Before 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, 1994’s The Lion King was a signature Disney film, and one of noted representation for many in the African American community as well – with the legendary James Earl Jones as the voice of Mufasa, the late Madge Sinclair voicing his wife Sarabi, the late Robert Guillaume as Rafiki and EGOT winner Whoopi Goldberg as Shenzi.
Beloved by many people worldwide, the film was a critically acclaimed hit whose story and music invaded pop culture – leading to two Academy Awards (John Elton for Original Song and Hans Zimmer for Original Score) and the creation of the long-running 1997 Broadway musical. And now, Disney is giving new life to this timeless treasure with an almost shot for shot “photo real” remake that is nothing short of visually stunning. According to director Jon Favreau,
“Disney has had tremendous success with the original animated version and then the Broadway musical. I knew that I had to be very careful with it. I felt a tremendous responsibility not to screw it up. I wanted to demonstrate that we could be respectful of the source material while bringing it to life using mind-blowing techniques and technologies.”
And bring it to life did he and his team utilizing virtual reality, animation and live-action techniques to create optics that rival the best of what is viewed on nature channels with living animals.
So let’s get to the heart of the matter, what do I believe the film got right? Much of the voice casting. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the menacing Scar was brilliant. And it goes without saying that James Earl Jones was magnificent. I mean, he IS Mufasa and it would have been hard to have another actor replicate his voice-over.
Seth Rogen (Puumba) and Billy Eichner (Timon) were spot on and literally stole almost every scene they had with their comic freestyles. And I adored the humor of John Oliver as Zazu, the comedy exchange of Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre, who played the hyenas Kamari and Azizi, and Florence Kasumba who more than did Shenzi the hyena justice – she absolutely nailed it and Whoopi Goldberg’s voice is no easy act to follow.
Now here’s the hard part, to me Donald Glover and Beyonce sound amazing united in song but I could tell they recorded one of the movie’s biggest hits, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” in separate spaces (due to time constraints with Glover’s “Solo” schedule) and it lacked the emotional punch of the original. In addition, as the leads, their (speaking) voice performances were the weakest. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Glover, along with Rogen and Eichner, perform a killer version of “Hakuna Matata!”
Also, if I’m being honest, the “photo real” characters did not emote as well as in the animated feature, and I did rely on my knowledge of the story and my interest in the film to gather those emotions where they lacked.
Nonetheless, this didn’t take much away from the movie, as the other performances mentioned were truly stellar and the entire thing was beautiful to witness on the big screen.
Another huge positive was the music! My guests and I made sure to sit through all of the credits just to listen to the amazing music.
The soundtrack will be one to definitely own, with unforgettable music by an award-winning team, including Grammy and Academy award-winning superstar Elton John, Grammy and Academy award-winning lyricist Tim Rice, score by Grammy and Academy award-winning composer Hans Zimmer, plus African vocal and choir arrangements by the Grammy award-winning South African producer and composer Lebo M (“Rhythm of the Pride Lands”). And Academy award-nominated and Grammy award-winning singer, songwriter and producer Pharrell Williams (“Hidden Figures”/producer, “Happy”) produced five songs on the soundtrack.
In sum, the new Lion King is a visually beautiful retelling that will transcend generational lines. I own my biases and know that, for me, the cartoon will always be the quintessential telling of the story. But, this version will become the classic for many younger people which proves that, for all intents and purposes, it will have succeeded at its job. It is truly the film representation of the “circle of life” and will please audiences for generations to come. I give it a 4 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.
THE LION KING opens in theaters nationwide on July 19.
Until next thought, Thomasena