The Lion King (2019) review

THE LION KING

Director: Jon Favreau
Cast : Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph
Genre : Family/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 18 July 2019
Rating : PG

            Disney’s string of live-action remakes continues with a movie that is technically a photo-realistic computer-animated remake but is for all intents and purposes a live-action one. The Lion King is sure to rule the box office, but is the sojourn back to Pride Rock worth it?

The story is by now almost universally known: King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) have a baby, Simba (JD McCrary). Mufasa’s brother, the conniving Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), seethes at being further bumped down in line for the throne. He orchestrates a series of events that leads to Mufasa’s death. Simba, believing that he should be blamed for his father’s death, escapes into exile.

He is rescued by the meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and the warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), whom he befriends. The now-adult Simba (Donald Glover) has led a largely carefree existence since running away. He is visited by his childhood friend Nala (Beyoncé), now an adult lioness. She pleads with him to return to the Pridelands to dethrone Scar, who with his army of hyenas has turned the once-lush territory into a desolate wasteland. Simba must overcome the trauma of his past to become the one true king.

There hasn’t been a lot of nuance in the discussion of this film, which has, like several recent Disney live-action remakes, stirred up some strong feelings. There are those who welcome this with open arms because it gives them a chance to relive the original animated movie in a new way, and others who have described this as a soulless cash-grab. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but perhaps closer to the latter, because it’s true that live-action remakes need to justify their existence. Despite the obvious technical proficiency and the stellar voice cast behind this version of The Lion King, the film still struggles to prove that it isn’t a largely unnecessary venture.

What does pretty much the same movie as the 1994 version, only looking like a nature documentary with animals that somehow talk and sing, add to the original? Not very much. The direct comparison would be The Jungle Book, which was also directed by Jon Favreau. This reviewer enjoyed that film and liked how it changed the tone and mood of the original animated film from old-timey variety show to exciting adventure movie. The 2019 Lion King stays mostly faithful to the original film directed by Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers and even though it is 30 minutes longer, not very much is added to the story or the characters.

It’s difficult to grade this movie on its own merits because, being such a close adaptation of the 1994 version, it actively invites comparisons. This is probably the easiest paycheck screenwriter Jeff Nathanson has earned, because of how closely it hews to the screenplay of the original by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton.

One of the major things that is sacrificed in striving for photo-realism is the original film’s use of colour. Behind-the-scenes footage of the 1994 movie shows animators discussing the shade of pink that a sunrise should be – that movie demonstrates an understanding of how colours can be used to set the scene and influence the viewers’ emotions. Here, not only is the palette limited, but the characters’ range of motion is largely bound to what the real-life animals are capable of. Favreau has roped in many talented collaborators, including Director of Photography Caleb Deschanel and visual effects supervisor Robert Legato, but because “realism” is the watchword, the film’s dynamism is severely limited.

Just how important is “realism” to the story of The Lion King anyway? Audiences must already buy that the animals talk and sing and behave in human-like ways, so how much does it help that their fur is immaculately rendered or that their ears twitch in a certain way? The Lion King was adapted into a stage musical, which has become the highest-grossing musical in history. Artistically, it is in many ways the opposite of this live-action film. Using puppetry, masks and costumes, the musical interprets the animated movie in an eye-catching, dynamic way and is anything but literal. Julie Taymor, who directed the stage version, executive-produced the new movie – it made this reviewer hope for something a little bit wilder and more experimental than what we got.

There still is a lot this movie gets right. The music was one of the animated film’s biggest assets, and that’s the case here too. The score by Hans Zimmer, which builds upon the original score he composed with Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin, contains some of the composer’s most evocative work. Traditional African music and choir elements arranged by Lebo M add texture and dimensions to the movie’s sound, while all the songs Elton John and Tim Rice wrote for the original animated film remain intact.

John and Rice wrote a new song, “Never Too Late”, which John performs over the closing credits. Beyoncé and Rice wrote “Spirit” – while it is a good showcase of her vocal prowess, the song doesn’t quite have the power of the songs originally written for the animated movie and the songs added for the stage musical that are absent here. Still, the influence of the music used in the stage show is felt here, with the songs sounding a bit less pop-like than they did in the original film.

