The Lion King review: 'Audiences will get exactly what they expect, but that could turn out to be its ultimate undoing'

By now, it’s the cornerstone on which Hollywood’s summer fare is built. And when it comes to remakes, Disney has been fairly busy bringing its classics up to date with reboots: there has been Alice in Wonderland (2010), Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016) and Beauty and the Beast (2016) and, most recently, Dumbo (2018).

But there was something about the announcement late last year that The Lion King would be remade as a live action feature that seemed to catch global attention.

Released in 1994, The Lion King is one of the highest-grossing animated films of all time with a lifetime global box office haul of $968.8 million. With seasoned director Jon Favreau in the frame and Beyoncé Knowles signing on for a reported $25 million payday, The Lion King’s chances of becoming a flop were negligible from the outset. But what would a stone-cold classic, brought to life with the wizardry of modern-day effects, look and sound like?

Purist fans of the original 1994 outing needn’t worry about their childhoods being ruined (a weirdly real concern for cinemagoers, if Twitter is anything to go by). It’s not so much that the classic film isn’t in eminently safe hands – it’s that, save for a couple of lines of dialogue, the remake is slavishly faithful to its predecessor.

The innovation here lies squarely in the technical. Thanks to modern day CGI wizardry, the Pride Lands are Attenborough lush, teeming with lumbering elephants, flamingos, giraffes and graceful antelopes. It’s genuine ambrosia for the eyes, as well it might. With King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his original role) presiding over the animal kingdom from Pride Rock, the natural world is just s it should be: harmonious, verdant, thriving. Rafiki the mandrill presents young Simba, a blinking, wide-eyed cub to the kingdom (basically, expect every under-10 in the land to ask for a lion cub this Christmas). In the background, Mufasa’s mangy, Machiavellian brother Scar (played with sufficient menace by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is plotting to take over the kingdom and upset the balance of flora and fauna. And what better way to do that than with an ebullient, adventurous lion cub who has yet to learn the finer points of the responsibilities of kingship?

By now, it’s barely a spoiler to reveal that Mufasa meets his maker, and the heir apparent Simba, convinced that the tragedy is his own fault, departs to the desert. Under the tutelages of meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) the adult Simba (Donald Glover) is happy enough to subsist on grubs, ants and the ‘hakuna matata’ philosophy until Nala (Beyonce Knowles) finds him and beseeches him to return to the now decimated Pride Lands.

One of Hollywood’s best-known tenets is ‘never work with children and animals’, but there’s certainly room for an update: never believe that animals can do the job that a cartoon can.

The makers of The Lion King essentially found themselves in a quandary – how to make its leonine cast look realistic in CGI, while retaining the spirit and energy of the animated originals? It’s a big ask, and the truth is that today’s audiences might not connect with the characters of Simba and Nala in the way that they might have in the ‘90s. The reboot’s ultra-realistic fight scenes and lion roars are much more gnarly and menacing than in the original, and it will be interesting to see if very young cinemagoers will find them thrilling or frightening.

Glover and Beyoncé, cultural mavericks if ever there were too, have missed an opportunity to imbue any kind of real personality onto Simba and Nala. Both singers bring plenty of the feels to the film’s classic songs ‘Hakuna Matata’ and ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’, but curiously, the overall effect doesn’t quite stir the senses as much as a $25 million pay cheque should.

Instead, much of the grunt work is left to John Oliver (Zuzu the hornbill), the playfully gruff Rogen, and a nicely deadpan Eicher. The trio, blessed with the film’s very few dialogue revisions, adds enough texture to keep grown-ups at least mildly entertained.

There’s no doubting that The Lion King is a visual delight. We’re talking Planet Earth levels of lustrous scenery here. But the playfulness and charm that made the original such a childhood staple has somehow been lost in translation. It will make a mint at the box office regardless, and Beyonce is naturally in line for a Best Song nod at next year’s Oscars. Audiences will get exactly what they expect, but that could turn out to be its ultimate undoing.

(PG, Disney, 118 mins)

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