the character’s dominant playfulness, but it never overshadows Simba.
It is all of these smaller, more intimate details that give Jon Favreau’s version of The Lion King a majestic quality all its own, completing the circle of life.
The Lion King is rated PG and is in theaters on July 19. We are also giving away one King-Sized Prize Pack to celebrate the release of the new film. Check it out here for your chance to win.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studios.