I first watched the original Disney’s The Lion King film when I was a young girl. I was mesmerised by the artistic style that allowed the animals to express their emotions, the window into the rich and beautiful African culture and of course, the iconic soundtrack that defined a part of my childhood.

In preparation for the movie (and this review), I did make sure to keep an open mind. Remakes, y’know? It’s always a mixed bag. So there I sat in the cinema for the live-action remake, surrounded by a number of adult and kid movie-goers alike, not having any expectations.

And as the opening scene begins, I felt transported back through time when I was a kid again.

The film is breathtakingly beautiful, hands-down. The animals, their fur, everything looks so real. The cartoonish cuteness of Simba is replaced with a still adorable but more realistic face of a young pup. This type of change makes Scar even more threatening because he looks like he could just jump out of the screen and eat you like a real lion would. For a second, I thought I was watching an animal documentary. Until they start talking.

That’s one downside to the live-action remake: the animals are so realistic that you can no longer tell what they’re feeling. In the 1994 animation, they emote like humans with the movement of eyebrows and other distinguishable facial expressions. Here, they don’t and there is absolutely no way to tell what they’re feeling.

So here’s where the voice actors are crucial as they must deliver every word — and that’s exactly what they did.

The entire cast did a phenomenal job of voicing their characters, satisfyingly bringing each personality to life. While I appreciate that director Jon Favreau didn’t make major changes to his version of the classic film, I’m glad that each actor still manages to put their own spin when performing their roles.

You just can’t replace Jeremy Irons when he voiced Scar in the original movie. But Chiwetel Ejiofor made the villainous character his own, with that deep, booming voice of his. During the signature number “Be Prepared”, Ejiofor gave it a darker and more sinister tone, complemented wonderfully by the chanting vocals of “Be prepared” in the background. As opposed to Irons’ more charismatic bad guy rendition, Ejiofor transferred his enunciated speech style into the deliberate staccato singing to make this iconic Scar moment a lot more intimidating.

Other classic songs like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, “Hakuna Matata”, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” were done very well too. Even though Beyonce overshadowed Glover in the number, it was surreal to hear them sing duet in one of the biggest Disney love songs.

Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner in "Billy On The Street" show
via nme.com
Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner in “Billy On The Street” show
via nme.com

Though I have to say there’s another duo who stands out more and they’re Timon and Pumbaa. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen have such a great chemistry together; every joke is delivered so brilliantly. And since when Eichner can sing? I can find no flaw in his performance. He was that good! He made me laugh so much. Fellow comedian Keegan-Michael Key also had good funny lines in the film as personal-space-loving Kamari the hyena.

Director Jon Favreau with JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph
via bckonline.com
Director Jon Favreau with JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph
via bckonline.com

Also, the third pairing in the film, Shahadi Wright Joseph and JD McCrary. Both did an awesome job as the young cubs. It must have been especially cool for Joseph who also played young Nala in the Broadway version of The Lion King.

Her Broadway experience did her a favour in this film version as she portrayed young Nala so naturally. And her co-star McCrary carried his weight well too as young Simba. Compared to the original animation, Joseph and McCrary gave the same level of energy and punch to the fun and catchy song.

For the 12-year-old actor, it must have been intimidating to take on such a major role in a major movie. But McCrary showed great ability to voice young Simba in both happy, mischievous cub scenes and the heart-breaking emotional one. You know the one: when Simba cries for help. Before the film even made it there, someone was already cutting those dumb onions in the cinema when Mufasa told Simba, “Everything the light touches is ours,” while showing him their vast kingdom from atop Pride Rock. The anticipation is real.

At the parts where the 1994 original stabbed me emotionally, the live-action remake did the same. The stampede segment, no matter how many times you watch it, will leave you feeling cold and empty. Even though this remake doesn’t let me see what the characters are feeling like how animation art does, McCrary made damn sure I felt it with his sad, child-like ‘too precious for this world’ voice acting. By the end, I was gutted.

I have to say, while the super realistic art style seems to lack facial emotions, it does one big thing to help the film. It makes the themes explored in the story real. As a whole, the live-action movie takes on a more mature look. Therefore, it forces you to take it seriously. The reason why some would scoff at a Lion King remake idea in the first place is because of nostalgia. For those of us who watched the original, we’re now still loving it because it reminds us of our childhood. Aka the fun, happier times.

So, in a way, it’s a good thing that the modern version of the classic film is made to look photorealistic. Most of us have watched it when we were kids and now that we’re adults, it’s important that we watch it again with a matured mind and open eyes and ears. Surely our perspectives have changed over the years and we’re now more able to appreciate the story of The Lion King. It’s a story about a jealous uncle who tore a family apart and murdered for his own selfish gains. It’s also a story about a father’s love for his son. And not forgetting, it’s even a story about how it’s never too late to change, whether to turn your life around or take up an old responsibility for the sake of family.

Sundiata Keita
via thefamouspeople.com
Sundiata Keita
via thefamouspeople.com

Beneath the Disney gloss, there is one true story behind The Lion King that takes us back to precolonial Africa days. As Kellie Carter Jackson of The Washington Post beautifully put it, it tells the life of Sundiata Keita who was born a cripple to his father and real-life Mufasa, King Naré Maghann Konaté, and his mother and the King’s second wife, Sogolon Kédjou. After having had enough of being mocked for his disability, Sundiata miraculously learned to walk and became recognised for his strength. He became a leader of his people, which made his half brother Dankaran Tourman and his mother Sassouma Bereté jealous. Soon, the king died under suspicious circumstances and Sogolon ran away with Sundiata and her other children into exile. The plot is similar to the Disney film so you can guess where it leads to. And in the end, Sundiata successfully overthrew the cruel king and became the “Mansa”, meaning king or emperor in Mandinka. But the story of Sundiata doesn’t end there as he went on to lead his kingdom in West Africa to dominance in agriculture, gold and trade and also brought in cotton and weaving.

These successes are what make up the story of Sundiata, the real story of Lion King. In this time where celebrating African history and culture is becoming more and more mainstream, I dare say that this live-action remake of The Lion King with a cast majority of African Americans is not only beautiful but also important. The film is not modernised just to show off the latest CGI technology that we have come so far to achieve. The film is also updated and given some needed shine after more than 20 years for the next generation of viewers so that they can see the pride of their parents and grandparents and join in celebrating life for what it is.

Remakes, they can be a mixed bag. But not this one. The live-action Lion King movie is exactly what it is: a reimagined version of one of the best classic animated films of all time. And that reimagination is a joyous celebration for all of us. So as the motto goes, “It means no worries for the rest of your days! It’s our problem-free philosophy, ‘Hakuna Matata’!”

The bottom line

The live-action remake of Disney’s The Lion King sticks very closely to the original film while still making it refreshed and up to date. The photorealism art style is mind-blowing to say the least and gives the film a more matured look.

Given that A-listers like Beyonce Knowles-Carter and Donald Glover starred and sang together, their performances are overshadowed by the amazing chemistry between Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen.

Both adults and children can enjoy the film. If you’re skeptical of remakes, give this movie a try with an open mind.

TL;DR

The Good
– The story
– The actors overall did well
– The songs of course!

The Bad
– Needed more from Donald and Beyonce

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