In one of the opening scenes of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King – the remake of the classic animation that graced our screens, and touched our hearts, 25 years ago, we see a small mouse scurrying around on the floor. At this point a child next to me leant over to their mother and asked, ‘mum, is that real?’ She simply replied with, ‘I don’t know’. Now this small conversation is both the greatest blessing, and curse, of this production.
Let’s start with the good side of this conundrum. In that from a visual point of view this film is a spectacle, utilising new technology in a breathtaking way that makes for an immersive, visceral piece that vindicates its right to exist, for what is now possible from a storytelling perspective is so advanced to what we once knew, we’d be foolish not to see it fully realised. It’s beautiful too, the vibrant landscape and the glowing sunsets make for such a calming ambiance, conflicting well against the drama that plays out in front of it.
And yet it’s this sense of realism that can be the film’s greatest adversary. It’s almost too real, and it suffers in the same vein as Dumbo – in that cartoon animals can be expressive and as cute as we want them to be. Now obviously Simba as a cub is adorable, but generally speaking there’s not that same warmth we shared with these characters in the original. Pumbaa suddenly isn’t this loveable Warthog, he’s now a rather scary looking, hairy creature you wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near, and we just lose some of that charm that derives from the unwavering commitment to authenticity.
What transpires is a film that is just a little devoid of heart, and while it may look incredible on the surface, it hasn’t got the same pathos that came with the original film. But you do get used to it, and while the opening act seems a little strange, not quite working, as the story develops and become entwined, once more, with these familiar characters, eventually we become accustomed to the new look, to a point where we almost forget – which, by the way, is a good thing.
What helps is the excellent casting here, and while you would think that Jeremy Irons could never be topped with his gloriously unabashed vocal performance as Scar, so overstated, a real thespian enjoying himself, in this Chiwetel Ejiofor is the stand-out; it’s Shakespearian, it’s callous, it’s wicked and it’s thundering, it’s a truly remarkable piece of voice acting. Then there’s Timon and Pumbaa, who steal the show, as ever, bringing much needed light-relief to proceedings, and Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, respectively, bring such life to their characters, the latter in particularly feeling like a match made in heaven. Of course much emphasis is on Donald Glover and Beyonce, as Simba and Nala, but just like with the original, they aren’t actually gifted as much screen time as you would think, given the lengthy opening act featuring them both as cubs.
But the film works, primarily, on its nostalgia. This film is made for the generation of those who grew up loving the original, and are now taking a gleeful, if somewhat melancholic trip down memory lane. It’s hard to imagine what new audiences will get, as it’s impossible for many to seperate the art from their own memories from childhood, so the reviews written by most will be imbued by the writer’s own personal attachment, where you you find yourself crying at scenes but not because they’re emotional, but because you remember how you felt when you were a child, triggering, through association, memories of sitting in the living room, watching the film on repeat, and certain moments, be in in the score or the narrative, can be somewhat overwhelming in that regard. So will kids, who are new to this story like this film as we loved it during our childhood? You’ll have to ask them, but we most certainly did.