The voice cast is excellent across the board, but because the characters are so limited in their expressions and mannerisms, it is sometimes hard to believe that the voices belong to these characters, the awareness that they’re just dubbed over the CGI footage frequently present.

Glover captures the playfulness of the adult Simba with the self-searching sorrow lurking underneath, while Beyoncé sounds suitably regal as Nala. JD McCrary is lively as young Simba, with “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” being one of the more enjoyable sequences in the film.

Getting James Earl Jones back was the right move, as it seems unthinkable that anyone could match the sonorous authority and underlying warmth of his Mufasa.

While Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a slinky performance that carries a good amount of Shakespearean menace with it, he ultimately falls short of the dripping deliciousness that made Jeremy Irons’ performance as Scar so memorable.

Timon and Pumbaa get the most new material, as well as the film’s biggest laughs. Billy Eichner brings self-conscious neuroses to Timon, while Seth Rogen’s guttural laugh fits Pumbaa nicely. One of the film’s darkly funny bits involves Pumbaa and an unfortunate butterfly.

This reviewer was most looking forward to John Oliver as Zazu – this is casting that’s both incredibly obvious and sublime in its perfection. He’s great as Zazu, but there are no surprises, it’s just John Oliver.

In a way, that applies to most of this film: there are several good choices being made, but there are no surprises in the way they turn out. A story like The Lion King doesn’t need to be reinvented, but this movie’s faithfulness to the animated original means that like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before it, it’s overly concerned with hitting all its marks and not trying anything new. The photorealistic CGI is the result of plenty of hard work from armies of artists and technicians and will push filmmaking technology forward, but here, it’s not in service of telling the story in an engaging way. It may sound dismissive, but it comes down to this: there’s enough to like in The Lion King simply because it reminds us of something we already like.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Lion King musical (Singapore, 2018)

THE LION KING

Marina Bay Sands Theatre, Singapore
27 June – 23 September 2018

Photo by Jedd Jong

In 2014, the Lion King stage musical overtook The Phantom of the Opera to become the highest-grossing title in the history of stage and screen. This reviewer has a soft spot for Phantom, but it’s hard to deny that The Lion King’s crown as ruler of Broadway and beyond is well-deserved.

After a record-breaking eight-month-long engagement in 2011, The Lion King returns to Singapore. The show is based on the now-classic 1994 Disney animated film of the same name. It’s a story so familiar that it’s almost redundant to synopsise it, but here’s the short version: Simba, son of King Mufasa, must face the destiny he’s been running from after surviving a tragedy engineered by his power-hungry uncle Scar. Nala, Simba’s childhood friend-turned-love-interest, must convince the rightful king to reclaim the throne and fight for the good of all the animals who inhabit the Pridelands.

While most Disney Theatrical adaptations of animated films are largely literal and generally resemble their source material, director Julie Taymor leapt far out of the box for The Lion King. The film’s anthropomorphised animals are realised through puppets of various designs and functions.

Photo by Joan Marcus ©Disney

Pulling from various cultural influences and melding them into a hypnotic whole, Taymor adopted an approach that incorporates Balinese and Javanese dance, Bunraku-like puppetry, shadow puppetry and masks. It’s a visually stimulating experience. As the line in “Circle of Life” goes, “there is far too much to take in here” – and “too much” is just the right amount.

The film’s memorable songs by Elton John and Tim Rice are supplemented with additional songs by the duo. Further shaping the unique soundscape is African choral music by Lebo M., and expansions on the film’s score by Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin. It’s eclectic and just as it is with the visuals, the disparate influences of the show’s score could’ve been an inchoate mishmash, but it is just the opposite. The stage is flanked by two percussionists playing African and Latin drums, adding a textural layer to the music from the orchestra pit.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Right from the get-go, The Lion King is an emotional experience. The show begins with the mandrill Rafiki issuing the cry “Nants ingonyama! bagithi Baba!” – Zulu for “Here comes a lion, father”. The sun rises over the Pridelands as creatures big and small flood onto the stage. The visual dynamism, the inventiveness of the puppet designs and the physicality of the performers are all established in the powerful opening number.

