THE LION KING (3 out of 5) Directed by Jon Favreau; Written by Jeff Nathanson; Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Oliver, James Earl Jones, Beyonce, and Seth Rogan; Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements; Running time 118 minutes; In wide release July 18, 2019.
From the moment The Lion King began and the familiar The Circle of Life song played over the reverberating Dolby speakers, I got chills and remembered my first experience of seeing The Lion King animated version in theaters in 1994. And I thought to myself: this will be a faithful adaptation.
Right?! Wrong. Remember seeing the original and all of your favorite lines, particularly the ones that made you laugh. Then imagine seeing the CGI rendered version without those bits and less, um, animated animals.
With breathtaking visual effects, this film gloriously showcases how far computer animation has come since dinosaurs came to life in Jurassic Park. It was a time when CGI was in its infancy but now entire films can be fully imagined inside a computer screen. And watching the new version, it’s often easy to forget the characters are just pixels. They look so real! Baby Simba is so fuzzy and soft I wanted to reach out and pet him! The animals are so lifelike at it feels at times like watching a National Geographic documentary. Of course those moments don’t last long between the talking and singing but you get my point.
But compared to the original, the color palette is a lot less vibrant. Perhaps more realistic but realism always doesn’t always translate to that wow factor in the film medium. All the characters are voiced rather similarly to their animated counterparts, though none of the original talent returns for this film. None, that is, except the great James Earl Jones. He returns as Mufasa the benevolent ruler/father that audiences have loved for generations. Most of his lines remain unchanged, and he’s as wonderful now as he was then.
What is not wonderful, however, is the hyenas: Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed. Let’s talk about Ed for a moment. In the 1994 film, Jim Cummings brilliantly portrays the laughing hyena with lolling tongue and crazy eyes. He was hysterical. I saw the movie four times in the theaters mostly because of Ed. I am not exaggerating when I say I used to call Burger King every week to find out which week they would have him in the kid’s meal. And then I went and got him. I am not ashamed of this fact.
So imagine my surprise/dismay/disbelief when I found out that no character named Ed would be in the film. At first I thought it was only changing his name to Kamari (Banzai became Azizi) perhaps to sound more authentic to the African setting. But none of the hyenas look like Ed. They all speak. They’re more menacing and not fun, and only Shenzi stands out and is referred to by name. The other two are basically window dressing. I couldn’t tell them apart and I didn’t care.
On a lighter note, the music originally written by Elton John and Tim Rice remains mostly the same. There’s an additional song by Beyoncé that felt a little out of place but wasn’t terrible. Even the score by Hans Zimmer remains faithful to the animated film, and it perfectly punctuates some of the more emotional scenes.
Timon and Pumbaa were decent but a little lackluster compared to the Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella versions. Some of the humor just didn’t seem to work as well with more lifelike incarnations of the characters.
And again moments where there should have been something funny and memorable they either left it out entirely or changed it to something else. Rafiki’s humor is another example. Just hit Simba over the head with your stick! Although I do have to say that one of the additions is a reference to Beauty and the Beast, and I couldn’t be mad. And it actually worked and had the audience laughing.
So overall it’s a beautiful lavish film that should win all sorts of awards for visual effects and creating believable animals onscreen. But since it didn’t add anything significant to the original film, and in several places paled in comparison, I left the theater disheartened.
In the future, I’ll just watch the cartoon.