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King of the savanna

The Lion King (© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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King of the savanna

The new Lion King is a worthy remake of a classic prince-in-exile tale

Maybe it’s because I still have little people in the house, but I tend to approach Disney’s live-action remakes of animated classics a little differently than a lot of critics. Sure, they’re mostly copies of the originals, and kids could just stay home and watch the old DVDs. But few things make the under-10 set squeal with excitement more than a trip to the movies. So even if these remakes are something of a money grab, as long as they’re done well, most parents will be happy to make a family outing out of seeing them.

While The Lion King doesn’t match the appeal of Cinderella or The Jungle Book, it is for the most part done well. 

Director Jon Favreau is probably best known for playing Happy Hogan in Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Avengers films. Or, if you’re really old like me, you’ll remember him most fondly from the cult classic Swingers, a movie that ushered in a new love for swing dancing among ’90s teens. But it’s in his work behind the camera that Favreau really excels. As with his previous efforts, Elf and The Jungle Book, the PG-rated Lion King shines with innocent humor.

HBO’s fake newsman John Oliver makes the part of Zazu the hornbill uniquely his. The character is now a bit of reporter along with cubs’ guardian and is much funnier for it. Seth Rogen’s gravelly, low-register voice feels created especially for the part of an anthropomorphized warthog. And animated menace never felt more chilling than Chiwetel Ejiofor playing villain Scar. The best of the bunch, though, is the only returning actor from the 1994 version: You can’t do better than James Earl Jones, so Favreau didn’t try—Mufasa remains as majestic-sounding as always.

© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Lion King (© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Yet the film stumbles slightly in the leads. As we’d expect, Donald Glover (as adult lion prince Simba) and Beyoncé (as love interest Nala) knock the songs out of the park. But they feel flat whenever they’re not singing.

All the buzz about the visuals is true. The Lion King is so stunningly realistic, you at times forget you’re not watching a nature documentary. But there’s a downside to this, too. One reason cuddly creatures work so well in animated films is because we can give them human expressions. Here, even at their happiest or most sorrowful, the animals retain the blank faces of real animals. It robs the film of some emotion, and, if my screening is anything to go by, makes it harder for youngsters to connect with the characters.

That’s a bit of a shame given what a tremendous drama The Lion King is, almost Shakespearean in its use of classic archetypes.

A reckless and proud prince fails to heed his kingly father’s lessons. Only when the prince goes into exile after his father dies at the hands of his wicked uncle does he begin to understand his father’s wisdom. In the wilderness, he faces the temptations of cowardly, worldly philosophy: Life is meaningless, we owe nothing to a larger community, and we should pursue our own selfish pleasures. Catchy as the tune is, this is what Timon and Pumbaa are really counseling with “Hakuna Matata.” Favreau’s update makes this philosophical conflict even more marvelously explicit.

Eventually, suffering refines the prince’s character. He remembers who he is and returns home, humbled and heroic, ready to wrest his rightful throne away from the usurper who—like a kind of animal Robespierre—has built an army of the envious. Simba seeks traditional order not for his own sake, but for the sake of his people. As Mufasa advises his son, “While others search for what they can take, a true king searches for what he can give.” Not a bad paraphrasing of Christ’s lesson that to be great in the kingdom, you must be a servant of all.

Editor’s Note: This is an extended version of the review that appears in the Aug. 3 print issue.