New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: The Lion King

This is more like a Disney Nature documentary than the heart tugging, life affirming, coming-of-age, picturesque feature it was intended to be. The animals look “photo-real”, until they talk. We were disappointed in the lack of expression on the beloved characters faces and the lack of emotion throughout this film. Always good to hear the dulcet tones of James Earl Jones who voices Mufasa. That encouraged our expectations.  but, unfortunately, it didn’t pan out as well as we had hoped. But thank goodness for Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner for their comic relief or this film would have been deadly.

Jon Favreau is an exceptionally talented director, but this film is lacks heart. Visually, the landscapes in the opening scenes with all of the animals in the jungle coming to  pay homage to new lion cub prince, Simba, are magnificently shot. The angles on the hordes of animals moving make it look big and impressive. Kids will love seeing all of their favorite animals coming at them, all at once. But from there we were hoping for more creativity and imagination, instead of a direct copy, scene-for-scene, but without the warm, fuzzy and dramatic intensity of the original animated film. 

The photo-real technology may be ground-breaking, but the faces of these creatures barely move. Their eyes are devoid of expression and seeing their lips barely flap as they talk is bothersome. Plus, the voices don’t always seem to match the character. Love Donald Glover, but thought his voice as Simba as a mature lion was a little too high. Nor does this film capture the depth of the relationships between Mufasa ( James Earl Jones), Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), Simba (Donald Glover), and Nala (Beyoncé). The visuals showing their love stories lack signs of enough real emotion. 

Hearing the familiar music will bring you back, but it sometimes seems out of place with the photo-real images. Even the arrangement of “Circle of Life” at the very beginning seems overly dramatic and forced. The juxtaposition right after Simba’s father dies seems to come a little too soon to be so upbeat singing Hakuna Matata with the most fun characters in the film. Beyoncé and Donald Glover singing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is romantic and inspiring even though what you see on the screen doesn’t show enough love. Beyoncé wrote a new song for the soundtrack. So did Elton John who wrote the original songs with Lyricist Tim Rice for the 1994 animated classic.

The real stars of the show are Rogen as  Pumbaa, the warthog, who takes Simba under his hoof and looks after him. He is the hilarious and often plays straight man to Eichner as Timon, the hilarious meerkat who pops up consistently with a quick comeback. They are very entertaining. We wish there had been more of their repartee to brighten up the film. And their rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” pops  for some much needed fun. 

The Lion King is loosely based on the story of Hamlet. Mufasa, the King, is killed off by his brother, Scar, who tries to get his brother’s wife to join him to rule the Pride and deny Simba his rightful place. Chiwetel Ejiofor has just the right ominous voice for the villainous Scar. But he and his henchmen or hench-animals, the hyenas, might be too photo-real for the little ones. They’re a scary bunch baring their teeth. The hyenas’ lair, which was off limits for Simba, has been changed to an elephant burial ground. That’s also very dark. And the film is 30 minutes longer than the original animated one, which might make kids squirm in the seats for potty breaks or just leave, especially if it’s at the scary scenes.   

Favreau added some little touches in this film which were more impressive than the more dramatic scenes portrayed in the story. The one where Simba is enticed to eat little critters like bugs instead of hunt for one of his new buddies or other big game to dissuade him from eating meat is cute. That scene shows more empathy and camaraderie. 

We appreciate the incredible amount of effort, great casting, attention to detail and the technical innovation Favreau used to recreate this beloved film with realistic subjects. This is another example of the technology toy box overshadowing the story and the emotion. The visuals are magnificent, but there’s not enough heart. You may not entirely feel the love.

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures    1 hour 58 minutes     PG

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