Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

A slow new VR version of the classic for the video gaming generation.

By Nora Lee Mandel

The Lion King
Directed by Jon Favreau
Produced by Jon Favreau, Jeffrey Silver, and Karen Gilchrist
Written by Jeff Nathanson, based on Disney’s The Lion King (1994) screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton.
Released by Disney
USA. 1 hr 58 mins. Rated PG
With the voices of: Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Florence Kasumba, Eric André, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and James Earl Jones
Released: July 19, 2019

Once upon a time, Disney released its “crown jewels” animated films every seven years in theaters to appeal to new and nostalgic audiences. But now that all of them are easily accessible (except for 1946’s problematic Song of the South), Disney is instead developing new versions of the classics. From adaptations with human actors (such as Cinderella in 2015) to ones with human actors alongside Computer Generated Images (such as Dumbo this year), now Disney decided that the video game generation needed their own version of The Lion King. But even using gaming gimmicks, won’t that audience want a faster pace and more action than this slow, over-long preening of technology?

Director Jon Favreau calls the style “photo real”, using techniques further developed since his team’s Jungle Book (2016) won the Oscar and BAFTA for Special Visual Effects. Now they combine virtual reality with CGI, and Favreau even calls it “an entirely new medium”. So cinematographer Caleb Deschanel moved a Steadicam-like rig and a hand-held camera simulator through a virtual African savannah created from photographs generated during the team’s two-week safari in Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve, by Serengeti National Park and around animals studied at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park in Florida. Ironically, all that research just produces furrier versions than in Disney’s original animated The Jungle Book (1967), as directed by one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” Wolfgang Reitherman, as revealed recently in Belgian artist David Claerbout's The Pure Necessity (Die Reine Notwendigkeit) that eliminated the anthropomorphic frames.

The gimmick is impressive at first, for the iconic scene of 86 different species gathering under Pride Rock. We hear James Earl Jones repeat as the King of the Pride voice of Mufasa introducing Simba as a cub (voiced by JD McCrary) while the song “Circle of Life” booms, again sung by Lebo M., who created and produced all the African vocal and choir arrangements. Alfre Woodard adds considerable authority as the voice of the lioness mother Sarabi. The baboon Rafiki (South African actor/director/playwright John Kani) does some sort of shamanistic symbols to support that Simba is the anointed one.

During Simba’s childhood frolicking with young Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph, who has played the same role in the Broadway production), John Oliver provides welcome humor as the protective red-billed hornbill Zazu, with amusing references to his Last Week Tonight when he voices news updates to Mufasa (aka “The Morning Report” in the Broadway show). Attention flags until Mustafa’s jealous brother Scar takes the screen, especially when he carries out his violent scheme in the purplish Elephant Graveyard and Wildebeest Stampede (based on several geographic sources) that will be frightening to young children. Whereas Jeremy Iron’s voice in the original version was pure British Villain, Chiwetel Ejiofor voices an angry, wily, revenge-seeker. His enforcers, the hungry hyenas, are quite threatening, led by Shenzi, meaning savage in Swahili (Florence Kasumba), even with some comic by-play between her flunkies Azizi (Eric André) and the under-used Keegan-Michael Key voicing Kamari.

Simba’s exile, where he grows into the voice of Donald Glover, is set in a beautiful environment inspired by Mount Kenya. Young kids may not get Simba’s conversion from carnivore to insectivore amidst the familiar “Hakuna Matata” lifestyle promoted by meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner makes the audience wish for the return of Nathan Lane) and the warthog Pumbaa (whose name I did not know means “silly” in Swahili) and is not that funny as voiced by Seth Rogen. A brief reference to another Disney classic is amusing.

There are restless fans who will be waiting for Nala to grow up to be voiced by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and duet “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, with no lip-synching animation attempted as the lion and lioness romp in a not particularly VR-impressive way. But Oscar-eligible, because it is integrated into the film, will be her new anthemic song “Spirit”, that she co-wrote, and opens with Swahili chanting which means “Long Live the King”. The song will also be on the companion album Beyoncé curated The Lion King: The Gift that features music from African artists, so could be like Lebo M.’s companion album to the original film, Rhythm of the Pride Lands.

If the young audience lasts this long to hear it, over the credits is another new song, “Never Too Late”, by the original film’s songwriting team of Elton John and Tim Rice; Elton’s singing is accompanied by Lebo M.’s African vocals with choir (whose singing members are not identified in the credits even as everyone else involved in the animation and effects seems to be listed). Stick through all those listings (or access the soundtrack) to hear Lebo’s wonderful versions of “He Lives in You” (from the Broadway version) and “Mtube”, which correctly credits Solomon Linda as the original writer of what is heard earlier as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Too bad no visuals accompany them.

This “re-imagining”, as Disney labels it, isn’t quite as drastic as re-doing a black-and-white film as a color version on the theory that young folks won’t watch monochrome art, but the technological gimmickry barely justifies the production, except as an excuse to see it in a theater.

NB: This review is in fulfillment of Disney’s requirement that I post a review in order to be kept on their invitation list for press screenings.

July 15, 2019/updated July 17, 2019

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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