The Lion King (1994) is a film that has done the impossible task of transcending the ranks of being a new, original story from Disney, to something completely timeless and one of the most well-known stories of all time in just 25 years since its release. As such, when put to the test of bringing the film to life through the use of groundbreaking state-of-the-art visual effects, director Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book, Chef, Iron Man) had a truly herculean task ahead of him.
Thankfully, Favreau is a genius, and was able to accomplish the mission with ease having had some experience 3 years ago with his 2016 adaptation of The Jungle Book.
The Lion King (2019) is an achievement on every technical level imaginable. Favreau has literally taken the characters we have grown up with and brought them to life in such a painstakingly photo-real way, that at times you’re questioning whether or not you’re watching a Disney Nature documentary about animals that just happen to talk. To add to that, knowing all environments surrounding these characters were shot in a green screen studio in Los Angeles, you’re completely flabbergasted by the notion that Pride Rock isn’t real, and neither are the blades of grass and grains of sand that move naturally on screen. He has truly outdone himself here, and I maintain the stance that no one in Hollywood today can do what he has done with The Jungle Book or The Lion King as well as he can.
The characters we know and love are all here, and are supported by a strong vocal ensemble that had the opportunity to put their unique stamp on the classic tale. Simba, both the adorable young version, and the strong and noble adult version, are played to perfection by the irresistibly cute JD McCrary and multi-talented prodigy, Donald Glover. Glover brings a great, welcome, youthful naivety to adult Simba that makes a great deal of sense for a character who ran away from home at an early age. However more astonishing is how quickly he can pivot to a strapping, regal heroic figure at the drop of a hat. That said, a king is only as good as the queen that makes him the leader he needs to be, and lucky for Disney, they got Queen Beyonce to portray Nala. And she does so with a grace and weight that’s incredibly charming.
However, the standout performances here, and the film’s MVP’s for literally the best thing about the movie, go to Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan’s performances as Timon and Pumbaa. Favreau makes the smart decision to let Eichner and Rogan riff as the masters of comedy that they are, and the movie thrives on their comedic chemistry. They managed to take characters, that are still funny today upon rewatches of the original, and still make them funnier, with jokes that are both relevant and self-referential, while still staying true to the spirit of the original characters.
As far as the criticisms I had about the film, I would honestly say I had 2 big ones. The first was that this truly is a shot-for-shot remake of the 1994 film, but with photo-real animals that can’t emote. Because of that, I will say there’s a bit of emotional impact lacking from this version, as it’s harder to connect with the characters. And as such, in some ways, I’d hope that Favreau and the film’s screenwriter, Jeff Nathanson, would have deviated a bit more from the original screenplay to better support the realistic visuals that carry the movie. The second was that the film has a tendency to sacrifice and short change some really strong moments from the original—specifically Simba and Rafiki’s scenes together.
Overall though, if you enjoyed and still enjoy the original 1994 classic, you will love this 2019 version. It’s the classic story you know, line by line, but told through a very different perspective that immerses you in an environment that looks and feels so real, and animals that are astonishingly realistic as well. And you’ll love the humor and epic scale of the film with your family. It’s good to know that after 25 years of Disney magic, there’s still magic to be found in the story of The Lion King.
The Lion King is Rated PG and is in theaters now!