The Lion King review: “a peculiar hybrid of nature documentary and coming-of-age tale”

Marvel at the computer-generated craftsmanship but this "live-action" refit cannot quite match the emotional heights of the Disney animated classic

The Lion King
3.0 out of 5 star rating

After Dumbo and Aladdin, the third of this year’s Disney updates from the company’s rich back catalogue of animated classics brings a “live-action” refit of The Lion King, which is actually anything but. Those lions and hyenas may look incredibly convincing, as indeed does the rugged African landscape where the action unfolds, yet they are, in fact, the result of state-of-the-art computer programming.

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Technically, the achievement is little sort of remarkable, but does it breathe new life into the much-loved tale of a lion cub struggling to live up to the legacy of his late father, the benign lord of a whole African community of furred and feathered folk?

Individual responses to that question may vary, depending on whether you’re fresh to the Hamlet-lite saga of Simba and the dynasty of lions ensconced on Pride Rock, or you already know and love the 1994 original, now regarded as a high-water mark of old-school animation.

Although the new film adds half an hour to the running time, the story elements and splendid songs remain the same, opening with the presentation of the young royal lion cub to the gathered multitudes of tigers, giraffes and flamingos – which looks somehow rather jarring now that the extraordinary menagerie on screen is that bit more realistic.

And there’s the rub. Line-drawn creatures who talk and sing and joke, we’re easily able to accept within the imaginative world of storytelling, yet when every bit of ruffled fur and striving sinew looks so utterly plausible, it becomes a rather peculiar hybrid of nature documentary and coming-of-age tale. The drama itself remains engrossing because it was so well constructed to begin with, yet, especially for those familiar with the animated source, it’s as if there’s a barrier inhibiting our complete surrender.

Director Jon Favreau’s careful approach, sticking closely to many of the original’s indelible images – like Simba’s tiny paw stepping within his dad’s massive footprint – will also possibly be more impressive for newcomers who haven’t seen them before. It’s a shame, though, that there’s not more creativity on display, as there is in a remarkable sequence following a significant wisp of lion fur as it’s wafted on the wind across country.

That said, the villainous hyenas are much scarier this time round, especially when those sharp white teeth are bared, even if Chiwetel Ejiofor’s voicing of Simba’s scheming uncle Scar lacks the ripe theatricality of Jeremy Irons’s prior rendition. Indeed, there’s an abiding sense that emotional expressivity is slightly pared back here, the facial movements limited lest they stray beyond the bounds of believability, whereas the hand-drawn animators back in 1994 obviously weren’t quite so constrained.

All in all, then, it’s hard to imagine anyone being too disappointed by a remake which is true to its original story, and features all the much-loved characters and tunes. Yet, ultimately, it remains just too cut-and-dried to engage our hearts to the fullest degree, however much we can admire the craftsmanship involved.

As Tim Rice and Elton John’s soul-stirring ballad asks, Can You Feel the Love Tonight?, the answer is far from certain.

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The Lion King is released in cinemas on Friday 19th July