Some things are timeless as pure gold. They refuse to fade away into the annals of time. Instead, they burn brighter, blazing with an incandescence that enthrals the beholder even after decades of being.
The Lion King is that gold. Pulsating, iridescent, dazzling, with its singular brand of spark that burns brighter as time goes by. 25 years after its release, the beloved classic has achieved cult status among Disney fans.
Disney knows it. And Disney also knows what to do with it.
Hence, the latest release at the box office – The Lion King; remodelled into a live-action offering for the movie-goer of the 21stcentury. That the 21stcentury movie-goer is also the nineties kid who holds the original, 1994 version of The Lion King sacrosanct in their heart and mind is beside the point. That’s the ‘Circle of Life’, Disney style.
Which brings us to the pertinent poser – does The Lion King reboot measure up? Read on to find out!
The screenplay and story, by Jeff Nathanson and Brenda Chapmanrespectively, remain obsessively faithful to the original. Most dialogues are word-to-word replications of the 1994 version. The settings, frames and imagery too are accurate reproductions of the original.
Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the 1994 classic) is King of Pride Lands, which he rules with astute wisdom and caring compassion. His wily, conniving brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), with help from the wicked hyenas, orchestrates an elaborate conspiracy to murder Mufasa and drive his son Simba (Donald Glover), the rightful heir to the throne, into exile. He then becomes King at Pride Rock. Scar and the hyenas then proceed to ravage Pride Lands, turning the once-lush forests into a desolate, carcass-strewn wasteland.
Far from Pride Rock, Simba grows up in obscurity, with the unlikeliest of friends of company – a perpetually flatulent warthog called Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), and a witty meerkat called Timon (Billy Eichner). Unlearning everything that Mufasahad ever taught him, the young lion king learns to subsist on creepy crawlies and subscribe to the problem-free philosophy of Hakuna Matata.
How Simbalearns to roar like a lion again, in the face of insurmountable adversity, to go ahead and find a hisdestined place in the circle of life is what makes the narrative stirring and magnificently Darwinian-Shakespearean; as it was in 1994. Everything is exactly the same, no surprises there.
What is different is the impressive CGI of this film. Calling it live-action would be an anomaly. The entire movie is generated on the computer – the breath-taking visuals, the astonishingly lifelike animals, the amazingly realistic Savannah – everything. Director Jon Favreauagain brings into play the photorealistic brilliance he had put to excellent use in The Jungle Book reprise.
The animals look so real that every sinew in their bodies stands out in bold starkness each time they move. The visual imagery is spectacular amidst the outstanding play of colours. The vast horizon, stained calypso-orange by the fiery sunrise; the lapis-blue day sky that gives way to the deepening violet of a star-speckled night sky; the smoke-spangled, corpse-grey shadowlands of the hyenas – all lend a fluid vividness and profound intensity to the film’s delectable canvas.
There is nothing to fault in the CGI and the images. The fault, if any, lies in the use of CGI to reprise the characters – cherished characters all, which are indelibly stamped in the collective consciousness of an entire generation, and beyond. These much-adored characters are, in the new version, curiously devoid of expressions, and therefore, emotions.
So we miss the supremely self-assured look on Mufasa’s robust face, as also the widening of his eyes with shock at the betrayal by his own kin. We search for the uncertainty of fear, guilt and sorrow in Simba’s countenance as he contemplates the death of his father and his role in it. We seek the self-righteous hauteur in Sarabi’s profile as she proudly strides up Pride Rock to stand up to Scar’s pompous disdain.
We look for Scar’s sardonic sneer, Rafiki’s mischievous sagacity, Shenzi the hyena’s sarcastic scorn for Scar’s belated pronouncements of loyalty, and so much more that’s missing in the remake. But we never find any of it. And it’s all because they are computer-generated creatures that, though fascinating to look at because of their remarkable realness, come across as emotionless as – what else – computer-generated creatures. Must we say, give us animated any day!
That leaves the onus of fashioning the missing emotions on the voice acting. And more often than not, the star-studded voice cast delivers. The inimitable James Earl Jones is still as impressive as Mufasa as he was 25 years ago. Donald Glover is quite good as Simba, as is Alfre Woodard as Sarabi. John Oliver does an adequate job as the hornbill, Zazu, though we do miss Rowan Atkinson’s Zazu, with its eccentric nuttiness in the 1994 version.
Jeremy Iron’s silkily menacing tenor gave Scar an ominous evilness in the 1994 version, which is sadly missing in ChiwetelEjiofor’s Scar. That is also the reason why Iron’s foreboding ‘Be Prepared’ number isn’t half as phenomenal as we remember it to be.
Whoopi Goldberg as Shenzi from 1994 is still vivid in our minds, though Florence Kasumba does a good job as the leader of the hyena pack. If something does stick out like a sore thumb amidst the stellar voice acting, itis Beyoncé’s voice work as Nala. It is flat and inexpressive, lacking the verve, vitality and fighting spirit that is so Nala.
The duo that unequivocally conjures up voice magic is Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as Pumbaa and Timon. Their voice work is eloquent, expressive and authoritative, taking on a life of its own, far removed from the flatness of expressions of the characters they play. They’ve got some of the best lines too and they sink their teeth into the meaty roles with glee. The two are an inspired choice to play the well-loved roles and they come good spectacularly.
Apart from that, the new flick has its share of attention-grabbing scenes and lines. The sequence where a tuft of fur breaks free from the adult Simba’s mane and makes a fascinating journey – across the desert, into a giraffe’s meal, wound up in a ball of dung that is then rolled down by a dung beetle and lugged by an ant before finally making it into Rafiki’s wise hands – is exquisitely enthralling. It gives credence to Mufasa’s sermon to Simbaat the start of the film about the circle of life.
A particularly hilarious scene is the one in which Timon and Pumbaa teach Simbato feast on bugs and larvae. When Pumbaa describes a bug’s taste as ‘Umami’, we literally crack up. In another scene, when Simba proudly introduces a wasted Pride Lands as his home to Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat responds diplomatically, “I like what you’ve done with the place, but it’s a bit heavy on the carcass”, we can’t stop laughing. An on-going joke between two hyenas fighting for space earns a few laughs too.
The music of The Lion King in its reboot is as rousing as it was in the original. The African intro is upbeat and uplifting. Tim Rice and Elton John’s songs have an abiding timelessness to them, which comes through even in their covers. The best of the reprised lot is Hakuna Matata – it is eminently hummable and has been given a distinctly operatic tenor, while the Circle of Life is, quite surprisingly, the weakest. Hans Zimmer’s music is as soul-stirring as ever. That said, the new additions to the musical repertoire of the movie, including Beyoncé’s ‘Spirit’, do nothing for the narrative by way of adding distinctiveness or grandeur.
The reboot of The Lion King, albeit a tad vexing for nostalgic fans of the original, is a welcome addition to the Disney catalogue. Mounted on a breath-taking scale, it brims with magnificent images and poignant sequences. Watching the movie on the big screen is most definitely a stirring experience.
It is a visually-delighting joyfulness that the present generation of kids must partake of. And thus let the Circle of Life take its rightful course.
3.5/5 is our rating for The Lion King.