GREG'S GRADE: A
In theory, the 2019 edition of "The Lion King" sounds like a pointless retread, another cash grab as Disney continues to milk its most popular properties for all they're worth. After all, it's almost a shot-for-shot, line-for-line remake — same jokes, same songs, same "Hamlet"-starring-lions plot line. And despite what your eyes might tell you and in spite of its frequent inclusion in conversation about Disney's recent live action retellings of its classic titles, this new version is every bit as animated as the beloved, hand-drawn 1994 original.
So why bother?
It's all in the execution. Quite frankly, there's never been anything like the 2019 "Lion King." "Photo-realistic" doesn't even begin to describe it. Its stunning, impossibly detailed digital images wouldn't appear more real if director Jon Favreau and his team had found actual talking (and singing) lions and hyenas, meerkats and warthogs in the African savannah.
Favreau's superb 2016 version of "The Jungle Book" now feels like a test run for this, but that movie had a real human boy as its lead and, thus, required at least some physical sets and props. For "The Lion King," it's all 1's and 0's. Using virtual reality technology to create "sets," Favreau and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel were able to take real cameras into the digital world to map out their shots and lighting. The result is weight, depth and texture to everything on screen in a way even the best animation before it could never capture. How the lions' muscles ripple as they prowl, how the wind ruffles their fur and so many little touches to the way other animals move and interact with their environment — it's breathtaking.
Given the refusal to anthropomorphize any of the characters, there is potential for the whole affair to come across as cold and emotionless, due to the necessary lack of expressions on the animals' faces. That's where the excellent voice cast comes in, starting with James Earl Jones, once again lending his regal, booming baritone to Mufasa, king of Pride Rock. Chiwetel Ejiofor takes a page out of Jeremy Irons' book, relishing every word, chewing (digital) scenery as the sneering, scheming Scar, younger brother to the king, once his heir, now replaced by the young cub Simba. JD McCrary voices the future king through the movie's first half, imbuing him with a sense of mischief and arrogance as a byproduct of his station. Donald Glover assumes the role once Simba, convinced to flee the Pride Lands following Scar's betrayal, grows into adulthood and embraces the carefree, "Hakuna Matata" lifestyle of his new friends Timon and Pumbaa. Voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, respectively, Timon and Pumbaa are even more of a hoot this time around. Eichner and Rogen's riffing accounts for a good chunk of the film's 30 extra minutes.
John Oliver seems like the most natural choice in the world to voice the bird Zazu, loyal servant of the king and lover of puns, and in a small handful of scenes, Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre delight as the bickering hyenas Kamari and Azizi.
Favreau and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson still find little material for Simba's mother, Sarabi (voiced by Alfre Woodard), or Nala, Simba's best friend and love interest. You might wonder why they bothered to cast a superstar like Beyonce Knowles-Carter to voice the adult Nala, but it makes sense once we get to her and Glover singing together on "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." Where else are you going to hear a duet featuring Beyonce and Childish Gambino?
Instead of coming across as a soulless, inessential rehash like some of Disney's other recent remakes — I'm looking at you, "Dumbo" — "The Lion King" feels fresh and vibrant, alive and vital in 2019 in a way I would not have thought possible. It's a technological marvel while retaining the heart and humor of the original. It is the next evolution of filmmaking.
Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements. 118 minutes.
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