MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Friday, July 12th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan reviews the latest in the Disney remake train that shows no sign of slowing down. The latest: The Lion King.
MEGAN BASHAM, REVIEWER: Maybe it’s because I still have little people in the house, but I tend to approach the live action remakes of Disney’s animated classics a little differently than a lot of critics. Sure, they’re mostly copies of the originals. Kids could just stay home and watch the old DVDs. But some of those Scrooges must not have kids. They clearly don’t remember how much fun going out to a movie is for them. These remakes may be something of a money grab. But as long as they’re done well, most parents will welcome a family outing to go see them.
While it doesn’t match the appeal of Cinderella or The Jungle Book, The Lion King is, for the most part, done well.
Director Jon Favreau is probably best known for playing Happy in Iron Man, Spider-Man, and The Avengers. Or if you’re really old like me you’ll remember him most fondly from the cult classic Swingers. That movie ushered in a new love for swing dancing among 90s teens. But it’s in his work behind the camera, that Favreau really excels. As with his previous efforts, Elf and The Jungle Book, the PG-rated Lion King shines with innocent humor.
TIMON: It’s a lion! Run for your life, Pumba!
PUMBA: Hey, Timon! Wait! It’s a little lion.
TIMON: It gets bigger.
PUMBA: Can we keep him? Can we please keep him? Oh, oh, oh, OK. I promise. I’ll walk him every day. If he makes a little mess, I’ll clean it up.
TIMON: You’ll be his little mess. He’s going to eat you and then use my body as a toothpick.
PUMBA: One day, when he’s big and strong, he’ll be on our side!
TIMON: I’ve got it. What if he’s on our side? Hear me out! Having a ferocious lion around might not be such a bad idea.
John Oliver makes the part of Zazu the hornbill uniquely his. The character is now a bit of news reporter along with being the cubs’ guardian. And he’s much funnier for it. Seth Rogen’s gravelly, low-register voice feels like it was created especially for the part of an anthropomorphized warthog. And animated menace never felt more chilling than Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the villain Scar.
SCAR: This gorge is where all lions come to find their roar.
SIMBA: All lions? Even my dad?
SCAR: Even Mufasa came here when he was your age. Refused to leave until his roar could be heard above the rim.
SIMBA: All the way up there?
SCAR: That’s when you know you’ve found it. With a little practice, you’ll never be called a cub again.
SIMBA: Watch this. [small roar]
SCAR: You’ll get it, Simba. It just takes time. I’ll check on you later.
SIMBA: Dad will be so proud, won’t he?
SCAR: It’s a gift he’ll never forget.
The best of the bunch, though, is the only returning actor from the 1994 version. You can’t do better than James Earl Jones, so Favreau wisely didn’t try. Mufasa remains as majestic-sounding as always.
Where the film stumbles slightly is in the leads. As we would expect, Donald Glover and Beyonce knock the songs out of the park. But they fall flat whenever they’re not singing.
MUSIC: [Circle of Life]
There’s already a lot of buzz about the visuals. It’s all true. The Lion King is so stunningly realistic, at times you forget you’re not watching a nature documentary. But there’s a downside to this too. Cuddly creatures work so well in animated films because we give them human expressions. Here, even at their happiest or most sorrowful, the characters retain the blank faces of real animals. It robs the film of some of its emotion. And if my screening is anything to go by, that makes it harder for youngsters to connect with them.
That’s a bit of a shame given The Lion King’s tremendous counter-cultural themes. It’s almost Shakespearian in the way it uses classic archetypes to build drama.
A reckless and proud prince fails to heed his kingly father’s lessons. It’s only when he goes into exile after his father dies at the hands of his wicked uncle that he begins to understand his father’s wisdom. While in the wilderness he faces the temptations of cowardly, worldly philosophy. Life is meaningless. We don’t owe it to anyone, not even ourselves, to make the highest, and best use of our abilities. So we should just pursue our own selfish pleasures. Catchy as the tune is, this is what Timon and Pumbaa are really counseling in “Hakuna Matata.” Favreau’s update makes this philosophical conflict marvelously explicit.
MUSIC: [Hakuna Matata]
Eventually, suffering refines the prince’s character. He remembers who he is and returns home, humbled and heroic, ready to wrest his rightful throne away from the usurper who, like a kind of animal Robespierre, has built an army of the envious. Simba seeks traditional order not for his own sake, but for the sake of his people. As Mufasa advises his son, “Most creatures search for what they can get. True kings search for what they can give.” Not a bad paraphrasing of Christ’s lesson that to be great in the kingdom, you must be a servant of all.