Disney’s plan to re-imagine some of their most iconic films seems to have divided audiences right around the world. The hatred that was levelled at The Lion King before its World Premiere was completely unprecedented, as it turned out it was also unwarranted. The outrage hasn’t stopped 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 re-imagined Mulan and announced that casting choices for The Little Mermaid.
Maybe I am 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 re-working 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 is true that the film does not venture away from the original Lion King 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 Jones).
Convinced by Scar that he is the reason that his father died Simba (later voiced by Donald Glover) flees out into the wilderness where he befriends a warthog named Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and the adventurous meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner). Meanwhile Simba’s best friend Nala (Beyonce) 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 real that at times it feels like you are actually watching real animals performing for the camera. And while the darkened jungle in The Jungle Book seemed to lose some of the realistic imagery here 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 on the screen make you feel like you are 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 as he follows one of the ‘animals’ as they run or better still lets the audience see 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 film. In the animated version having 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 death from an over-zealous Uncle. The result is the film takes on a darker tone like the original story of Hamlet (which inspired The Lion King) which in turn makes for a more suspenseful viewing for the audience.
That realism also leads to the film’s only real downside as well. With the animals looking so realistic when they move their mouths to sing it sometimes looks really awkward. While it is easy to imagine an animated warthog or lion singing the sight of a realistic animal do the same thing looks just plain weird at times. And yes I have to admit while the cast do a good job performing the new versions of the classic songs they pale into significance in comparison to the original tracks – nobody can ever match the great Elton John.
Pushing all that aside though the re-casting of the characters for this re-telling 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 at times they steal every scene that they are in. Chiwetel Ejifor captures the menacing nature of Scar amazingly well while retaining James Earl Jones as Mufasa is the one of the smartest ideas that the filmmakers could have had. It is also good to hear Beyonce do such an amazing job as Nala because it often feels that many people forget about acting talents from time to time.
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 a film, even Cowboys vs 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.