“The Lion King” – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences first recognized animated feature films at the 2002 Academy Awards with “Shrek” (2001) winning the inaugural top prize. If the category existed in 1995, most certainly “The Lion King” (1994) (4/4 stars) would’ve won faster than you could say Hakuna Matata. This Shakespearean story told on the African prairielands, and more specifically Pride Rock, captured the imagination of moviegoers – both young and old – and combined with Elton John’s beautiful soundtrack, “The Lion King” is one of the most beloved Disney animated pictures of all-time (and that’s saying a lot).
Incidentally, “The Lion King” did win Oscar gold in another category as Sir Elton and Tim Rice garnered three nominations for Best Original Song: “Circle of Life”, “Hakuna Matata” and the ultimate winner “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”.
Twenty-five years after its initial release, 9,000 Broadway performances, a number of video games, a couple direct-to-video releases, much, much more, “The Lion King” has been feeling the love since the Clinton Administration. Now, in 2019, director John Favreau (“Iron Man” (2008), “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011), “The Jungle Book” (2016)) leads a charge into a new medium for “The Lion King”. His vision of the modern-day Disney classic looks like a live-action movie, but in reality, Favreau’s methods are vastly more technical and radical. Favreau and his crew set up, positioned and moved cameras like a live-action piece but filmed in a virtual reality environment, and this ingenious combination is called photoreal.
In other words, it’s complicated, but the end result is breathtaking, gorgeous, wondrous, and feel free to choose another synonym.
This is a beautiful movie that may leave you wondering, “How did they do that?” After just a couple minutes, however, your mind may stop wandering and simply embrace the experience. Pay no heed to the behind-the-scenes complexities and simply absorb and enjoy the sights and sounds.
Especially since the film begins with the ballad “Circle of Life”, and just after the stunning opening, another point appears fairly clear: This photoreal version of “The Lion King” could be an exact remake, just presented in a different medium. Whether or not Favreau’s vision precisely follows the original, it feels like it. Please note that the 1994 picture’s runtime is just 88 minutes, while the 2019 film is 118, an additional half hour. Without viewing both movies simultaneously, it’s a bit of a mystery to pinpoint or recall the additional footage. Truly.
So, those who expect to experience new plot points with this edition of Simba’s big-screen life-passage from cub (JD McCrary) to lion (Donald Glover) will be disappointed. Nevertheless, this critic was anything but, as 2019’s “The Lion King” proudly stands on its own four feet.
Even though this story is vastly familiar – and it might be impossible to not compare and contrast – for experienced fans, this is a celebration, as the aforementioned, beloved songs burst from the theatre speakers and hug us like old friends. The most impressive track is “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, performed by none other than Beyoncé, who plays Nala, Simba’s friend and budding love interest.
Not only Beyoncé, but a whole new generation of actors lend their vocal gifts to the collection of furry (and one feathered) animals, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, John Kani, John Oliver, Seth Rogen, and James Earl Jones reprises his role as Mufasa, which will send fans into instant goosebump territory.
While they lend their voices, these editions of Simba, Mufasa, Nala, Sarabi (Woodard), Rafiki (Kani), Scar (Ejiofor), Zazu (Oliver), and the comic-relief duo of Pumbaa (Rogen) and Timon (Billy Eichner) look uncannily real, and so does their African environment. Favreau shows off the holodeck-like technology throughout his picture, and a prime example – very early in the first act – is when Simba and Nala – as cubs – dart under the spindly legs of a group of giraffes and splash in a watering hole while the camera tracks their racing movements at ground level.
While the visuals constantly impress, be warned that they also occasionally scare, as the elephant graveyard moments and the fire at Pride Rock heighten a sense of danger…and much more than the original. These scenes could be too intense for younger kids, and Mufasa’s photoreal fate has a higher sense of realism.
Will 8-year-olds – who see this film first – forever-prefer it over the original? It’s possible but difficult to know. Perhaps, nationwide focus groups of elementary school kids could offer some answers, or quite conceivably, hey, it doesn’t matter. Just watch “The Lion King”, feel the love and anticipate a Best Visual Effects Oscar for Favreau’s team in February 2020.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer: Walt Disney Studios