The visual effect work in “The Lion King,” directed by Jon Favreau, is exceptional, sending shivers up and down the spine, starting with the heart-pounding Zulu chant that opens the film—“Nants ingonyama bagithi baba!”—the call of African-American ancestors even in the hands of the white oppressor gives a swell of pride knowing that no one and nothing can wipe us from this earth.
The animated story of “The Lion King” is such a classic now that Disney would have been downright foolish to tinker with perfection. To that end, it opens with Baby Simba on Pride Rock and the stunning wildebeest stampede that endangers him as a cub. Nothing is lost, just beautifully enhanced under Favreau’s direction.
The themes of the circle of life—birth and death—are explored and expanded in the live-action version but it’s just as impactful.
When the animated version of the “The Lion King” hit the big screen it made a splash around the world. It was a revelation, a sneak peek into things to come in the animation world. And Favreau (perhaps, a fan himself) preserves the wonder of it all. It has the same level of event excitement as watching visionary Julie Taymor’s staging of the Broadway musical “The Lion King.”
That makes Favreau’s “The Lion King” an undeniably impressive, but incredibly safe entry to the catalog—one whose greatest accomplishment may not be technical (which is not to diminish the incredible work required to make talking animals look believable), but in perfecting the performances.
Favreau and the Disney team cast actors of African descent as the lion and hyena characters, and brought back just one voice from the original, the “voice of God”—James Earl Jones—to re-record most of the same dialogue as Simba’s father, the principled Mufasa.
It’s a perfect film which some might argue is easy to achieve because of Disney’s never-ending pockets, but it takes more than money to create a masterpiece like this.
The jungle anthem of true friendship, “Hakuna Matata,” has the added sound of an older Simba—as Donald Glover brings a new dimension to the story through his performance. When Nala, played by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, makes her entrance we can hear and feel the lioness’s fierce personality, something that was missed in the animated version. When they sing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” it feels like you’re hearing it for the very first time. Beyoncé also contributes a new single, “Spirit,” which plays over the lions’ return to the Pride Lands, which Mufasa’s evil brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has turned into a barren desert.
The new technology is so advanced you don’t think for a single moment that you’re not watching flesh-and-bone animals share their experiences. A perfect film for anyone and everyone.