The Lion King opens up with a stunning depiction of pride rock and astonishingly life-like animals. All the sentiments I had unknowingly carried with me for years since my last viewing of original The Lion King were swiftly humbled. I soon realized I am going to have to actively stop myself from comparing this viewing with the original film if it is going to stand any chance. Perhaps it seems pretty logical, but for most of us who consider these classics a formative part of our childhood, a reminder that this live action was never going to be like the original feels necessary. And truly it does not need to be; at least not while the original version is still available on multiple streaming platforms.
The emphasis on realism absolutely took away from how much could be conveyed from the animal’s facial and bodily language. But what was missed out on expressions, John Favreau for the most part made up for in the casting for the voice acting. Voice acting can get tricky when your cast is filled with very famous celebrities as this one; there is the risk of the celebrities’ personas overshadowing the characters. Fans were especially worried that Beyoncé’s celebrity would outshine Nala’s character but the singer managed to embody the lioness in a way that added a new flair to the character. Not to mention her incredible vocal performance on Can You Feel The Love Tonight, which unfortunately made Donald Glover’s sound slightly underwhelming.
The standout voice acting however, was undoubtedly from the comedians. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen’s re-enacting of the duo Timon and Pumbaa was genuinely hilarious and endearing. The added twists, which felt authentic to their respective comedic style, felt relevant without being cornily millennial. Late night show host John Oliver, faultlessly voiced Zazu. A personal favorite, John Oliver perfectly captures the erratic yet astute nature of the bird, down to the prideful way he announces himself, the fearful stutters when in contact with Scar, and even the sighs of exasperation from chasing Simba and Nala. Perhaps the nature of comedy already lends itself to voice acting so this was deliberate on John Favreau’s part, but the choice to cast modern day comedians certainly brought the live action to life. However, while the protagonist and his counterpart’s characters felt convincing, the villains did not. This was perhaps the hardest part not to compare as the original film’s Scar was menacing sure, but slightly melodramatic in the way he went about it. There was an almost humorous “woe is me” nature to his character that was completely lost in the live action. Be Prepared, which is easily the most theatrical song in the film was rushed, not giving the character any chance to be rooted for. It is hard to pinpoint to one thing in particular, as it is not simply Chiwetel Ejiofor’s voice acting (which was commendable), and not even the plot. Rather all the elements came together to privilege other characters in a way that diluted Scar’s impact.
Ultimately, John Favreau’s live action very closely follows the original animated Lion King, which perhaps explains why it has not garnered as much criticism as the other live action remakes such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Jungle Book. It also means that while we can appreciate how amazing CGI is as a piece of technology, many of us would probably still rather watch the animated version. Disney is successfully selling nostalgia with the repackaging of their classics, and while it has made even those of us who hold the original Lion King near and dear curious, I cannot help but hope younger audiences get the pleasure of watching the original animated version first.