THREE AND A HALF STARS Regicide on the savannah sends a young lion cub into hiding, until now.
Donald Glover, Beyoncé
ANIMATED ACTION #THELIONKING
The question most often levelled at Disney’s scene-for-scene remake of their 1994 sensation is, why? Why bother when the only difference is transferring the experience from animation to photo-realism, while leaving all the other narrative and emotional check points in place? Why not take the opportunity to reimagine and bring something new and fresh to the story? It’s a reasonable question, but one that skirts around the obvious answer. THE LION KING (1994), unquestionably something of a masterpiece, is something you don’t mess around with, and something you certainly must not screw up. The inherent danger in reworking the source is that, if it goes wrong, the collateral damage can be extensive. DUMBO, another of Disney seemingly endless supply of reworked animated hits, is a case in point. Consequently THE LION KING (2019) is more of the same, or more accurately, it is the same, as THE LION KING (1994). But as with any cover band, no matter the technical proficiency, the heart and soul that drove the original is thinly copied. This King is a clone, with all that that implies.
If you’ve been lost in the savannah for the past twenty five years, here’s a recap. Scar is a bitter lion who lives in the shadow of his older, noble brother Mufasa and his young cub, Simba. Thus he plots regicide, secretly murders Mufasa and orders the execution of Simba. So far, so darkly Shakespearean. Scar’s henchmen fail and the young cub grows into a young lion on the far side of the desert, that’s until Nala, his wife-to-be, takes matters into her own paws and recruits Simba to put an end to Scar’s despotic rule. Cue songs and an emotional father-son reunion (of sorts) as age old themes are given new life amid wonderful story telling.
And to be fair, director Jon Favreau (THE JUNGLE BOOK reboot) does a terrific job of not screwing things up. His photo-realistic action is jaw-droopingly good, although in some ways, that’s part of what leads to the ‘cloning’ concern. They’re so ‘real’ that much of THE LION KING recalls those odd Disney specials from the 1970’s when they’d give a voice to live action animals - mother bear and cub go searching for food, that sort of thing. As odd as it is to watch a talking lion, there’s only so much anthropomorphism you can get away with before things turn weird, thus the physicality of the character’s emotional response is often missing. Cartoon lions laugh and it’s ok. Here, not so much. Favreau turns to an all star voice cast, well loved songs and eye-wateringly gorgeous sets to fill the gap and, again, he does a great job if the original's heart and soul is spread a little thin.
Consequently this LION KING earns its place as a well meaning update of an old favourite. It will bring joy to the young who see the world differently than their nostalgic parents, many who may still be wondering why the film needed updating in the first place, but here it is. Or as Pumbaa and Timone would say, hakuna matata.