Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) teams up with screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) to create a new, fully CGI version of the Disney classic, The Lion King. And while the story doesn’t vary too much from the original, the live-action look and feel brings freshness to the tale – as well as a real, raw, and sometimes scary nature.
Simba (JD McCrary) is the budding young protégé of his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones), who teaches him about the kingdom of the Pridelands – a massive expanse in which the circle of life, a delicate balance of nature, is maintained. But Mufasa’s brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is jealous of both his sibling and his nephew, and he hatches a ruthless plan destined to ravage the homeland and make himself ruler. A much older Simba (Donald Glover) must gain the courage and understanding it takes to assume his rightful place, or else the Pridelands will permanently become as barren as an elephant graveyard.
With the animated feature as beloved as it is, there is a lot of tradition to acknowledge. Favreau and Nathanson work hard and tread lightly, doing a respectable job of honoring Brenda Chapman’s original story. Neither becomes too heavy-handed in the changes, only making minor exclusions and additions and keeping a decent balance in appreciating the original tale and enhancing it with newer elements that make more sense in this format.
A lot of the freshness comes from enthusiastic voice performances of the cast. Jones reprising his role from the original is a treat and helps create a comfort zone between the two films. Ejiofor’s performance evokes an even more sinister villain, along with the hyenas, led by Florence Kasumba’s Shenzi. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner are entertaining as Pumbaa and Timon, leading Simba into maturity, while Glover and Beyoncé nicely fill out the roles of adult Simba and Nala.
The CGI is exceptional, often looking more like a documentary about nature than a computer-animated film. This might be a slight problem for some younger members of the audience because there are a few scenes that are darker in tone, and the realism makes them more frightening. The film seems geared towards a slightly older audience than the original. Despite this high quality, there is a noticeable problem with the animation. In several close-up scenes, the emotion the actors give us does not come through in the characters. Instead, they are almost doll-like in their expressions and results in the film’s biggest shortcoming.
Still, the movie is otherwise of exceptional quality, and everyone involved clearly wanted to make sure they created something fun, updated, and respectful that makes the audience feel completely immersed in a more natural world. They have succeeded, and audiences of all ages should be able to enjoy the updated look almost as much as the original.
Now, those who took their children to see it in 1994 can take their grandchildren too. And because of the quality, they can do it with pride.