There comes a point of no return for a film when the result looks too much like the real thing. It crosses into being indistinguishable and proves itself to be such a perfect copy, it’s hard to tell them apart.
This is not the visuals I’m talking about, but rather the film The Lion King (2019), based on the film The Lion King (1994).
Direct shots, direct dialogue, direct movements of its characters, all come back to the original animated classic, diminishing any goodness that can come from being a direct shot-for-shot, beat-for-beat remake, in its initial hour. The Lion King starts to feel a little stale, perhaps best left as an incredible tech demo than a new version of a beloved tale.
But then comes charging in a lifeblood so essential, so vital to keeping things afloat, that the film suddenly gains a heartbeat, and life support is ripped off with vigor: Timon and Pumbaa to the rescue! Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, and the mastermind visual effects artists manage to turn the duo into the very thing needed to right the ship and set a new course.
The difference comes in inspired choices. The first half of the film is so self-consciously and so faithfully recreating already perfect moments, that it finds it difficult to move away from them. The score, again by Hans Zimmer, hits the same notes, despite being a reworking of the original work.
It’s in the second half where The Lion King gains the confidence to be its own film. Does it follow the same beats very closely? Sure, but it does so with assured footing, and with a keener eye of making the film its own thing. The more comedic beats with Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba create some broad audience chuckles, opening up their section a little more to allow these one-of-a-kind personalities a chance to shine. And shine they do.
It’s within the injecting of a new personality that this realistic looking remake finds its most power.
As mentioned, Timon and Pumbaa steal the film without question, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen the perfect voices for the unlikely comedy duo. It’s in the animation, beautifully creating the ticks and quick jolts of Timon, the bulky and rather agile Pumbaa, that character reflects in movement.
It also comes out of Simba during the second half, as the light touch in Donald Glover’s performance gives a stronger grasp on his character. The more carefree turn for his character makes him a more sympathetic read, helping to push away the pressure and easier to understand.
The emotion lands far stronger then, pushing the disappointing half aside for a much stronger finale.
The animation is likely the element that will be the lasting conversation piece of the film, however. It’s a level of precision and jaw-dropping mastery director Jon Favreau’s previous film, The Jungle Book (2016), reached out for and mostly achieved; here, the wizardry reaches a near-perfect image quality of photorealism that baffles the mind. As a technical showpiece, this film could easily be the future of visual effects.
The voice cast mostly rises to the occasion, standouts including John Oliver’s Zazu, JD McCrary’s young Simba, James Earl Jones’s return as Mufasa, and the aforementioned Eichner and Rogen. Glover’s adult Simba struggles to find his voice at first, but does find it by film’s end; he’s inspiring when engaged in song. Chiwetel Ejiofor is certainly a more subdued Scar, but you can almost hear the strategy of mental chess in his voice, waiting for his moment, when paired with the body movement of his animation. The almighty Beyoncé isn’t quite around for too much, though she sings her heart out, as always, which makes up for that.
The Lion King may not carry the full emotional weight and landmark power the original film carries, but as it continues on, it finds its voice and strength to return to Pride Rock and lay claim for its right to exist. It largely succeeds in this arena, proving itself worthy. Favreau has done right by the source material, managing to make a film that doesn’t wish to rise to the impossible task of being compared to its 1994 counterpart, but become a technical marvel and a feel-good return to a story always worth revisiting.