The Lion King review: The animation is a jaw-dropping technical triumph
But remaking this beloved classic was always going to be a tricky task
The Lion King ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Taking the 1994 cartoon classic and bringing it roaring and scratching into the 21st century, Disney are back with a new “live-action” remake (though this is entirely digitally animated, it should be said), and it’s a big one: The Lion King.
You know, the one with the circle of life, and the warthog and the meerkat, and the amazing songs and all the rest. The one you’ve watched 25 times on VHS alone back in the ‘90s, that one.
With a star-studded cast featuring Beyonce, Donald Glover and Seth Rogen, as well as the original Mufasa himself James Earl Jones, this new Lion King features some of the most gob-smackingly detailed CGI ever seen, and judging by the pre-sale tickets alone, this is one of the biggest blockbusters out this summer.
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- This film looks flabbergastingly good. So good, in fact, that people up and down the country have no doubt mistaken the painstakingly-crafted computer generated images for actual, real, proper lions (and antelopes, and giraffes, and hornbills, and all the rest) – ones who just so happen to be able to talk and sing and plan elaborate Shakespearean plots. Animation has come so far in the 25 years since the original Lion King that you’re easily convinced this is the genuine article, something cut from a David Attenborough doc for being a bit too bizarre. We’ve started to take all this craftsmanship for granted, but if you’re even slightly nerdy about how animated films are made, this is a jaw-dropping technical triumph.
- The original Lion King is so beloved that remaking it was always going to be a tricky task. It’s got to be similar enough to honour what’s come before, while different enough to justify its existence. Director Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Chef, The Jungle Book) has faced criticism for leaning on the first film too much, but there is good reason: it is very good, and why spoil that? Bringing back composer Hans Zimmer, songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice, and Mufasa himself, James Earl Jones, were all good ideas. With that in mind, what makes this new Lion King so enjoyable is also what made the original so enjoyable: the story and the music, and if you’re new to The Lion King you’re going to love it, and if you’re a returning customer (so to speak), you’ll enjoy reliving what is undeniably a great piece of entertainment.
- The performances are very good across the board, but Billy Eichner (as Timon) and Seth Rogen (as Pumbaa) steal the show time and time again. With so much of the story being really quite bleak – seriously, think about it for a moment – the cartoonish comic relief from everyone’s favourite meerkat and warthog combo is very gratefully received. But it’s more than that, with some of their inspired improv really hitting the spot, and their performances truly capturing the characters in a fun and interesting way. Beyonce, Donald Glover and John Oliver (as Zazu) all do good work, but no-one really matches Earl Jones (of course) or Eichner and Rogen. I should say I do also admire Chiwetel Ejiofor’s take on Scar, which is significantly more serious and slimy than Jeremy Iron’s campier big cat, but the spoken-word version of ‘Be Prepared’ they plumped for was an error.
- In going for the ‘photorealistic CGI animals’ angle, there’s a problem: real lions don’t emote. They may open their mouths, but they don’t furrow their eyebrows, their eyes don’t sparkle, they don’t cry when they’re sad. This makes conveying a dark, bleak, highly emotional story a very tall order, with certain sections feeling like the actors are just talking over footage of animals walking about the pride lands. So if you’re not on board with what’s going on, you can end up feeling quite detached from proceedings.
- The ‘realism’ tick also means the gleefully silly sliding-down-a-giraffe’s-neck stuff from the original ‘I Just Can't Wait to Be King’ has to be passed through a realistic lens, which regrettably removes a lot of the fun. The unfortunate consequences of this undeniably very impressive style of animation are numerous – you may also find yourself staring at the lions’ mouths as they’re talking before you realise you’re not paying attention to the actual words – and it’s a bit unsettling to begin with. Once you’re up to speed with it all, it feels a lot easier, but until then it’ll feel smidge odd for a lot of people.
- The 1994 Lion King is so well known that any change at all is glaringly obvious, so good luck switching off that bit of your brain that’ll say ‘This wasn’t in the original!’ when the rare new scenes come along. You have been warned.