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“The Lion King” Is A Visually Stunning New Version Of A Classic Tale

Among Disney animated titles, The Lion King holds a special place in the hearts of many. Part of the second Golden Age of animation for the company, it captured the imaginations of young and old back in 1994. Now, Disney has updated the look with a photorealistic remake, looking for all the world like actual animals are doing this riff on Shakespeare. Opening this week, for some, it will represent a magical experience. For others, it will bug them to no end. For yours truly? I recognize the issues that a handful of my colleagues have with it, but by and large, I was thoroughly entertained by the 2019 incarnation of The Lion King.

Plot wise, the filmmakers stick almost completely to the animated original. This is still the tale of a young lion cub named Simba (voice of JD McCrary), the prince of Pride Rock, regally presided over by his father Mufasa (voice of James Earl Jones), the king. Simba will one day be the ruler, which angers his uncle Scar (voice of Chiwetel Ejiofor) to no end. So much so, he arranges for the murder of the two, though Simba escapes. While on his own he grows up (now voiced by Donald Glover), aided by new friends in Timon (voice of Billy Eichner) and Pumba (voice of Seth Rogen). However, with Scar ruining Pride Rock as King, a grown Nala (now voiced by Beyoncé), goes to find help, stumbling upon Simba. With some help, he heads back to reclaim what’s his and save the day. Jon Favreau directs the remake, with the screenplay credited to Jeff Nathanson. Taking the part of Sarabi is the voice of Alfre Woodard, while John Oliver lends his voice to the role of Zazu. Other actors contributing voice work here includes Eric André, John Kani, Keegan-Michael Key, Amy Sedaris, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and more. Caleb Deschanel is responsible for the cinematography, while the score is by Hans Zimmer.

Visually, this is an unparalleled work by Jon Favreau and company. The effects on display are often breathtaking. The opening Circle of Life sequence is a real stunner, which actually turns into a double edged sword. When the animals are talking, there can be an uncanny valley situation for some. When you’re just observing nature and watching the opening we all know by heart, it’s perfection. Other highlights include the return of James Earl Jones, as well as the voice work by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, who brings witty life to their roles. In particular, a moment with them from the third act, that’s brand new, is an absolute riot. On the flip side, Beyoncé doesn’t bring much to Nala, while it bugged me that Can You Feel The Love Tonight is sung in broad daylight. Little things like that got to me, even though I was largely delighted by the entire film.

Even if there are things to nitpick, the spirit of the original is very much still in place here. From Jones’ still booming voice to the death of Mufasa, the movie does feel like The Lion King. Frankly, anyone who’s of the opinion that this somehow violates the sanctity of the original is just being overprotective of something they love from childhood. Both stand together and offer up the same story, just with two very different looks to them. Nothing can touch the magic of the original, but this is far closer to it than a “live action” work should ever hope to accomplish. Favreau tells the story well, all while demonstrating some amazing new visual effects technology.

The Lion King is going to make a boatload of money for Disney in a few days. That much is absolutely certain. How it plays for the general public is going to be absolutely fascinating to witness. Though certainly not a Best Picture player or likely to get the same sort of awards buzz that The Jungle Book received, this does seem poised for an Oscar nomination in Best Original Song and is a presumptive front runner in Best Visual Effects. All in all, if you love the original and are open minded about a new way of handling the material, the odds favor you digging this as well. It may not capture the magic of the cartoon, but it’s still pretty magical to watch.

Be sure to check out The Lion King, in theaters everywhere this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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