The Lion King: Wondrous to behold, slow to watch

Let’s start with the good: this digital remake of The Lion King looks amazing. Truly. The landscapes, the attention to detail, and of course the rendition of the animals themselves, is quite astounding. And that’s the case watching it even in a conventional 2D format. Goodness knows what you’ll think if you catch a 3D version.

And, surely understanding just how their computer wizardry would capture an audience, the filmmakers have let the story breathe with plenty of scenes capturing said landscape. A little mouse takes a long time, a very long time, to scurry across the ground in one early scene. In another, a small piece of Simba’s hair similarly is blown along on another long journey from his hideaway all the way back to Pride Rock. The pridelands are full of colour, on the land and in the sky, and we see every blade and crevice of it, as well as the abundance of its wildlife.

And this, it feels, is more than just window dressing. Most of the audience will have never seen a landscape like this, and maybe, given the degradation of wilderness across the planet, none ever will. So perhaps Lion King works as a piece of wonderful conservationist propaganda, a film showing us how abundant and rich the natural world was, and maybe, just maybe, still can be. It feels like a call to action. The millions of youngsters across the world who will see this film and ask whether they can go to Africa to see where the Lion King lives will be disappointed to hear it may not be like in the movie. What will they do about it?

I don’t know if this was in the mind of The Lion King’s creators, but in any case I think this is where the film works best. The story will be known by many, and this film pretty faithfully follows the path of the original cartoon film from 1994.  Perhaps my memory is a little rose-tinted in regard to the original film, but for me, the voice actors and the music of this new version don’t match up. Sure, musical tastes will shift from one generation to the next, but overall I recall the 1994 film as jauntier, punchier and sharper in its overall delivery. Perhaps the time taken to show us the landscape in this film slowed down the storytelling too much.

Of the voice actors, I was particularly interested to see how transplanted Brit-into-the-USA John Oliver went in the role of Zazu. It took me a while to adjust to him, but in the end I found his almost manic urgency fitted the role rather well. And as for the film’s great comedic duo, Timon and Pumbaa, Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen again, after a slow start, get some momentum up. This was probably always going to be the hardest act to follow from 1994, and while I would still give it to Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella on points, there’s not too much in it.

Director Jon Favreau delivers some decent action scenes, as befitting an actor/director who’s spent so much time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The stampede which costs Mufasa his life, and the final battle between Simba and Skar, are all well done. But for those of us who grew up with the original, or who took our kids to the original, this film doesn’t quite pull it off, for all its technical marvelry. For what it’s worth I saw the film in a packed theatre full of kids, and judging by the reactions I heard, you’d say it was a middling success. It’s a visual wonder, to be sure, but its slow pace makes it drag. Having said that, if this new Lion King inspires a new generation to care about wildlife and preserving it, then it’ll all be worthwhile.

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