Review: The Lion King (2019)

Can you feel the love again?

In the circle of life that is cinema, The Lion King is back in all its original story glory, with a couple of new songs and stunning visual effects. The “reimagining” of the 1994 animated classic blends live-action techniques with virtual reality tools and photo-real digital imagery to create an all-new computer-generated medium that resembles something of a cross between traditional animation, Animal Kingdom and Mr. Ed. The added layer of ‘realism’ makes the light stuff lighter – and the dark stuff darker – in and around the fictional landscape of Pride Rock, somewhere in Africa.

You’d have to be living under a rock to not know the basic plot, but here goes: A rambunctious, naive and overconfident lion cub named Simba is next in line to become king. That doesn’t sit well with mean Uncle Scar who conspires with a bunch of hyenas to kill the king Mufasa and send a distraught and guilt-ridden Simba packing. Simba runs away, befriends a warthog and meerkat who encourage him to embrace their carefree lifestyle, and eventually finds his way back to Pride Rock to fulfill his destiny. Hakuna Matata, some things never change.

Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Jungle Book) directs an all-star cast of voices, including Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Simba’s best friend Nala, James Earl Jones (reprising his role) as Mufasa, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa the flatulent warthog, and Billy Eichner as Timon the sarcastic meerkat. The latter duo provide the bulk of the film’s heart and comic relief.

Reaction to this new version of The Lion King is going to be subjective based on a number of factors including age, level of affinity for the original, and visceral response to seeing the same story embedded in a different, more realistic-looking type of computer animation that expands the running time to two hours (a half-hour more than the 1994 version – something to keep in mind for kids, and adults, with short attention spans).

The new film is certainly impressive to look at, especially on a giant IMAX screen. But it didn’t give me the ‘feels’ the way the original did. That could be due to over-saturation. I did just recently (finally) see the stage version of The Lion King. And no matter how you slice it – or stage it, or animate it – the most memorable songs remain the most memorable songs (Circle of Life, Can You Feel the Love Tonight, Hakuna Matata) and the key scenes remain the key scenes.

Hakuna Matata. It’s a wonderful phrase. It means no worries for the rest of your days. It’s a problem-free philosophy that is perfectly fine to (re)visit, even if just to admire how far computer animated technology has come since 1994.

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