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The Lion King’s Live-Action Hero Journey Puts Disney On Top Again

“The Lion King” Review by Amy Kellestine

With its streak of live-action remakes (“The Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Dumbo,” and “Aladdin”), Disney has proven that studios hoping to succeed at the box office with a heavily computer-generated imagery (CGI) reboot must execute perfectly in order to retain audience loyalty. “The Lion King,” Disney’s most recent live-action remake of yet another animated blockbuster from the 1990s, is a surprisingly praiseworthy film that remains true to its roots while pushing the envelope of the realism CGI films can achieve. This is the feature that Disney needed to release now, more than ever, to demonstrate to old and new fans alike that it can still lead the way in a highly competitive genre.

The star-studded cast includes Donald Glover (adult Simba), Beyoncé (adult Nala), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Scar), Seth Rogen (Pumbaa), Billy Eichner (Timon), and a repeat of the venerable James Earl Jones as King Mufasa. Each choice was a perfect match between one of today’s most respected talents and the fictional character he or she brought to life. The fast-paced writing of Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can” and “Rush Hour 2”) and the visionary direction of Jon Favreau (“The Jungle Book” and “Iron Man”) were also a perfect pair for this remake.

As the film opens to the iconic Zulu chorus “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba” (Zulu for “Here comes a lion, Father”), one might almost expect to hear the voice of David Attenborough introducing the audience to the scene unfolding in the African savanna. This is a testament to the unmitigated CGI quality throughout the film. The meticulously choreographed scenes truly appear to be played by the world’s most well-trained animals. Yet realism to this extent is a double-edged sword. First, it challenges the notion of a live-action film, since there aren’t any live actors. Second, the creators chose not to anthropomorphize the characters’ facial features and expressions. The result is unbelievable realism without facial expressions to match the animals’ emotions. Third, and this is an important point for parents of young children, scenes easily dismissed as make-believe in the animated classic take on a new life in this version. Captivating and immersive, the beautiful becomes more beautiful—and the scary is overwhelmingly scarier. For example, I found myself hiding my eyes during many of the more dramatic scenes. To quote the not-so-immortal Uncle Scar, “be prepared!” The difference between animation and live action is enough to get the new version a PG rating and I would go so far as to suggest that youngsters are better off watching the original at home.

Musically, the film offers much to the nostalgic viewer hoping to share the experience of “The Lion King” with the next generation of Disney aficionados. The classic songs are all intact and have more depth and warmth than the original version. Unfortunately, the addition of Beyoncé’s single, “Spirit”, sung when Simba and Nala return together to Pride Rock, was a miss for me. Where a pop anthem could have worked, “Spirit” has more of a slow dance quality and the simplistic song lyrics felt out of place compared to rest of the lineup of catchy showtunes.

Fans of the original can rest easy because there aren’t any significant plot updates this time around. The same rhythms exist here, brought into focus and delivered with themes of light and dark, providing us with a strong narrative that reminds us that “we are all connected in the great circle of life.” Even more than that, however, is the hero’s journey showing how we have to face our darkest fear in order to reach our full potential. “The Lion King” continues to offer us an allegory for personal awakening, as each one of us is like a king in exile who has forgotten our life’s purpose.

The 1994 original captivated the hearts and minds of a generation. Thankfully this 2019 version succeeds compared to other recent remakes (“Dumbo” and “Aladdin”) because it doesn’t stray too far from the formula that worked. For the long-standing Disney fan waiting since 2016’s “The Jungle Book” for the industry giant to get it right again, it is safe to say that the wait is over.

Amy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother and is passionate about helping others and writing.