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Josh Reviews Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King

It seems like it was just a few weeks ago that I was writing about the live-action remake of Aladdin, and stating that I don’t see any creatively interesting rationale behind Disney’s current predilection for remaking so many of their classic animated films in live-action. (There’s clearly a financial reason, as these films seem like a good way to make money off of pre-existing, beloved properties.)  The original animated films Aladdin and The Lion King are magnificent, among Disney’s very best.  So what is to be gained from remaking them in live action?

I don’t have an answer to that (again, other than money in Disney’s coffers), but while I don’t think either of these new remade films have much of a reason to exist, I enjoyed Join Favreau’s new version of The Lion King even more than I enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s remake of Aladdin!

Mr. Favreau first dipped his toes into these waters with his CGI-remake of The Jungle Book, which I thought was a visual marvel.  Mr. Favreau has gone even further with The Lion King, pushing the boundaries of technology and visual effects.

It’s a mistake to call this a live-action remake of The Lion King, because this new version doesn’t feature any human beings.  (The Jungle Book was mostly CGI, but the boy playing Mowgli was real.)  This new film has been created with astonishing, cutting-edge motion-capture and CGI work.  The result is incredible.  The film looks entirely photo-real, despite the fact that it features an ensemble cast of talking animals.  The world of The Lion King has been brought to astounding, beautiful life.  You easily believe that these talking animals are real.  It’s astonishing… and very cool to see the iconic animated locations of the original film (such as Pride Rock) brought to the screen in a way that makes it look like those places really exist.

The original Lion King features some iconic and memorable vocal performances.  Recasting this film could not have been easy… but Mr. Favreau and his team made all the right choices.  JD McCrary plays young Simba, while Donald Glover plays adult Simba… and Shahadi Wright Joseph plays young Nala, while Beyoncé Knowles-Carter plays adult Nala.  All four actors are perfect.  They give different interpretations of these characters than the original actors did, and yet at the same time they all sounded absolutely perfect for Simba and Nala to me.

I thought the hardest voices to recast would be Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa.  And yet Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen might be my favorite performers in the new film!  They make Timon and Pumbaa entirely their own, while still allowing the characters to feel exactly right as Timon and Pumbaa.  This is no easy feat!  I’d have gladly watched many more scenes of those two characters joking around.

The rest of the ensemble continues this note-perfect trend: Chiwetel Ejiofor is all silky menace as Scar; John Oliver is hilariously droll as Zazu; and John Kani is delightfully weird as Rafiki.  Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre are funny and scary as the hyenas Kamari and Azizi, while Florence Kasumba is great as the third hyena Shenzi (a character built up into more of a role as a secondary villain in this version).  Alfre Woodard and Penny Johnson Jerald (Kassidy Yates from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!) are great as Sarabi and Sarafina (Simba and Nala’s mothers).

The one role that Mr. Favreau chose not to recast, of course, was James Earl Jones as Mufasa.  I love and respect this choice.  It is a delight to hear Mr. Jones play this role again.

This version of The Lion King is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the original animated film.  It’s by far the most faithful adaptation of any of these Disney remakes from the past few years.  When Mr. Favreau and his team changed something, it was very cleverly done; I found myself quite enjoying almost all of the minor changes that I spotted.

I like that Nala is a more active character in this film, being more involved in defying Scar and trying to rally the other lions to oppose him, while the hyena Shenzi is built up into more of a foe to Nala.  Speaking of Scar, there’s a very minor tweak to his dialogue (in which he mentions that he’d never dare to physically oppose Mufasa “again”), which presents the intriguing suggestion that perhaps it was Mufasa himself who gave Scar his distinctive scar.  (That also makes the fact that Mufasa — and everyone else — calls Scar “Scar” much nastier.)  There are lots of new comedic moments with Timon and Pumbaa; I particularly enjoyed seeing them sing “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast, and the way their rendition of “The Lion Sings Tonight” was allowed to go on longer in this version.

The only change I didn’t really like?  The weird new version of Scar’s “Be Prepared” song, which didn’t work for me at all.  It’s shortened and not really sung, just sort of stated/shouted, and I was very underwhelmed.

But for the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed watching this new version of The Lion King!  Does it replace the original?  Don’t be ridiculous.  But it can stand alongside it, which is far higher praise than I’d expected to be able to give this remake.  I’m glad to have seen it.

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