Jon Favreau’s reimagining of The Lion King is probably the most visually striking effects-heavy movie I’ve ever seen. And it’s not even necessarily the main characters that fully achieve that seemingly hyperbolic first sentence – but it’s more this all-encompassing world he and his team have created. For instance, there’s a scene featuring a dung beetle pushing a ball of giraffe shit across the desert and I was mesmerized. People will argue if a remake of The Lion King is “necessary” (we’ll get to that), but putting that aside for a second: The Lion King is a monumental achievement of technological advancement. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Look, I was also one of those people who thought the imagery all looked kind of weird after watching the trailer and some television commercials. But I also knew Favreau pulled off something similar with 2016’s The Jungle Book and, yes, he knows what he’s doing. The problem is, in short snippets, the imagery does look a little weird.The actors aren’t mocapped, so it’s just real looking animals who speak English. Yes, this will probably be divisive. But when I watched the full-length movie, it gradually brought me in and immersed me in this insanely beautiful CGI (or photorealism, or whatever they are calling it) world. And the results are stunning.
But, the original The Jungle Book doesn’t have the cultural importance in 2019 that the original The Lion King still has. This makes sense, because basically anyone in their 30s (or even early 40s) right now saw The Lion King, 25 years ago, at an influential age. And those people are very protective of the original movie and what it means to them. Which has led to an outcry of the “is this necessary?” argument. (For the record, I have very little The Lion King nostalgia. I am The Lion King agnostic. I was at the age where I felt too old to be going to Disney animated movies, yet not old enough to realize it doesn’t matter and I should have gone to the Disney animated movie. I eventually saw it on VHS.)
“Is this movie necessary?” is kind of a strange argument. What happens is someone will present this question on social media, then other people will just kind of keep repeating it without really thinking about what they are asking. This happens all the time. It reminds me of the scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles when Del Griffith and Neal Page are driving the wrong way down the interstate as two Samaritans try to warn them. Del tells Neal not to worry about it, because how would those people know where Neal and Del are headed? Neal gives a satisfying nod, “Yeah, how would they know?” – before seeing the oncoming vehicles. But that moment where Neal accepts Del’s argument always reminds me of these kinds of social media talking points when a talking point makes no sense.
Because in a given year, how many movies are “necessary”? It’s a pretty small number! Was Spider-Man: Far From Home necessary? Was The Shape of Water necessary? Looking around your apartment or house, how many of the items that you own are “necessary?” When I saw the new The Lion King there were a lot of kids with their parents. I bet in their minds, both the kids and the parents, at that moment, it felt “necessary.” (The kids were really into this movie.) Anyway, whatever! (Also, Disney’s shareholders will probably also find it “necessary.”)
So, as I said before, I’m The Lion King agnostic, where I do not at all have every beat of this story memorized. And, to be honest, I came into this movie pretty indifferent. And it won me over incredibly fast. It’s funny – Billy Eichner’s Timon and Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa will, deservedly, get a lot of headlines, but don’t sleep on John Oliver’s Zazu – sad (yes, that scene), and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar is terrifying. Also, JD McCrary as young Simba is an absolute delight. (Also, not surprisingly, Nals get a little more screen time here because, well, if you cast Beyoncé, you’re sure as heck going to make sure Beyoncé has a good amount of dialogue). Though, because of the nature of what this movie is going for, the musical numbers are a lot less grandiose and playful, which is something I did like about the original.
But, my goodness, to hear James Earl Jones’ booming voice return to the role as Mufasa is just fantastic. Jones is 88 now and it’s not quite the same voice – it’s still wonderful, but there’s something maybe a little more fragile in there. And when Mufasa explains to Simba that, yes, he does get scared, there’s something really powerful about that hint of fragility.
Look, I’ll admit, maybe it’s my lack of overwhelming familiarity (basically where I don’t remember every single beat) with the original that led to my reaction of, “Holy heck, what a movie!” But I think a lot of people will be in my situation. (And, honestly, I know what it’s like to lose a father now, so that aspect hit me pretty hard this time around, as opposed to 25 years ago. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit this plays a role.) And, look, there will be plenty of reviews out there from people who love the original who may feel similar to how I do, or may feel differently. But if you want that perspective, The Lion King die-hard perspective, those are readily available. But The Lion King was a movie I had kind of forgotten about, and now it all came rushing back in Favreau’s new version and I was immersed. I tried to resist, but it got me.
‘The Lion King’ hits theaters July 18. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.