THE original version of “The Lion King,” released in 1994 by Disney, is without a doubt one of the most famous, most iconic, most instantly recognisable, most well-loved films of all time. Who in the world can resist the urge to hum along to the film’s timeless songs, such as ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight,’ ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King,’ ‘Be Prepared,’ which is my personal favourite, and, of course, the most popular, ‘Hakuna Matata’? Who does not know that “The Lion King” is basically Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” with lions, set in the African jungle and adapted for children? Who has not wept during the scene where Mufasa dies? Who does not enjoy the humour put forth by the hilarious duo of Timon and Pumba? There are very few people, of the movie-watching variety, who can say that they have not seen “The Lion King.” This is a film that captured the imagination and emotions of every single child who ever saw it (and those of their parents!). It is one that formed an important part of the childhoods of the youngest generations of people in the world and it is this phenomenon that has spawned a ‘photorealistic computer-animated’ adaptation in 2019.
The concept of doing an adaptation is one that immediately appealed to everyone who saw the original, because the very idea of using modern technology to render a beloved animated classic, a cartoon, into a realistic, almost ‘live-action’ version was too good to resist. Who wouldn’t want to see more realistic versions of the lions, hyenas, and landscape of Africa in a new adaptation?
While the 2019 version managed to be most successful on the technological front, there are still a few downsides that come with such a photorealistic rendition of an acclaimed animated movie, even though nostalgia, for the most part, manages to make us not notice these little hiccups in the recently released film which was directed by Jon Favreau who also directed the 2016 version of “The Jungle Book,” but is more well-known for his role as Happy Hogan in the films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The photorealistic techniques utilised in the 2019 version of “The Lion King” can definitely be regarded as a major success. The cliffs and trees and waterfalls look very realistic and the wildlands of Africa definitely manage to contribute to a kind of lush, euphoric version of the place, rich with imagery that constantly reminds the audience of the dominant ‘circle of life’ theme that recurs throughout the film. More importantly, the animals who play the major characters are also well-realised. Simba, Mufasa, Nala, and all the other lions realistically flick their ears, and Rafiki, the mandrill, sits and moves around exactly the way a mandrill would. The anthropomorphism (or the human-like qualities) given to animal characters in films and cartoons is completely missing here, and there is no doubt that the creators of this new version wanted to lose that aspect to sell the realism of their story. Unfortunately, the downside to that is a situation where a very real lion strides onscreen before bursting into song, or a situation where the realness of the animals clashes with the characters’ emotions which can only mostly come from the voice-actors and not from the technology-based animal characters created through computers for the film. In short, while technology has managed to create the characters, some of the very things that made those characters so appealing in the first place were clearly lost in the process.
Regarding the voice-actors, it is obvious that the cast list is stacked with talent. However, not all of them stand out for the right reasons. James Earl Jones who voiced Mufasa in 1994 reprises his role in the new iteration. Jones’ voice is legendary (he also serves as the voice of Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” films) and fans rejoiced when they found out that he was returning to play Mufasa. The reaction of the fans to this is because of the emotional juncture that Mufasa’s role ends in and also because there is a wonderful mix of calm, kindness, and nobility that came through Mufasa from Jones. While the actor does a good job in the new film, it is hard to ignore the fact that he sounds a bit subdued, especially when compared to the strength and majesty that he imparted in the first film. The child actors, JD McCrary and Shahidi Wright-Joseph, who voice young Simba and young Nala, respectively, handle their parts really well. Billy Eichner as Timon, the meerkat, and John Oliver as Zazu, a yellow-billed hornbill, are also very strong, managing to effectively convey the essence of their respective characters from the original movie. Alfre Woodard as Sarabi could have gotten more to do, and Chiwetel Ejiofor tries his best to be the villainous Scar and it works, but only in parts, and it is nothing close to the spine-chilling work done by Jeremy Irons in the original incarnation. Florence Kasumba as the hyena and Scar’s ally, Shenzi, is outstanding, delivering voice-work that is so sinister and terrifying that I came away feeling more scared of Shenzi than Scar. Seth Rogen is a good Pumba, as is John Kani as Rafiki and Donald Glover as adult Simba. Beyoncé as adult Nala just sounds like Beyoncé.
While watching the film at the theatre, I could hear some of the children singing the songs and some adults quoting the lines, and all this coupled with the fact that I still cried when Mufasa died, tells me that the film does work by playing on the emotions, specifically those same emotions that the original tapped into all those years ago. Besides the updated technology, not much else has been done in terms of making the 2019 version a separate entity that can stand on its own as a strong film. There is not much present in terms of original changes. For example, in two upcoming live-action adaptations from Disney there are important changes that will make these films work for an entirely new audience while being individual films that cannot be tethered to their respective original counterparts. “The Little Mermaid” has a black actress in the lead role while “Mulan” does not retain the original songs, nor will Mushu be making an appearance. “The Lion King” does not make any such decisions and because of this, I’m not entirely sure if to be grateful that they have preserved this piece of nostalgia from my childhood without changing it much or whether to feel a little emotionally betrayed because of the way the film taps into existing emotions that I have from the original movie.