By John H. Foote
Let me start with my single complaint. You cannot make a warthog look like a friendly, jolly animal unless you are using animation. Unless it is a cartoon. The animals in this film are hyper-realistic, there is nothing cartoonish about them. But eyes in animated films are truly windows to the soul. Would a child run in fear from the animated Pumba in the 1994 film? No, they loved him. But they might have some issues with the fearsome-looking animal in this realistic version of the same story. If you expect warm and fuzzy forget it, other than baby Simba, not much is cute and cuddly in this version of The Lion King. They have gone for a gritty realistic look and achieved it, rather brilliantly, but at a price.
With the original film, perhaps the greatest in the Disney filmography, the astonishing stage musical created and directed by the gifted Julie Taymor, this marks the third incarnation of the near Shakesperean story of the little lion who would be king. One cannot experience the film without being amazed at the visuals created by director Jon Favreau and his group of artists, it truly is a towering achievement.
I have seen thirteen versions of Macbeth, each one different, most of them very good. I have experienced ten versions of The Crucible, including the fine film, and the two-stage plays I directed. So seeing multiple viewings of a film, however different, is not an issue for me. Do you have any idea how many times my little girls wanted The Lion King put in the video machine? And Sherri and I loaded the machine always, after the grilled cheese incident. I have seen or heard the film at least one hundred times, maybe more and was transported by Julie Taymor’s breathtaking stage musical. Why not a third, why not a live-action, though I despise Disney for their obscene greed.
There is no point telling you the plot, you know it, we all know it and little has changed.
Instead, I will talk about the voice actors, their creations and how the film looks and feels. To say we have seen nothing like this before is correct, we have not unless Avatar (2009) and its humanoid creations count. I knew going in the film would be unique, and it never disappoints.
James Earl Jones was the only actor invited back to voice King Mufasa, father to the lion cub, Simba, voiced by Daniel Glover. Nana, the lioness Simba loves is voiced by Beyonce Knowles, and she does a magnificent job. Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons voiced Scar in the 1994 film but here the deep, resonating voice is Chiwetel Ejiofor, the actor best known for 12 Years a Slave (2013). Irons brought genuine menace to his Scar, drawn as a dark version of Richard III and gave us one of the great Disney villains. Ejiofor is also superb but again, the lack of expression in those eyes takes something away from the performance. Ejiofor is very good, but those eyes need to glint with evil, with menace, and something is missing.
John Oliver, The viciously profane talk show host (who I adore) is wonderful as the fussy pest Zazu, the eyes of Mufasa from the air, telling his King all he needs to hear. With a dizzy fast-paced delivery, Oliver proves to be hugely entertaining.
Pumbaa and Timon were great comic relief as the two misfits who save young Simba in the earlier film. For the aforementioned reasons, they were much-loved characters and very funny. Having the very top of the food chain as one of their own delighted them, but Simba could never know why. Seth Rogen is very good as the wart hof Pumbaa, lack of expression in the eyes made up by his voice work. While Nathan Lane was available to recreate Timon, the wise-ass meerkat, they took a different route and cast Billy Eichner, and he and Rogen bounce off one another like a great comic team.
Yet again, the eyes folks, sorry to harp but it matters.
John Kani is the mysterious, wise baboon Rafiki, and the great Alfre Woodard is Sarabi, widow to the great Mustafa.
Yes, it takes some getting used to hearing these voices say these lines, but if you settle in and give it a chance, the film is often near miraculous. With endless plains on the Serengeti, impossibly blue skies dotted with clouds and jungles teeming with life, the artists have done an extraordinary job creating Africa. Nothing is missed, they pulled a John Hammond and spared no expense. The actors do an incredible job bringing life and soul to the creatures, but I maintain something was missing.
Will it matter? Nope, not even a little bit, this film is going to be a juggernaut at the box office, Blu Rays will be worn out, it is critic-proof.
But this critic is chiming in any way, and while I quibble about the eyes, I concede they found the comedy, drama and very human elements to make this breathtaking, stunning film. With echoes of Richard III, and especially Hamlet, the film feels like a grand Shakespearean tragedy.
And finally that magnificent score from Hans Zimmer. Lush, bold, magnificent it sweeps the viewer into its melodic arms and carries us to Pride Rock to encounter some old, very dear friends.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”