Between 1939, with their film animated feature Snow White, up to the early 1960s, The Walt Disney Company was the dominated studio for animated film. No one else even came close, no one even tried. In the mid-60s through the 70s, the studio hit a lull in their animation (with few films now regarded as ‘classics’) and refocused on their attention on live-action film.
The 80s brought the invention of home video with Betamax and VHS and Disney found a new way to make old things new again by offering their most classic films directly to the viewer for the first time ever. Where you once had to wait for a reissue to see Snow White or Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, you could now watch any of them with a touch of a button. The profits were enormous and Disney grew larger than it had ever been with this new cash cow without even having to create anything new. So insidious was Disney that they would release these films for a temporary period and then pull them for a ‘moratorium’ that sometimes lasted five years, sometimes 10. Black market values for these films could hit over $200 apiece in private sales at the time.
In 1989, Disney hit an all-new renaissance with the success of The Little Mermaid and entered one of its greatest Golden Ages of animation ever that included the Best Picture-nominated Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Aladdin and, of course, The Lion King.
Since then, Disney has amassed not just a fortune but studio after studio and property after property. Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel and most recently, the entirety of 20th Century Fox. Now they have original content and animation through their own house plus Pixar but have recently returned to their own greatest hits as source material for yet another renaissance: making live-action (or re-imaginings) out of previous animated hits. Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Dumbo and less than two months ago, Aladdin, which is nearing $1 billion worldwide, have ushered in a new era for the Mouse House. Is it too much power for a single entity? Observer film columnist Guy Lodge says “As long as Disney maintains its box-office stranglehold … it will be regarded as the principal architect of an ever more uniform and homogeneous popular cinema,” in a new piece for The Guardian.
That brings us to the latest in Disney retellings, The Lion King. The 1994 traditionally animated original, came in at 1h 29m and earned almost $1b worldwide on a $45m budget and also spawned one of the most successful and longest-running Broadway musical adaptations of all time. The new film version, which is 100% computer animated, clocks in 30m longer but with an undisclosed budget (the new live-action Mulan is reportedly at $300M, The Jungle Book and Aladdin came in between $175-185M).
If you don’t already know, The Lion King itself is not a wholly original tale; it’s a loose retelling of Hamlet on the Serengeti with lions, hyenas, meerkats and warthogs. Mufasa (James Earl Jones, the only returning voice from the original) is the king of the jungle with his new son Simba (JD McCrary as a youngster) anointed to eventually take the throne. I think even the most cynical of souls would be hard-pressed to not feel something when the film opens with the now-classic Zulu chant “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba!” as the sun rises on Pride Rock. It’s a moment that will evoke fond memories for some and either set them up for joy or disappointment at what follows.
It’s a dark story, and as follows most Disney films, parental death is the driving factor. In the film’s most thrilling and absolutely most terrifying sequence, the stampede that kills Mufasa as Simba hangs on to a trembling branch for dear life is expertly shot. As is most of the film, it is a ‘shot for shot’ remake, but make no mistake, the cinematography from 6-time Academy Award nominee Caleb Deschanel is the real deal. There is so much urgency in this moment, in this entire sequence, that is does a fair amount of heavy lifting when the films lilts or other more dramatic moments fall flat.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its largely upgraded voice cast. While McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph (as young Nala) sound nearly the same as their 1994 counterparts, adult Simba, voiced by Donald Glover, gets a Guava Island makeover of a lion that just feels more…accurate? He’s not child-like, per se, but innocent without being naive. As the adult Nala, Grammy-winning superstar Beyoncé Knowles-Carter gives her lioness something that wasn’t there before; an agency all her own that doesn’t feel tacked on as an upgrade for 2019. The decision to make the Oscar-winning “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” a duet with Glover and Beyoncé to each other (instead of Elton John singing it about them) makes perfect sense and is a highlight. Beyoncé also gets one of the film’s two new songs, “Spirit,” sung while Nala and Simba return to Pride Rock to take back the throne from Scar. It’s serviceable and fits in but not extraordinary in any way.
John Oliver as Zazu is everything you’d want it to be: it’s John Oliver as John Oliver playing Zazu as an exasperated rule follower. He’s perfect. The pack of hyenas, led by a truly sinister Florence Kasumba and featuring hilarious turns by Eric André and Keegan-Michael Key, land just right. But nothing will prepare you for just how funny, how exactly right Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen’s takes on the meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa are. They are a match made in comedy heaven and one of film’s all-time great comedy duos. Eichner is especially good because you think you know how he’s going to play this and how he’s going to sound. But he subverts those expectations right from the beginning; this isn’t Timon on the Street.
Not everything works; this new Scar holds back on the juicy, gay campiness that Jeremy Irons brought to him. That isn’t to say Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn’t give a good voice performance, he does. It’s that Favreau and writer Jeff Nathanson defang Scar’s biggest moment, “Be Prepared” (which was actually almost cut from the film, unbelievably), removing the fantastical and ‘cartoony’ elements of the number and making Scar’s bitterness morose and not the least bit entertaining.
There are times when the photo-realistic photography emphasizes beauty and terror in equal degrees but yes, there will something lacking for most people behind those computer generated eyes. The meticulousness sometimes misses emotion and it puts the onus on the audience to bring some of it with them in the form of nostalgia. It’s probably what Disney is counting on; the pre-existing relationship with these stories to carry you along. For some that will be enough, for others, the lack of anthropromorification might be an empty vessel. I think director Jon Favreau (who also directed 2016’s live-action The Jungle Book) tries to find the happy medium here and, for me, is largely successful.
The Lion King will be released by Disney on July 19th.