THE LION KING (2019) is a stunning nostalgia trip that may be too familiar

The original 1994 animated The Lion King is, for many, the greatest animated film of all time. So naturally, the announcement of this “live-action” remake has drawn a lot of excited and skeptical eyes waiting to see if it can deliver the same level of heart as its animated counterpart.

For the few who don’t know, The Lion King follows a young Simba (JD McCrary) who, after the death of his father, flees Pride Rock where he learns his true place in life. This remake, directed by Jon Favreau, follows the same story as the animated film very faithfully, sometimes even to a fault.

It’s a difficult situation this Lion King remake is in, in terms of building a story that is new but not too new and familiar but not too familiar. Does it pull off that perfect balance? No. But it does do its best, and in this case its best is enough. The film relies very heavily on that nostalgia factor, it makes sure it hits all, or most, of the major beats from the original story. A lot of the time this works well for the story, however, at times it would have paid off to take a few more risks over sticking to the original shot for shot.

The opening act of the film, as in everything in the lead-up to Simba running into Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumba (Seth Rogen), is just okay. This is where some risk-taking in the dialogue and set up of the film would have worked. It felt very choppy as it cut and faded from sequence to sequence ripped right out of the original. Familiar is good, this was too familiar. The big moments work, however, as a whole this first act didn’t offer anything really new and is disappointing. Once Timon and Pumba make their introduction, the story is considerably better. It runs a lot smoother and offers enough new and familiar content to where it inches a little closer to that perfect balance.

The story doesn’t carry the same level of heart and emotional impact as the original, but it manages to capture the key moments that make it The Lion King, which is enough. The emotional impact is there although for whatever reason it’s not as hard-hitting as in the original.

Speaking of the songs, the use of the original music and implementation of Hans Zimmer‘s score, all updated for this new iteration is magical. If I can recall, all of the original songs return in some form and are sung here by the new cast. Each of the actors bring their own unique flair to the songs and it really works with each of the songs sounding different enough to be their own thing. Right from that opening sunrise when the music kicks in you know you’re in for something special, and it doesn’t disappoint.

Beyonce‘s presence in the film as Nala is undoubtedly to contribute to the music department, and her impact is most certainly felt. She is a phenomenal singer and it’s hard to top the original versions of the songs, however, when she shows up singing in ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight‘ it’s something magical that stands on its own. Similarly, Donald Glover‘s inclusion as Simba is also due to his musical talents and he delivers alongside Beyonce and other actors very well.

But forget the music, the visuals, the entirely CGI visuals, are hands down the best CGI visual effects I’ve ever seen in a film. To think that every single animal and every single blade of grass has been built entirely in a computer is mind-blowing. What Disney has achieved here changes the game when it comes to the capabilities of CGI. It’s flawless animation that could convincingly pass as a nature documentary if you get rid of the music and talking animals.

When it comes to the performances, it’s hard to think you could get used to a new cast of actors portraying your favourite characters who you are so familiar with. Give it ten minutes with each character and you’ll almost forget about that original cast. The return of James Earl Jones as Mufasa is the one essential thing that carried over between the two films and he’s just as great as before. He brings some different nuances to the role this time as well as still hitting all of his famous lines. Donald Glover and Beyonce as adult Simba and Nala respectively are both fantastic. They are both spot on in the roles and share some great moments together, a top pairing. Beyonce doesn’t stand out as “Beyonce” outside of the singing which is good to not take you out of the film.

The real MVPs of the film though are Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen’s Timon and Pumba who, in my opinion, steal the show. It’s hard to think two people could do those characters better than Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella but they make the characters their own and deliver two hilarious performances. Like in the original, the majority of the comedy hinges on these two and it all hits as they deliver scene after scene of one-liners both new and old. Other supporting performances including John Oliver (Zazu) and Alfre Woodard (Sarabi) are good and contribute to their scenes well. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a chilling performance as Scar and makes the iconic villain almost even more terrifying this time around.

The Lion King remake does its best to bring the classic animated film loved my millions to “live-action” and retain everything that made it popular the first time around. When it comes to the performances, music, and CGI; this is an incredible remake that delivers where it needs to rarely missing a beat. In terms of the story and pacing, it’s good, but not fantastic. It sticks to the source material very faithfully, sometimes too faithfully. It would have benefited from some more risk-taking, especially early on, but it smooths out in the middle once Timon and Pumba make their appearance. It’s a worthwhile watch that some fans may love and some fans may not, but there’s something in here for everyone.

7.2/10

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