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The Lion King (2019) - Review

The Lion King

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

DISNEY has received its fair share of knocks for its policy of revisiting its animated classics in live action form, with plenty of early reviews questioning the need to do so. The Lion King, in particular, has prompted something of a backlash in some quarters.

But if done properly, then why not? Shakespeare has been revisited time and time again over the decades, often by artists seeking to honour the source material without deviating too much. And with its regal backdrop and dark betrayals The Lion King, it could be argued, is Disney as its most Shakespearean.

Certainly, Jon Favreau has opted to see it this way and while his live action Lion King does remain steadfastly loyal to the 1994 animated original (from dialogue and songs to narrative structure), he also chooses to bring out the darkness and heighten that sense of realism.

He also remains careful to ensure that this is a ‘remake’ deserving of being seen on the big screen, thereby filling every frame with some eye ravishing shots of nature at its most resplendent.

The vistas are amazing, a triumph of the photorealism technology the director first employed to equally impressive effect in his 2016 remake of The Jungle Book. To say that some shots would make BBC Earth proud is an understatement. But what’s all the more impressive about them, ironically, is just how unreal this photo-realism is. It’s all digital, but no less beautiful.

If there is one compelling reason to go and see this film in cinemas, therefore, it is to revel in the spectacle. It is, quite simply, eye ravishing.

But there’s more to recommend it than mere visual spectacle. The story will be familiar to anyone who has seen the animation or the stage version. A young lion cub named Simba (voiced here by JD McCrary, and later Donald Glover) is destined to follow in his father, Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) footsteps, and become king of Pride Rock, until his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) orchestrates the murder of the king and banishes Simba to exile.

Initially reluctant to fulfil his destiny, Simba is eventually compelled to do what’s right and mounts a brave attempt to reclaim what’s rightfully his.

The Lion King

Favreau’s version brings out the darkness inherent in this Shakespearean tragedy, early on especially, with the scenes building to Mufasa’s demise particularly compelling. It’s also where Ejiofor’s quietly scheming Scar comes into his own, opting for cold deceit rather than anything more pantomime or obvious. Ejiofor is another reason for seeing it.

Once the tragedy has unfolded, however, Favreau ushers in the comedy, by bringing in Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumba. The two have chemistry and their banter is infectious.

Glover, meanwhile, grows into his role as the increasingly confident Simba, while Favreau keeps another eye on the feminist movement with an even more feisty Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter) Рthe actors bringing the required depth and overcoming any distractions posed by photo-real talking animals.

The climactic battle is suitably well staged and grittily exciting, once more employing seamless effects to create something that’s genuinely gripping.

If there’s a minor niggle, it could be argued that Favreau has only really missed one trick, and that’s really striking a hefty emotional blow once Mufasa’s fate has become clear. Yet while vividly realised, The Lion King doesn’t deliver a Bambi moment. There won’t be any tears.

And by extending the 2019 version by 17 minutes, there are occasional lulls where nothing much seems to happen. But even then, Favreau is masterful enough to drop in something eye-catching soon afterwards, ensuring that audiences remain invested for the whole journey.

Familiarity aside, The Lion King delivers spectacle on a grand scale that deserves to be enjoyed on the biggest screen possible.

What do other critics think?

Certificate: PG
Running time: 116mins
UK Release Date: July 19, 2019