The Jungle Book director Jon Favreau takes us back to the Pride Lands in his photorealistic re-imagining of The Lion King. Simba (JD McCrary and Donald Glover), the rambunctious son of King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), is heir to Pride Rock. However, betrayal at the hands of his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lands him in exile, and he is forced to come of age in the wilderness away from his childhood home. When his past comes knocking, Simba has to decide whether to turn a blind eye or to fulfil his destiny and return to take what’s rightfully his.
The Lion King boasts some of the most iconic songs in Disney history, but given the demands of hyper-realistic animation, these musical numbers couldn’t possibly be staged in the same way as they were in the 1994 film. As much as we might like to see a group of giraffes launch Simba and Nala into the air in ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’, it just wouldn’t work here. The altered staging works well for most of the songs and manages to maintain a bit of creativity, but the one exception is ‘Be Prepared’. Scar’s wrathful anthem announcing (spoiler alert!) his plan to kill Mufasa is deliciously diabolical, but the scene’s dire lack of lighting greatly undersells it. The ferocity with which Ejiofor performs the number can only make so much of an impact; our inability to see the villain’s wretched face renders it underwhelming and forgettable. From a vocal and lyrical perspective, however, the song’s reimagining suits the fresh characterisation of Scar. Gone is the charismatic arrogance of a lion who revels in his malevolence; this Scar is downright pissed off. Ejiofor’s performance brings a dramatic Shakespearian flair to the role, which is fitting given the story’s borrowings from Hamlet.
The vocal performances are equally strong across the board, from McCrary’s fun-loving and naïve Young Simba, to Billy Eichner’s perfectly witty Timon (who also possesses some impressive singing chops). It’s unsurprising that Beyoncé’s performance as Nala in ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ takes the beloved ballad to another level, but her acting talents really should not be taken for granted. She speaks softly but with conviction and soul, which makes her a convincing Nala.
Due to the nature of the hyper-realistic animation, the need for emotive vocal performances was far greater this time around. To say that photorealistic animals cannot emote would be a lie, but it was always inevitable that they would be much less expressive than their 2D-animated counterparts. Emotions are conveyed through the twinkle of an eye or the scrunching of a nose rather than exaggerated facial expressions, which ultimately limits the emotional impact of some scenes. Nevertheless, there’s a beauty to be found in such subtlety. The attention to detail is spectacular and shows just how much effort was put into rendering these characters as realistically as possible.
Although the emotiveness of the characters is dialed down, Hans Zimmer’s triumphant score is richer than ever. New tracks like ‘Rafiki’s Fireflies’ and ‘Life’s Not Fair’ fit in beautifully, meanwhile the more recognizable pieces such as ‘Stampede’ are given even more depth with additional vocal harmonies and instrumental layers.
The film’s visuals complement its transcendent score. The camerawork is shaky at times and evokes the spontaneity of a wildlife documentary, which is owing to the crew’s use of virtual reality technology that allowed them to explore the setting themselves. In some of the more stable and theatrical shots, the composition is breath-taking and captures the beauty of the African savannah in all of its colourful splendour.
The film plays it very safe when it comes to story and plot. Some will appreciate its loyalty to the original film while others will call it highly derivative, which completely depends on perspective. There are moments where it does stray from the source material, however, and this undoubtedly pays off. Sarabi is given much more screen time and is a more memorable character because of it. Rafiki’s discovery that Simba is alive is transformed into a sequence that is not only visually stunning but also greatly symbolic and an imaginative way of progressing the story. These changes show that it is possible for Disney remakes to add something new to the classics, and it’s this kind of risk-taking that Favreau’s film would have benefitted from had it dared to go bigger creatively.
Comparisons between original films and their remakes are inevitable, but they shouldn’t be the sole determining factor of quality. The Lion King has great humour, enthralling action, and shows tremendous technical prowess, regardless of what came before it. However, in order to stand out amongst its fellow remakes, it needed to boldly jump into new and exciting waters rather than tentatively dipping its toes in.
by Holly Weaver
Holly Weaver is currently studying French and Spanish at the University of Leeds, and has spent her year abroad studying film in Montréal. She is enraptured by pre-1960s cinema and some of her favourite films include Singin’ in the Rain, City Lights and The Crime of Monsieur Lange. You can find her tweeting and letterboxd’ing at @drivermiller.