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The Lion King ••••1/2

Starring: Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Seth Rogen
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman
Animation/Adventure/Drama, Rated: PG
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: July 19, 2019



Scott, are you just lyin’ around, waiting to review this movie?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, all this lyin’ has given me a kingk in my back. Let’s recap.

Disney is back with a ‘live action’ version of one of their most popular films of the 1990’s – Lion King. We are witness to the birth of a new lion cub, Simba (JD McCrary, Donald Glover), who is destined to rule over his father’s (Mufasa, James Earl Jones) kingdom. His uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), feels robbed of the right to be king and is jealous. He lures Mufasa into a canyon where a stampede of wildebeests kills him. And he convinces the young cub Simba that he is to blame.

Now filled with shame, Simba exiles himself to a faraway place where he meets Timon (Billy Eichner) and Poomba (Seth Rogen), a meerkat and a warthog. They teach Simba to “don’t worry” and “be happy”. Meanwhile back home, Scar has colluded with the hyenas to rule the African plane with an iron fist. Simba’s girlfriend Nalla (Shahadi Wright Joseph) is determined to find Simba and return him home where he can ascend to his rightful place on the throne.

Scott, The Lion King is a great story of Shakespearean proportions. The animated version was a box office hit and was part of the revitalization of Disney’s second golden age of animation. The story has been transformed into a stage play that has also been wildly successful.

From a story-telling point of view, it has an unusual formulation. The first act essentially ends with Simba leaving the planes and crossing into the new world of care-free life with Pumbaa and Timon. What’s unusual about this hero’s journey is how long it takes to get to this point. Usually, the ‘crossing of the first threshold’ moment happens at about the 7-minute mark in motion pictures and the ‘main goal’ clocks in around 15 minutes in. In the case of the Lion King, Simba doesn’t meet his new ‘mentors’ until about one-third of the way into the story. And yet, the first act is completely engrossing.

This is a complete Hero’s Journey with Simba’s growth going through two transformations. First he transitions from a cub who is cared for by his father, mother, and other assistants (including John Oliver as Zazu). Then, he becomes independent and care-free with his new life-mentors, Timon and Pumba. And finally, fulfills his destiny after his friend Nala reminds him of his true self and he returns to the Pride Lands to dispatch Scar and his minions and take his rightful place as king of the Pride Lands. It’s a wonderful story.

The label ‘live action’ is a bit of a stretch since all the animals are created with CGI effects. Unlike the animated version, the animals don’t emote as well since the eyes and mouths can’t throw the same wide range of facial expressions their cartoon counterparts have. The action also seemed to be fairly steady rather than having peaks and valleys. I never felt the sense of danger as I did in the original animated version. The voice actors were just wonderful. The return of James Earl Jones as Mufasa brought a smile to my face. Seth Rogan as Timon as very funny. Overall, it was a fun movie that was basically a frame-for-frame reshoot of the original. Which begs the question – why? If the original is just that good, why do we need a live-action version? I don’t have an answer.

Greg, The Lion King has always been one of my favorite Disney stories, and for good reason. There is no film that does a better job of showcasing all the elements of the mythic hero’s journey. Born into a royal family, our hero Simba is promised great things and seemingly has the future in the palm of his, umm, paws. The villainous uncle Scar not only murders Simba’s father but convinces Simba that the cub is to blame for his dad’s death. So our hero is thrust into exile, into a sort-of liminal space where he awaits his transformation to heroism.

This story emphasizes the social nature of heroism. We do not become heroes in a social vacuum; rather, we are “nudged” by others toward enlightenment and understanding about our true calling. Simba is first nudged by Timon and Pumbaa, then shown his “true” royal pedigree by Rafiki, and is finally urged to return home by Nalla. The transformed hero’s journey home is always the goal in any great hero story. After discovering his true self, Simba, much like Odysseus in classic myth, goes home to rule his kingdom.

Like you, Greg, I was curious about whether we are watching real or CGI animals, and the answer I got is that this film is a “photorealistic computer animation”. The film uses virtual reality technology and employs some techniques that would typically be called animation, and other techniques that would typically be called live-action. The result is a kind of fascinating realism that we know isn’t “real” yet keeps us a safe distance from the disturbing “uncanny valley”. I know this version of The Lion King has been criticized for its photoanimation but I found it to be stunning and inspiring.

So, Greg, you ask why did we need this remake of The Lion King?  The answer is, of course, we don’t. It’s all about the money. I suppose seeing near-real animals is a fun and interesting departure from the 1994 animated version, but it isn’t really necessary. Still, I’m glad this remake of the film was made because otherwise I’d probably never see Lion King again. It’s nice to have an excuse to see one of the best hero’s stories ever told by Disney.

The Lion King is a nice remake of the original despite its problems. I liked the CGI but felt that the new version lacked the emotional punch of the original. The story is the same, as is virtually every scene. The quality of the filmmaking is simply breathtaking. Yet, I can’t give it full marks because the original was so good. I give Lion King 2019 just 4 Reels out of 5.

Simba is a classic and mythic hero. Resembling King Arthur in many ways, he starts out entitled, falls from grace, and returns to claim his birthright. It’s the arc of the prodigal son, and so many others. While it doesn’t inform our everyday lives, it is a great heroic tale which I can give 4 out of 5 Heroes.

I see three messages in this film. First, that we’re all part of a universal “circle of life.” The second message of “Hakuna Matata” resonates with every generation – that we need to kick back and enjoy life. Also the message that we need to step to our responsibilities. These messages (in this film at least) seem related to the phases of Simba’s life as a child, then an adolescent, and finally as an adult. I’ll give them 4 out of 5 Message points.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

The Lion King is one of those can’t-miss movies. There is no better hero story, no stronger illustration of the hero’s journey, and no greater heroic redemption in the Disney franchise. Much has been said about the animated version’s superior depiction of facial expressions in the animals, but my preference is for realism in the animal kingdom. This version of The Lion King delivers in terms of storytelling, pacing, realism, and heroism. I give the film the full 5 Reels out of 5.

I’m already noted the near-perfection of the hero’s journey here. Simba undergoes one of the most powerful heroic transformations in the history of hero storytelling. With a little help from his friends, he evolves into the strong, courageous, wise leader he was always meant to be. I give Simba’s heroism the full 5 Hero points out of 5.

Greg, you’ve nicely summarized the powerful messages from Lion King. Be careful whom you trust, be open to receiving help, don’t avoid being who you really are, don’t let villainous people get away with bad behavior, and perhaps most importantly, be sure to honor the circle of life. I also give these important life lessons the full 5 Message points out of 5.

Movie: Message: Heroes: