The Lion King voice cast: Donald Grover, Beyonce Knowles, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, John Oliver, JD McCrary, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner
The Lion King director: Jon Favreau
The Lion King rating: 3.5 stars
In 1994, we had seen, and especially heard, nothing like The Lion King. Even while coming from the trusted Disney stable, it had an original tale with shades of Shakespeare, and dipped into the beguiling treasures of Africa to weave its magic of a very human story told through very lovable animals — one of them a king in the tradition of great rulers who bask in the light; and the other a villain in the line of many who reign in the shadows. Years did little to dim that magic, as parents like us with children since would affirm. Simba, Nala, Mufasa, Rafiki, Zazu, even Timon and Pumbaa, were toys-for-keeps in playrooms long after, and the songs they sung fresh as the day’s hits. Plus, admit it, who had heard of warthog and meerkats before The Lion King, or thought hyenas looked like ‘that’?
So do we really need an updated Lion King for our times, polished with “photo-realistic approach” towards its “computer-generated” visuals. Yes, and no.
This film, after all, is directed by Jon Favreau, who brings a certain jubilation to almost everything he touches (think The Iron Man). More importantly for Disney’s moneymaking machine, it was Favreau who worked wonders with his retelling of the studio’s The Jungle Book. In The Lion King, the technology Favreau wields has got another update, to deliver every single, wind-blown hair in the beautiful manes of Simba and Mufasa.
It can also be argued that who could say no to a Lion King in which all the main characters are voiced now by Black actors and superstars like Knowles. The original earned flak for not doing that, despite the story being set in Africa, except in casting James Earl Jones for Mufasa (Jones is the only one from the 1994 version who makes a reappearance this time).
It’s also too much to ask for The Lion King to be changed so as to be bettered, especially when it would certainly require several lion-hearts to tell the story from Nala’s point of view. Animal experts have argued that Disney has had it wrong all along as to who would take charge in case the pride was under siege.
Favreau is perhaps a bit too aware of all this, which makes his Lion King almost a shot-by-shot and song-by-song recreation of 1994 — with the animals this time rendered uglier by “realism”, and incapable of rendering the range of emotions the script demands of them. The fans of Jeremy Irons’ scurrilous Scar are not likely to be pleased either with Ejiofor’s valiant efforts to play him, especially given the pared-down version of Scar’s delightful martial number ‘Be Prepared’.
Where the film is allowed a freer hand is in re-imagining characters other than Simba, Mufasa and Scar. Updated, with newer scenes and more dialogues, all make an impact, from Knowles’s more assertive Nala, to Rogen-Eichner’s banter as Pumbaa-Timon, and Keegan-Michael Key and Eric André’s riffs as the scary-as-ever hyenas.
And that tuft of Simba’s hair, floating back to the Pride Lands, being picked up by Rafiki, and sending a ripple of hope through the kingdom ravaged by Scar since killing Mufasa? Well, this time it makes its way there travelling right down and up the food chain.
Circle of Life? You can roar that again.