“Naaaaaaansi ingonyama, bakithi baba!” There are few more iconic scenes in film history than the first threads of the Circle of Life being played over sunrise at Pride Rock. The iconic anthem of birth and death, composed by Elton John, lyricised by Tim Rice, and originally performed by Carmen Twillie and Lebo M. is played over the presentation of a newborn lion. The animal kingdom gathers as a mandrill holds their new prince out to the kingdom. Elephants trumpet, monkeys chatter, zebras stomp and the sun shines through the clouds onto the cub. It’s magnificent.
In the live-action remake of The Lion King, director Jon Favreau imitates the opening scene in an almost shot-for-shot recreation. In fact, the entire Lion King film follows the 1994 animation original as closely as possible. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t have the same allure.
The Daily Vox attended the South African premiere of the film on July 18. The outdoor screening was held in the biting cold in the heart of winter under the African sky. Hundreds of Disney enthusiasts with the odd celebrity or two gathered to watch the much-anticipated live-action remake of The Lion King. Among the guests were South African performer and composer Lebo M. who worked on the music for the film, and John Kani who plays the wise and eccentric mandrill Rafiki in the film.
The star-studded cast of The Lion King has been one of it’s biggest drawcards. The cast boasts Donald Glover voicing Simba, James Earl Jones as Mufasa, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar. There’s also Alfre Woodard (Serabi), Seth Rogan (Pumba), Billy Eichner (Timon), and John Oliver (Zazu). But the best part is that Favreau, somehow, managed to snag Beyoncé as Nala.
The Hamletesque plot, for those who haven’t seen The Lion King (shame on you!), is timeless. The film follows naive and cocksure, royal cub Simba who lives on Pride Rock with his king father Mufasa, queen mother Serabi, best friend Nala and his pride of lions. Simba just wants to grow up to be king like his father Mufasa. But his meddling, power-hungry (and plain greedy) uncle Scar schemes to overthrow his older brother and seize control of the Pride Lands. Scar’s plan involves heartbreak for the audience.
Cue the tragic scene where Mufasa falls to his death during a stampede in a giant river gorge. It’s even more tragic than when Rose let go of Jack’s hand, allowing him to fall into the icy sea, in Titanic. When Simba says, “C’mon dad, wake up” you can hear the audiences’ hearts breaking.
Anyway, Scar tells Simba it’s his fault that Mufasa is dead and Simba flees his home to live in exile. Here he meets Timone the meerkat and Pumba the warthog where he lives chowing bugs under the carefree motto of ‘Hakuna Matata’. But trouble is brewing at Pride Rock where Scar and his pack of hyenas are over hunting, and decimating the Pride Lands. Nala ventures away from Pride Rock to find food and finds Simba instead. She, along with Rafiki, convinces Simba to go home and overthrow Scar in the fight for his birthright.
The plot is flawless, but there’s not much emotion. Of course, voice acting is no easy feat. Actors have to convey every emotion — joy, anger, sorrow, excitement — using voice inflection. They can’t rely on expression or body language. But while the actors did a decent job let’s be real: a lion or a hyena only has about one or two expressions. It was so weird hearing the voiced over emotion and looking at the lions’ blank faces. At times it felt like watching a really good voiceover on a NatGeo Wild documentary.
Of course, this is because the CGI animation style of the film is nothing short of brilliant. The audience is really transported into the heart of the Serengeti from the Baobab trees to the watering holes and savannah plains. Every animal moves with such realism. It’s picture perfect. It’s almost like watching a more advanced version of the animation style Favreau used in The Jungle Book remake in 2016. This time around, it’s just so realistic that it’s difficult to capture the emotion. Unfortunately, the 25-year ago version was successful because of the emotion.
Where the film does get it right is with the soundtrack, which is phenomenal. It’s real sing-along fare. Donald Glover and Bey singing ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ is everything you never thought you needed. The Queen’s beautiful song ‘Spirit’ is also an excellent addition to the soundtrack. She made the song with Lebo M. and German film score composer Hans Zimmer and it’s a real winner. The only complaint is that at times the film feels like an odd mishmash of a documentary and musical.
If the live action Disney remakes of the past couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that no matter how big budget or famous the cast is, these films will never recreate the same magnificence of the classics. They are simply an exercise in nostalgia, but that’s okay too. It’s probably going to make money.
Heck, Beyoncé is in it. That’s reason enough to watch it.