Review – Hakuna Reboota (“The Lion King”)

Looks like director Jon Favreau is Disney’s go-to guy in taking Disney’s classic animated feature films and converting them to “live action“. I say “live action” only in the vaguest of terms, because these remakes/reboots aren’t really live action; there’s no living, breathing, REAL animals in them! They’re all CGI.

Directing Disney’s 2016 “live action” Jungle Book CGI remake (okay, the humans were real… I think), Favreau is back at the helm to take on 1994’s The Lion King, one of Disney’s best known and beloved animated feature films. If you’re like me, you’ve got to ask “Was was this movie even necessary?” Everyone already knows the music, the story, and probably saw the stage musical. In a practically shot-for-shot remake, this film is exactly like the animated feature with a few variations scattered about here and there; it’s like listening to your favorite Beatles song, only done by another band and in minor key. It’s the same tune, only not quite as good.

Visually, however, this “live” version is jaw-dropping, stunning, and shocking to realize you’re NOT watching real animals! My suspended disbelief disappeared 30 seconds after the film began, as the CGI is completely flawless and SO good, I couldn’t believe they weren’t real. I still can’t. As far as the story goes, it’s the same: young Simba (voiced by JD McCrary) is born to his proud father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role) and mother (Alfre Woodward), and given the “blessing” by local baboon shaman, Rafiki (John Kani). But Mufasa’s evil brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants to kill Mufasa & Simba and take the throne.

Simba escapes into the desert after his daddy is killed, meets BFF’s Timon & Pumbaa (Billy Eichner & Seth Rogan), grows up to be Donald Glover, discovers hakuna matata, gets a head-check by Nala (Beyonce), returns to the Pridelands after a brief talk with cloud-father Mufasa, and then faces-off Scar in a final fight scene. Yeah, yeah, yeah, been there, seen that. Ho-hum. Ya think someone would have thrown in some alternate scenes or diversions just to keep things fresh.   

Minor differences manage to sneak in, like the huge hyena pack being run by Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) and some of the dialoge is changed around, but other than that, you’re watching the same 1994 animated feature film, and in many cases with the same direction, only with a slower pace and with less facial expression from the characters. Remember, you can show a vast range of complex emotions with animation, but with a CG animal face, not so much. True, it looks damn real, but all the ‘cartoony’ fun is lost. Take, for example, the comic relief of Timon & Pumbaa; they’re funny, but no where near as hilarious as Nathan Lane & Ernie Sambella in animated form.

Donald Glover as older Simba sounds (and sings) great, and John Oliver as ZaZu, the majordomo Hornbill, has his moments, but let’s face it, this movie wasn’t necessary. Yes, it’s an achievement in CG that’s light years ahead of anything you’ve ever seen, but remaking a classic like this was a waste of time. Not that director Jon Favreau didn’t have a handle on it, on the contrary, he did a fantastic job of copycatting nearly every single scene from the animated movie. Whether or not you choose to praise that or not is up to you.

The Lion King (1994)

Watching this terrific animated feature film makes you wonder WHY anyone would want to remake it into a ‘live-action’ film. This beloved story, a take on Shakespeare’s immortal Hamlet, is by far one of Disney’s finest animated movies. Featuring a damn good soundtrack, voice talent, and story, it begs to be left alone.

Exquisitely done in hand drawn animation, we see the Pridelands of Africa, and lion king Mufasa (voiced beautifully by James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Madge Sinclair) showing off their newborn baby cub, Simba, to all the thousands of gathering animals. ‘Blessed’ by Rafiki the baboon (Robert Guillaume), young Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) grows up is taught by dad the responsibilities of kingship and the “circle of life”. However, Mufasa’s younger evil brother, Scar (Jeremy Irons), covets the throne and plots to eliminate Mufasa and Simba. Tricking Simba and his BFF Nala (Moira Kelly), he has them venture into the forbidden elephant graveyard where they’re attacked by three hungry hyenas (minions of Scar): Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings).

Rescued by Mufasa and Zazu (Rowan Atkinson), the majordomo of Mufasa, Scar plots again and sets up a second trap with stampeding wildebeests. This works and Mufasa is killed, making Simba think HE was responsible for his father’s death. Running for his life, Simba escapes into the desert and nearly dies, but is rescued by two unlikely animals: a wise-cracking meerkat named Timon (Nathan Lane) and his flatulent warthog buddy, Pumbaa (Ernie Sambella). Together they form a strong friendship that last years.

Older Simba (Matthew Broderick), adopting his new mantra of ‘hakuna matata’, soon meets up with an older Nala who tells him of all the suffering at Pride Rock because of Scar’s new regime. She begs him to go back and put things right, assume the throne as the one true king, and kick Scar’s furry butt out. But Simba, still  racked with guilt, can’t go back. Will Scar win in the end? Will Simba no longer be the apex predator? And what about the Broadway musical? Will THAT ever happen??

Paralleling Hamlet in structure and tone, screenwriters Linda Woolverton, Irene Mecchi, and Jonathan Roberts wrote a script that is NOT dumbed-down to kids like most animated feature films. Deep issues like death, abandonment, responsibility, adulthood, revenge, and more. In a DISNEY movie?? Yeah, in a Disney movie! Besides the dark themes, there’s great the comedy of Nathan Lane’s riffing, the hyenas hijinks, and Rowan Atkinson’s dry English humor. Perfect. Oh, and let’s not forget that music!

Elton John & Tim Rice cranked out some the best songs and scoring since Beauty & the Beast and Aladdin. You just have to look at the vocal talent to see a winning cast, as James Earl Jone’s rich voice intones, “You are my son” to get shivers. . .much like Shenzi does when she hears Mufasa’s name spoken. This movie made ginormous money at the box office, spawned a huge Broadway musical, and two sequels: The Lion King 2, which was terrible, and The Lion King 1 1/2 which, surprisingly, was hilarious.

**Tasty Trivia: This movie also had a major controversy; did the writers steal the story from Japan’s animated 60’s TV series, Kimba, the White Lion? I used to watch that series on Saturday morning as a kid and I gotta tellya, there are many, many similarities. To see them all, check out all the videos on YouTube exploring this issue.

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