“The Lion King” (2019) Movie Review

     Given the considerable box office success of 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland” and 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast”, it should surprise no one Disney has continued to morph their animated classics into live action spectacles tailor made for consumption by today’s demanding Generation Z audiences.  The classic versions just don’t cut it anymore, apparently.  You get the feeling 2016’s “The Jungle Book” was a sort of test run for director Jon Favreau, where it had to be determined whether or not technology was far enough along to do the unimaginable.  Transform 1994’s “The Lion King”, the last of Disney’s great hand drawn animated features, into a photorealistic CGI extravaganza packing enough modern cinematic punch to perhaps make us all forget about the original.

     And so here we are.  The unthinkable is a reality.  Now clearly armed with the knowledge and experience which resulted from having an entire cast of animals realistically converse with a human character in the aforementioned “The Jungle Book”, Favreau was primed to tackle the challenge of an entire film where those conversations now take place solely between talking animal characters with no human interaction whatsoever.  And the result is certainly a marvel in the technological advancements the filmmaking industry now has at its disposal.

     There will inevitably be a lot of talk as to whether or not a classic film like “The Lion King” should ever be remade, but after viewing the latest version, I have to believe that if this one was first, and the 1994 animated film had never existed, we would be hailing Favreau’s creation as an instant classic.  But that’s also the problem as well.  Watching this new version leaves you with little emotion and zero anticipation.  The story has already been told and spawned multiple animated sequels, as well as one of the longest running and most successful Broadway show adaptations ever.  The events in the film are so ingrained into our culture, that the key points of every scene simply do not carry the emotional weight or impact that its predecessor had while benefitting from the fact we were seeing all of this for the first time. 

     When we first meet young Simba (JD McCrary), he’s a playful cub enjoying his standing as the heir to his father’s throne as the King of a sprawling African animal refuge where a colorful collection of various species share a common bond and live to support one another.  As the only returning member of the original voice cast, the great James Earl Jones again commands the screen as Mufasa and provides a steady, but firm hand as both the leader of these animals, and also as a proud father.  He wants Simba to learn the importance of hard work and earning the respect of those who will follow him someday.  But rage and jealousy haunt their immediate family when we learn Mufasa’s brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has his own nefarious ambitions for the throne and sees Simba as an obstacle he must overcome.

     Eliciting the assistance of a pack of hyenas, Scar orchestrates a stampede in a near by gorge where Simba is trapped and certain to be killed should he not be rescued.  When Mufasa arrives, he successfully gets Simba out of danger, but eventually falls to his death at the hands of Scar.  As the only witness, Scar blames Simba for his father’s death, permanently exiling him from the kingdom and returning to falsely assume the throne.  Just as we saw in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot for shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, all of these key scenes appear just as they did in the 1994 animated version, resulting in significantly less heft when these events happen because we already know the outcome.

     What’s left is the spectacle I spoke of earlier.  Each and every shot is beautiful to the point of absolute magnificence.  The way the animals move, their skin and fur, and the settings, all zeros and ones, are an indication of such a high level of feature filmmaking that you have no choice but to revel in this substantial achievement by all involved.  And the voice cast is outstanding as expected and compare well to the original voice actors.  As Simba becomes fully grown, Donald Glover takes over the reigns as his voice, backed up capably by Beyonce as Nala, John Oliver as Zazu, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, and Billy Eichner as Timon.  Familiar tunes such as “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata” are rearranged a bit for this version by Hans Zimmer, also a vet of the original film.

     It’s hard to say what will be the preferred version of “The Lion King” decades from now, but you can’t deny the manner in which the story is lessened by the fact it is being retold in the same medium when the original is already a noted classic.  The question we must ask ourselves is do these films need to be remade in order to appeal to a generation that has had an iPhone in their hand since they were in a crib?  Or is this just a case of technological advancements having the capability to provide something so astounding, that the material deserves a glossy new coat of CGI paint?  I’ll lean towards the later in recognition of the stunning result Favreau and his army of digital artists have achieved in what is clearly one of the best films of the year.  GRADE: A