You know, coincidence is a hell of a thing. I wasn’t expecting to witness a
genuine furry hellscape trailer for the upcoming adaptation of Cats mere hours before sitting down to watch Disney’s latest live-ish remake of a cartoon classic, but let me tell you: nothing made me appreciate the cat-looking cats of The Lion King more. And so, as I settled into my seat in the theater last night, ready to indulge in some hot regal cat-ness, I realized that I was actually kind of looking forward to seeing what the House of Mouse had wrought this time around. Which also made me realize that, even just a few hours ago, that was most certainly not the case. And that’s not a pleasant thing to admit, as a film reviewer. I try to keep an open mind, even when I occasionally lose during TK’s monthly rounds of “Review Russian Roulette” — but if I’m being honest, I’m just as stoked to go see a bad movie as a good one. At least there’ll be something to say! But what, I wondered, would there be left to say about a movie that has already taken home two Oscars, 25 years ago?
Because let’s face is: There was no way this new version of The Lion King was going to be a bad movie. It isn’t a bad movie, because it never was a bad movie, and Disney wouldn’t turn around and put out a subpar version of their beloved property that would tarnish its good name. So, of course, this shiny new photorealistic version is still a very good movie — exactly as we all knew it would be.
Luckily, though, there is more to say on the subject, because what stands out about this remake isn’t just how faithfully it hews to the original but the ways in which it successfully departs. We obviously need to talk about the style, which director Jon Favreau has taken leaps and bounds beyond photorealism… and straight into David Attenborough territory. There are little cutaways — to a field mouse, or a dung beetle — that I swear were ripped directly from a BBC Earth documentary. And that’s not a complaint! When you think about the way natural history docs have progressed — the way they construct little life stories for the creatures as they go about their daily existence, unwitting of the camera crews tracking their every movement — it feels like a natural extension to watch that process in reverse. Instead of reality reframed to be a story, we have a story — familiar, Shakespearean — reframed to be reality. And, better yet, it largely avoids the inherent weirdness of “realistic” animals that talk and sing! If anything, the realism is a blessing. One concern I had was whether the more emotional, traumatic parts of the original cartoon — Mufasa’s murder, or the climactic battle between Scar and Simba — might appear more brutal in this quasi-“live action” style. But the film remains bloodless, and if anything those moments have lost some of their impact. One thing this latest version has sacrificed in its pursuit of realism is the emotional expressions that resounded in the original animation. Here the feeling conveyed are subtler, and it may actually be easier for younger viewers to digest while maintaining some emotional distance.
Though what do I know? I was emotionally scarred by the MGM Lion as a kid, and all that thing did was roar.
The familiar songs from Tim Rice and Elton John remain (though Pharrell is now producing most of them), and there are some fresh jokes added to the mix, but what ultimately makes this version so enjoyable is the overwhelmingly talented voice cast. James Earl Jones returns as Mufasa, and he’s everything you remember him to be — and he’s got a worthy queen in Alfre Woodard’s Sarabi. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar is an oil slick of a villain, oozing with menace masked by sincerity. Of course, a lot of focus was put on Donald Glover and Beyoncé as the adult versions of Simba and Nala, and rest assured —they’re great! By the time Glover starts riffing in “Hakuna Matata” I was wishing the movie would be 2 hours longer and give him like 6 more songs. The problem, of course, is that by the time you hit that time jump, there’s not that much of the movie left. It felt like a wasted opportunity, but that’s preferable to a bad performance. And of course the young versions of Simba and Nala, played by JD McCrary and Us breakout Shahadi Wright Joseph, hold their own against their older counterparts.
Still, it’s the smaller characters that provide the real surprises of the film. Bless John Kani for being probably the only living actor who could step up as Rafiki and not make me miss the loss of Robert Guillaume all over again. John Oliver’s Zazu is a fussy delight. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan bring fresh life to the laid-back, lived-in friendship of Timon and Pumba (and did we all know Eichner could sing? Because he can SING), and they would have stolen the show if it weren’t for another surprise comedic duo: Keegan-Michael Key and Eric André as the dopey hyenas Kamari and Azizi. Those two need a show together, like, yesterday. And Florence Kasumba brings a tightly controlled rage to her hyena leader, Shenzi. Truly, this cast is an embarrassment of riches, and well worth giving the remake a chance all on their own.
Before I saw it, I worried my review would be trying to unpack whether this remake was worth it. But after seeing it, I realized that’s the wrong question. A good movie is a good movie, and this in no way replaces or diminishes the original. Instead, it gives you everything you loved and then a little extra on top. If I had to point out a sour note, it’s that I had to keep reminding myself that this is a kids movie, and no amount of photorealism is going to make it a deeper enterprise. It’s not really a romance, and just because my adult brain kept trying to read political allegories into the power struggle of Pride Rock, it didn’t mean The Lion King was suddenly going to make Scar a Trump stand-in. The story hasn’t changed, but I have. I’ve grown up. And if some of the story beats are surface level, that’s alright — because the movie more than makes up for them with spectacle.
Header Image Source: Disney