In 1994, Disney released one of the studio's crowning achievements amongst a crowded landscape of animated hits of their own during the same era. The Lion King came along and was immediately the studio's most unforgettable film, going on to win at the Academy Awards and influence audiences and filmmakers for the coming decades. It was perfect, and never had to be touched. Thanks to technology advancing since the animated version dropped, the times called for a photo-realistic remake which featured what often looks like real lions, warthogs, bugs, and landscapes. Did the world need a new copy on The Lion King with updates graphics? No. Is it a visual feast loaded with pleasant audible toppings, anyway? Absolutely.
Jon Favreau, who previously helmed titled such as Iron Man and Chef, sets out with the burden of one of the world's most beloved films being remade on his shoulders. After bringing The Jungle Book to life, the director and actor had the realization that the same technology which paired computerized monkeys with a little boy immersed into a fully painted world could create something bigger. The Lion King being remade is wholly made possible and reliant on the visual technology. It is a pure flex of power by visual effects teams as only one single shot in the film incorporates real footage. Everything else -- the animals, the plants, Pride Rock, and beyond -- is completely animated in a photo-realistic manner. Once audiences can get past trying to judge the animated efforts, the film becomes one of the most immersive, beautiful, visual spectacles of a lifetime. There is nothing like it. Avatar and Planet of the Apes have previously boasted thoroughly impressive elements but The Lion King takes every bit of technology already shown on screen plus some new designs and seamlessly combines each element for a stunning entry to the Pridelands.
By now, everyone knows the story. Simba (JD McCrary) is born, raised above the African Savannah, and destined to be king. His Uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has other plans while his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) rules with strength and reason. While there are a few liberties taken to modernize the script of the original Lion King film, the new entry follows its predecessor with a healthy bit of precision. The dedication to the original makes the remake feel a bit unnecessary at times but the amount of heart poured into the story, along with the important real world issues of diversity addressed both on the screen and behind-the-scenes are enough to warrant the production.
Lions talking to one another and trying to create emotion on the big cats' faces proves to be a challenge for Favreau and company. When Donald Glover takes over for Simba about a third into the film, it's a bit of a jarring shift which requires a moment of acclimation to fully accept. The same can be said for Beyoncé's Nala, as she takes over after the first act offers the younger voice of Shahidi Wright Joseph for the same character. Quickly, the duo make an energized effort to win the audiences with their rendition of the iconic "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" tune.
Favreau's transitions into musical numbers are seamless, almost deserving as much of a compliment as Ejiofor's performance on "Be Prepared." Meanwhile, Seth Rogen doesn't quite have the pipes to match the rest of the musically inclined audience but it prompts a self-aware laugh, bordering a parody-like beat.
Rogen, however, does steal the show alongside Billy Eichner. The duo are comedic gold with timing down to as much of a science as the effects of the film. While the first act is burdened with setting up the film's journey, it is the second act entry of Rogen's Pumbaa and Eichner's Timon which get the film rolling. There is not a moment when the two are speaking which is not entirely captivating.
All things considered, The Lion King was not a movie which needed to be remade but its flawless visuals and impressive voice cast's efforts justify its existence. The emotional punches come as expected, the musical cues carry it through, and Rogen and Eichner make it truly entertaining. The legacy of the original may in fact be enhanced by the effort to replicate its magic, while a new generation of families is told a hearty, visually gorgeous, and entertaining new story.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.