IT’S THE CIRCLE OF LIFE!!!

Childhood memories and movies being resurrected for a modern audience; a cycle that has been a staple in Hollywood for the majority of the past decade. The Lion King is the latest money-seeking Disney live-action re-imagining. It started with Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland in 2010, and has roamed through the barren lands of Alice Through The Looking Glass and Maleficent. There have been moments of pride with The Jungle Book, Beauty And The Beast and most notably, Christopher Robin.

Now comes The Lion King. With a timeless tale, an iconic soundtrack and a star-studded voice acting cast, expectations for The Lion King were set sky high. This past Friday, I was able to see my all-time favorite Disney animated movie come to life with my parents and youngest sister at the legendary Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers (no free ads but for sure go because it’s great).

The Lion King is charming and maintains a dazzling visual experience throughout, however unkempt story pacing and lack of a truly emotional punch mellow out this live-action rendition. The voice acting is strong as a whole, and there is literally ZERO denying that Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen are two talents stealing the show as Timon and Pumbaa. Chiwetel Ejiofor as stands out as Scar.

The story of The Lion King does not need retelling. It is known by everyone and it doesn’t change in any dramatic ways. The key touchstones from the original tale are still present, but the same resonance fails crash down on the viewers like in 1994.

Pacing. It’s tough to talk without spoiling, but there are more than a few scenes that are either too fast or too slow. Mainly the latter. It isn’t the classic vignette-problem were the scenes feel scripted for a sole purpose, rather it’s just a hasty overload. Picture a putting popcorn in the microwave, but you are starving and you want it really fast. Rather than waiting the standard time, you shave off some time…only when you take out the snack and become chomping…there isn’t nearly as much popcorn as you’d like. There are still some kernels at the bottom.

That is what I thought about The Lion King. Was the snack good, delicious and wholesome? You betcha. Do I wish that I maybe had more to munch on when I was most hungry? You betcha.

Any re-imagining of a classic story is going to contain some different character makeups. None of the major characters are short changed in The Lion King, but a couple secondary characters are altered. Most notably, Rafiki is more marginalized in this remake. The monkey is arguably the most visually stunning animal in the entire movie, but his over looming “I know everything” ethos is lessened.

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Then there is Shenzi. Folks may remember her from part of the original trio in 1994, but here in 2019, she is the leader of the Hyenas, and she is a completely different type of character. More evil and sinister, Shenzi becomes an antithesis for Sarabi and a menace to Nala. However, she is just not a necessary part of the movie. Everything she does, orders or says can be rewritten to come from Scar. She has scenes where she is the vocal punctuation mark, but her evil character is written in to appeal the masses and it clutters a movie where one main villain and ringer leader is perfectly gratifying.

ALSO, screenplay writer Jeff Nathanson…HOW DO YOU CHANGE THE MOST ICONIC PUMBAA LINE???

Moving on…

But let’s focus on the positives. Let’s praise Billy Eichner. He as Timon is the best animated voice work I can remember since Indina Menzel in 2013’s Frozen. The audience can feel the amount of fun he is having portraying this role and it is intoxicating. His partner in crime, Pumbaa, has the same charismatic performance driven home by Rogen. The rifting the comedic duo has is impeccable, and there is the strong sense that improvisation was strong in the recording studio.

It is no surprise that the biggest laugh of The Lion King comes from the pair of friends. It comes in an homage to another Disney classic, The Beauty And The Beast. The couple lines of dialogue fits in perfectly with the specific scene, and I think Eichner expresses it with the pride of originating with the idea. I haven’t confirmed it yet, but it is without a doubt that Timon and Pumbaa are A-grade material.

I noted in my brief intro that Ejiofor is strong in his voice acting of Scar. Director Jon Favreau and his writing partners added more depth to the antagonist, putting a bit more backstory into the envious predator. It’s a bit of a contradiction for me to say this personally because more than one scene involving Scar sinks into the poorer pacing portion of the film, but it’s not fault of the acting.

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James Earl Jones kills it as Mufasa. That’s undeniable and anyone who disagrees is just being a fool. There are plenty of recognizable voices in The Lion King, all of whom do a strong job bringing their characters to life. John Oliver as Zazu brings his dry British wit, Keegan-Michael Key has his high-pitched frantic voice highlighted in a hyena…and then there is Beyoncé.

She was not bad folks. I am not part of the bee-hive or whatever it’s called, and god forbid I go against them, but she is good in her part of Nala. And I mean in terms of the singing with “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, there is no denying that she can sing. I couldn’t help but get the sense that her vocals were highlighted in this modern rendition compared to Nala’s part in the 1994 original.

As for the strictly Beyoncé solo song that was inevitable, it is fine. “Spirit” is necessarily long and it isn’t pungently forced into the ear drums of the viewers. If I listen to the soundtrack from this movie, I won’t be moving it to the front of queue, but I also won’t be skipping it either.

The Lion King is receiving rather tepid reviews from critics, but no one can deny the special effects. The Lion King’s visual appeal is the most awestruck I’ve been in a movie theater since James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009. As of now, it should dominate the Academy Awards and Golden Globes in the special effects categories. There will be some competition with Avengers: Endgame and the upcoming Star Wars: Rise Of Skywalker, but The Lion King is the leader in the clubhouse.

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The discrepancy between the critics and general audience feelings on The Lion King is rather large. There are fundamental storytelling nit-picks to make, and the dumbing down of certain characters is definitely something that ruffles feathers. In terms of the moving pictures on the silver screen, The Lion King is alluring and inspiring. I am a sucker for the old tale, and this trip down nostalgia road was enjoyable even through the unevenness. See The Lion King, embrace it and use it to remind you what made the original so special.

STANKO RATING: B

The Lion King IMDB
The Lion King Rotten Tomatoes

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