How Does the Lion King “Live-Action” Film Compare to the Original?

After 25 years, Disney’s “The Lion King” has reached full circle, making its way back into theaters.

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Disney’s “The Lion King” journeys to the African savanna where future king Simba is born. Simba idolizes his father Mufasa and takes to heart his own royal destiny, but not everyone in the kingdom celebrates his arrival. Scar, Mufasa’s brother and former heir to the throne, has plans of his own. The battle for Pride Rock is ravaged with betrayal, tragedy, and drama, ultimately resulting in Simba’s exile. With help from newfound friends Timon and Pumbaa, Simba will have to figure out how to grow up and take back what is rightfully his.

This film is directed by Jon Favreau, who Disney entrusted with the critically-acclaimed and technologically groundbreaking “The Jungle Book” three years ago. He says that the remake used the same photorealistic computer-generated imagery that his past film did.

It would be wrong to refer to this year’s “The Lion King” as the “live-action” version of the originally animated film because the characters and settings were created by visual effects artists from the Moving Picture Company. However, the images are so photorealistic that it will fool you into thinking that you’re watching a National Geographic documentary about talking and singing animals.

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Like the original animation, the “live-action” film begins with the sun rising over the African savanna, and I had to remind myself every now and then that I was watching illusions stemming from digital work instead of humanly-captured footage from wildlife reserves in Africa. With its life-like impressions, I found it more difficult to convince myself that Pride Lands isn’t an actual region in Africa than to do otherwise.

Even more impressive to see, which will become an understatement upon watching the film, are the different animals inhabiting the Pride Lands. Worthy beyond human acclaim are the intensive details put into every creature for every scene – from the elephant trunk’s square-waved creases to the bones jutting under the skin of a lion’s midsection when striding.

When the animals were foregathering around Pride Rock to celebrate the birth of Simba, there were times when I’d question if huge clusters of real animals were mixed in with computer-generated animals; but unless Disney releases photos and statements about these clusters of animals undergoing training and memorizing choreography soon, I’ll remain basking in this conjunction of awe and disbelief credited to the extraordinary abilities of the film’s digital artists.

An issue, however, that rises with the successfully photorealistic nature of the creatures is the inability to portray human emotions through their animalistic features. What is gained in realism is lost in expression.

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In the animated film, it was easy to note the dispositions of the characters simply because they flashed their teeth when happy and frowned when upset. Considering the computer-generated film’s dedication to establishing physically life-like characters, this similar easiness is in a different equation. For this version, most of the expressions that ultimately allow the audience to connect with the characters are heavily reliant on the words, tones, and inflections belonging to the voice actors that give life to the animals.

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Luckily, this film was joined by a talented voice cast that surely covered the emotional gap. James Earl Jones entered the studio once again to reprise his role as the majestic Mufasa. Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino, voiced the film protagonist Simba, and the queen herself, Beyoncé Knowles, plays the role of Nala.

Chiwetel Ejiofor voices Scar, giving this antagonist a more bitter yet haunting character compared to Jeremy Irons’ campier interpretation. John Kani voices the wise Rafiki.  Comedian John Oliver plays the fussy Zazu, and Simba’s friends Timon and Pumbaa are played by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen respectively. 

Not only were these voice actors tasked with the challenge of bringing expression to the nearly expressionless features on the characters, but they were also tasked with the even heavier challenge of bringing justice to the film’s classic soundtrack.

The two words that come to mind for this film’s The Circle of Life (Nants’ Ingonyama) by Lindiwe Mkhize and Lebo M. are the words  powerful and majestic, and I do not think it can be described as anything short of those two. Being a huge fan of the film when I was younger, it was difficult to hold back tears upon experiencing the combination of the first few musical notes and the opening visual.

It can be noticed that this film’s I Just Can’t Wait to Be King sung by JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and John Oliver took influences from Broadway’s “The Lion King” in terms of instrumentality. McCrary and Joseph perfectly captured the original’s tone of youthful arrogance and youthful invincibility, and Oliver did excellently as the two’s fastidious opposition.

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A notable difference can be found in this version’s Be Prepared. When news came out that this villainous anthem was not going to be included in the newer version of the film, fans all around the world were quick to express their dismay. Be prepared, however, for this track has not been cut out, but has merely been cut down.

Irons’ interpretation of this song was more theatrical, and in those three minutes, he was able to impose the sly and militaristic character of Scar upon the audience. Ejiofor’s approach with the anthem is very different, but I refuse to call it a terrible variant of Irons’. Ejiofor’s version is more sinister, and almost speech-like. It is so speech-like, in fact, that by the time you realize the song has started, it’s already half-over. Other classics like Hakuna Matata, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and Can You Feel the Love Tonight? remain very close to the original.

Catch Disney’s “The Lion King” in cinemas now. Watch the trailer here: