Let me start by saying that The Lion King is not a Disney animated classic that I hold near and dear to my heart. The story was sad and intense back when I saw the original animated feature as a young adult in 1994. It wasn’t a bad story or bad movie. It just wasn’t one that made my heart sing. In fact, it made my heart sob a little!
As a result, I felt rather ambiguous about the remake of this movie. I wasn’t holding my breath hoping it would pay homage to the original. And I was pretty sure that I probably wouldn’t have put it on my summer movie list if I didn’t have the chance to preview the film.
Although I didn’t love it (for reasons I’ll tell you below), I have to admit that this movie is a bit of a technical masterpiece.
Director Jon Favreau is at the helm again for the this animated (for lack of a better word) feature, having successfully reinvented The Jungle Book in 2016. His goal was to create the next evolution of The Lion King story. We experienced the classic animation style in 1994 and embraced the stage production starting in 1999. The question is, are we ready for a realistic version of The Lion King?
For this production, Favreau went beyond traditional CGI by using a blend of live action, virtual reality (VR) tools , and the highest level of computer-generated animation.
For the live action segments, he actually created a theater in the round – a stage space for the actors to perform their lines instead of sitting in a recording studio. He used multiple cameras to capture the actors engaging and emoting in ways they might not in a traditional studio.
For the animated portion, they created a virtual reality set inside the computers with multiple “cameras” inside the virtual set to capture the action. The production used VR headsets to allow Favreau and others to “walk into the set” and virtually stand next to a lion.
The result is an animated feature unlike any other. As the story unfolds, you feel like you’re watching a documentary and expect to hear the narrator’s voiceover at any moment. It’s photorealism taken to a new level. It’s only when the animals start talking that you are reminded that this is entertainment, not education.
But that’s also what’s wrong with this film. While you’re marveling at the realism (especially watching Mufasa’s mane in the wind), you’ll quickly be reminded that the animal kingdom is a violent place. When lions are trampled to death or battle each other amidst rising flames, you feel like you’re watching nature in the raw and you know it’s not going to end well.
It’s darker than the original. It’s more violent. It’s more intense. And it’s not because any element of the story changed. It’s because this animated story now feels real and it made me uncomfortable. Favreau knew this was a fine line he was walking and for me, he fell on the wrong side it.
“We definitely are not shy about going back to the old material, but it is amazing how– Director Jon Favreau on his approach to The Lion King
much you can change and update invisibly. And that’s the trick—you don’t want it to feel
like you’ve imposed yourself upon the film. We don’t want to cross the line of making
something feel too intense, or lose the thread of what we remember about the old film. ”
In addition to the technical presentation of the story, the casting was pretty phenomenal. Disney welcomed home James Earl Jones as the voice of Mufasa and also added big names like Donald Glover, Alfre Woodard, John Oliver, and Seth Rogan to the cast. The only misstep for me was the casting of Beyoncé as Nala. Perhaps she can excel as an actress but voiceover work is not her genre.
If you loved the original animated version of The Lion King, you’ll probably enjoy the story a second time. Just be warned that it’s not cute or cuddly and could be a little too intense for younger children. If you don’t care about the story at all and just want to be wowed by the directed of computer-assisted animation, it’s worth the trip to see this film, especially in IMAX.