The outrage didn’t stop what is arguably the world’s most powerful movie studio, though. In the week before The Lion King’s premiere, Disney released a trailer for the reimagined Mulan and announced the casting choices for The Little Mermaid.
Maybe I’m a little different to some movie fans but I went into The Lion King with a tinge of excitement. The film’s director Jon Favreau (yes, the same guy who plays Happy Hogan in the Marvel universe) had previously created a piece of cinematic brilliance with his reworking of The Jungle Book, while Disney itself had been on a winner with Aladdin. My excitement, it turns out, was not misplaced because what we have here with Favreau’s The Lion King is a true masterpiece that has the potential to change the visual aspects of cinema forever.
It’s true that the film does not venture away from the original story. Young Simba (voiced by JD McCrary) finds himself the innocent victim when his uncle, the villainous Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), hatches a plan to kill and dethrone his father – the good King Mufasa (James Earl James).
Convinced by Scar that he is the reason that his father died, Simba (later voiced by Donald Glover) flees to the wilderness where he befriends a warthog named Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and the adventurous meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner). Meanwhile, Simba’s best friend Nala (Beyoncé) is left back in a vicious new world run by Scar and his cruel army of hyenas.
What makes Favreau’s version of the classic tale stand out from the well-loved original is the visuals. Just like he did with The Jungle Book, Favreau and his team have created CGI animals so realistic that at times it feels like you are actually watching real, live animals performing for the camera. Unlike the darkened landscape in The Jungle Book, which saw some of the realistic imagery lost, in The Lion King, when the CGI animals are placed on the beautiful canvas that is the African wilderness, everything comes to life in a way that we have never seen on the big screen before.
Not only do the visuals make you feel like you’re watching a David Attenborough documentary instead of a Disney film, but Favreau, the awesome director that he is, often takes the audience on a journey, following one of the animals as they run or, better still, seeing the action from the point of view of one of the lovable creatures.
The realism that these visuals create does also make the film seem a lot darker than many would have found the original. In the animated version, seeing the tiny lion cub Simba being threatened by Scar and his army seems pretty tame when you compare it to what you see here. Here it really does look like a real lion cub is about to meet its fate from an over-zealous uncle. The result is that the film takes on a darker tone like the original story of Hamlet (which inspired The Lion King) which in turn makes for more suspenseful viewing for the audience.
The realism also leads to the film’s only real downside. With the animals looking so realistic, when they move their mouths to sing it sometimes looks really awkward. While it’s easy to imagine an animated warthog or lion singing, the sight of a realistic animal doing the same thing looks just plain weird at times. And I have to admit that while the cast do a good job performing the new versions of the classic songs, they pale into significance in comparison with the original tracks – nobody can ever match the great Elton John.
Pushing all that aside, though, the casting of the characters for this retelling seems to have worked very well. The comedy trio of John Oliver (who voices Zazu), Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner do such a great job that they almost steal every scene they’re in. Chiwetel Ejiofor captures the menacing nature of Scar amazingly well, and retaining James Earl Jones as Mufasa is one of the smartest ideas that the filmmakers could have had. It is also good to hear Beyoncé do such an amazing job as Nala because it often feels that her acting talents are forgotten.
The man who really needs to take a bow for The Lion King, though, is Jon Favreau. This film cements Favreau as one of the best directors of this generation. The man rarely makes a bad film – even Cowboys & Aliens was a winner in my eyes – and when you group The Lion King with The Jungle Book, you can say that he has changed the look and feel of CGI forever.
Favreau’s The Lion King is a cinematic masterpiece.
David Griffiths has been working as a film and music reviewer for over 20 years. That time has seen him work in radio, television and in print. You can follow him at www.facebook.com/subcultureentertainmentaus