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Lion King, The (2019)

Disney's current run of "reimagined" versions of their animated films have been a mixed bag. Not only in terms of quality, but also in terms of approach. Some of them have been revisionist, fresh takes on the source material. Others, however- mainly of the more recent, fondly remembered films- are nostalgia trips, making minor changes but sticking largely to the original. Following the success of the 2016 revisionist remake of The Jungle Book, director Jon Favreau was given the keys to one of the Studio's crown jewels and allowed to take on The Lion King. The CG remake of possibly the most beloved film of Disney's Renaissance era is firmly in the latter camp.

The Lion King (2019) arrived in cinemas on July 19, 2019 to massive box-office and a critical mauling. It went on to take over a billion dollars worldwide and became the highest-grossing animated film of all time, even though Disney would like to pretend otherwise. The studio's baffling bid to pretend the film is "live-action" and other surrounding controversies probably soured many animation fans to the film. But is it really as bad as critical consensus would have you believe?

On a purely technical level, this film is astounding. The CG animation here is the closest to photo-real as any we've ever seen hit cinema screens and it raises the bar of what is possible in the medium. The Jungle Book impressed with its entirely CG created locations and characters, but this is a step up even from that. The animals are so convincing that you'll be expecting David Attenborough to start narrating any minute.  At least until they start talking- and singing. The mindblowing visuals mean that anybody interested in the history of animation should watch it at least once.  It's a shame that Disney's decision not to enter the film for the Annies meant that some of the best animation of the year went unrecognised.

The sight of photo-real animals talking and singing does create a bit of a disconnect at first, but if you go with it, it soon stops being an issue. If you were able to put up with it Favreau's Jungle Book then you should be OK here too. The animals of the jungle didn't mount such elaborate musical numbers, it's true. But Favreau's animators are careful to ensure that the animals don't otherwise do things they would not be able to do in real life, so it stays just this side of believable. 

The animal's faces aren't able to show human emotion like the characters in the original, and that does lessen the impact of some of the film's key emotional moments. However, in motion they are never less than convincing, and they are able to show their feelings through their behaviour and body language much like real animals.

Comparison videos doing the rounds online help feed the misconception that this is a shot-for-shot remake. It really isn't. Favreau tries to stick as close as possible most of the time, but makes changes that suit a more realistic style. For example, the I Just Can't Wait To Be King sequence doesn't feature animals performing circus tricks and forming pyramids. It's replaced with a tour of the waterhole, which still allows us to take in a colourful menagerie of animals. Similarly, the goose-stepping hyenas from Be Prepared are gone- as largely, is the song itself, replaced for some reason with a spoken-word reinterpretation.

Jeff Nathanson's screenplay is in the spirit of the original, reusing some of the most iconic lines and changing things up a little elsewhere. The increased running time doesn't mean extra subplots. Instead, the extra 30 minutes is used to beef up the roles of Beyonce's Nala and other female characters slightly, add in a couple of extra songs and show off the gorgeous animation a bit more.

It nails most of the key moments- the Pride Rock opening, Hakuna Matata, The Elephant Graveyard. Where it chooses to change things up, the updates work for the most part. Still, there's really no excuse for the major error of setting Can You Feel The Love Tonight? in daylight.

The filmmakers know better than to mess with the soundtrack, and the new versions of the original songs (Be Prepared aside) stick closely to the originals. Similarly, most of Hans Zimmer's legendary score is reused.

This doesn't have the same darkness of Favreau's take on The Jungle Book. There are certainly darker moments- much like there were in the original- but it doesn't have the same grim atmosphere. This version of Scar is much creepier and no longer camp, and the hyenas while still funny at times, are much scarier here. Younger children may find certain sequences too much.

The casting is excellent. As adult Simba, Donald Glover has the right charisma to bring to the role. Beyonce is good, although even with an expanded role she feels underused. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings the requisite air of menace to Scar, and nobody needs to tell you how good James Earl Jones is, reprising the role of cinema's greatest Dad. John Oliver was born to play Zazu. Best of all are Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumba, who all but run away with the whole film, with their hilarious performances and improv. It's just a shame that Rogen's singing voice is- to be charitable- not the best. The duo also feature in some of the film's most colourful and fun sequences- The Lion Sleeps Tonight being a definite highlight.

If you've been put off the negativity surrounding this film, then approach it with an open mind and you may be pleasantly surprised. I went into this with some trepidation, having been no fan of The Jungle Book and holding the original Lion King in a special place in my heart. However, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this.

This is clearly made by people with a real love for the original film, and is a landmark on an animation level.  Sure, all these Disney remakes are entirely unnecessary. There was no need to remake The Lion King. This isn't a patch on the original, and it's unlikely to replace the original in the hearts of a generation.  But neither is it the disaster that it is often painted as. Think of it as a cover version of a favourite song. The performers may be different and then the instruments are more shiny. But the tune is as catchy as ever.


IN A NUTSHELL:  The original is still King, but this is a visually dazzling and respectful remake.