Movie Review: ‘The Lion King’

Going into The Lion King remake, it’s easy to be both bounding with excitement and inwardly seeping with contempt. For those that grew up with the original, this is pure nostalgia, one of the greatest animated movies ever made. How could we ignore a big-screen reimagining of such a beloved story? At the same time, resentment comes naturally. Why mess with perfection? The “why” may never have a satisfying answer outside of the obvious impending box office domination. But nevertheless, there’s plenty of value and beauty stemming from this new retelling.

Directed by Jon Favreau, the screenplay is pretty much a beat-for-beat, scene-for-scene take on the original. Structurally, the key difference here is the runtime. At a brisk 89 minutes, the 1994 classic zooms by, not an ounce of fat weighing it down. Here, it’s as if every scene is just slightly padded, with the final product clocking in at exactly two hours. Slight bloat aside, fans will be happy to see all of their favorite songs and the original’s treasured dialogue present and well taken care of. This remake has nothing but love for the work that came before it, and it shows.

With almost no new scenes and little narrative reworking, the big standout here is the film’s brand-new look. A photo-realistic CGI reboot, The Lion King often feels like National Geographic come to life. The hyper-realistic look is both gorgeous and jarring. A visual safari wonderland, there’s no doubt that Disney has achieved something groundbreaking here. But with this new facelift comes some unfortunate side effects. The hand-drawn images of the original allowed a certain creative freedom that gave a heart-wrenching expressiveness to the face of every character. What should come as a surprise to no one, real-life jungle animals lack the nuance of human facial expressions. Simply put: lions don't emote. As such, it takes a bit of an emotional hit. Luckily, the absolutely stellar cast makes up for what is lost.

Featuring the voices of James Earl Jones, Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Chiwotel Ejiofor, John Oliver, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, this star-studded cast breathes new life into the characters we already know so well. As Pumbaa and Timon, Rogen and Eichner are an utterly delightful comic pairing. Their voices feel so natural in the roles, with their back-and-forth riffing (which includes some of the film’s freshest new jokes) coming off as if it's been improvised. Likewise, Ejiofor’s Scar is a stunning standout, dripping with both menace and a distinct disinterest. With perhaps the biggest shoes to fill thanks to Jeremy Irons’ revered voice work in the original, Ejiofor resists the urge to imitate, instead putting a piercing new spin on one of Disney’s most iconic villains.

As always, expectations are key. This is in no way a replacement for the 1994 classic. That’s not a battle this remake wants – or is capable – of getting into. What this latest version does so well, however, is reinvigorate your love of the original. Not through hate -- but as a beautiful and often exhilarating reminder of how deeply this story touched all of our hearts.

The Lion King is now playing in South Florida movie theaters. For showtimes, click here.

Lauren Cohen was born and raised in Miami Beach and graduated from the University of Miami with a bachelor’s degree in Motion Pictures. She has been writing about film since 2009, with her movie reviews and features appearing regularly in and Miami Beach News, among others. She’s interviewed some of the most recognizable faces in the film industry, including Daniel Craig, Emma Stone, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Javier Bardem.

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