This is a show that asks a lot of its performers. The core concept is that of the ‘double event’, meaning the actors who are manipulating puppets must, in a sense, perform the role twice, as both they and the puppet are visible. The choreography by Garth Fagan strikingly evokes the forms of each animal the performers are representing, and despite not literally resembling the beasts, the overall effect created by the performers and puppets is easy to buy into.

Ntsepa Pitjeng is a veteran of the production, having played Rafiki in the U.S., U.K., Brazil, China and Switzerland. The character is male in the animated film but was reimagined as female based on Taymor’s desire for more female characters in the show, and informed by how many healers and spiritual leaders in traditional African cultures across the continent are women. Pitjeng essays Rafiki’s signature blend of mischief and wisdom accumulated over the years with a crowd-pleasing performance that is rousing yet subtle when it needs to be.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Jonathan Andrew Hume, who has been with the U.K. ensemble since 2001 and who first played Simba in Singapore in 2011, returns as the protagonist. Hume delivers a passionate performance, capturing Simba’s joie de vivre and the conflict that is rooted deep within him. It can be read that all the gleeful pouncing about is merely a façade to conceal the hurt that Simba carries with him from his past. Hume’s soaring delivery of the ballad “Endless Night”, which starts out mournful then turns hopeful, is brilliant.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Noxolo Dlamini delivers an elegant turn as Nala, displaying precision in her lithe physicality and creating beautiful lines of movement. The yearning comes through in her part of the duet “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, and Dlamini’s portrayal of someone rediscovering a long-lost friend is gently affecting.

The roles of Young Simba and Young Nala are shared between three actors each, who joined the cast during the show’s previous stop in Manila. At our performance, Young Simba was played by Julien Joshua Dolor, who is energetic, wide-eyed and loveable. The excitement and wonderment, soon to be dashed, is integral to the portrayal of Young Simba. Alas, Uma Naomi Martin, while also adorable, is noticeably stiffer as Young Nala. We don’t take joy in criticising child actors, but Dolor comes off more naturally than Martin does.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile’s Mufasa is one of the highlights of the cast. Khanyile projects the dignity of a king and the warmth of a father, a father who desperately wants to prepare his son for the duties of leading the Pridelands but is unaware of just how little time he has left. Khanyile’s delivery of “He Lives in You” is heartfelt, and his delivery of the message Mufasa’s ghost has for Simba, coupled with the stunning presentation of that scene, is awe-inspiring.

Photo by Joan Marcus © Disney

Scar is one of those villain roles that affords actors the chance to ravenously chomp the scenery, which Antony Lawrence happily partakes in. He stalks across the stage, sneers and turns the campiness up to eleven. Scar’s articulated mask enhances Lawrence’s snarling expressions. Lawrence’s Scar could stand to be a touch more menacing, but it’s an enjoyable performance all the same.

Photo by Jedd Jong

André Jewson handily (wingily?) steals the show as Zazu, the fussbudget majordomo and loyal aide to Mufasa. He accurately captures the worrywart hornbill’s vocal inflections and does remarkable physical work, influenced by mime and clown traditions. As a comedic character, Zazu chips away at the fourth wall with his beak, making Singapore-specific references and winks at pop culture. Such jokes were greeted with uproarious laughter, but they can pull one out of it a little, and momentarily make this transcendent work of art feel like a show at a theme park.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Timon and Pumbaa are to Simba what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to Hamlet. Kids are bound to love the double act. Jamie McGregor’s neurotic Timon is the ideal counterpoint to Pierre van Heerden’s easier-going, notoriously flatulent Pumbaa. The contrast in the physicality, like Laurel and Hardy or C-3PO and R2-D2 before them, is integral to the humour derived from seeing the pair onstage.

Vuyelwa Tshona, Liso Gcwabe and Mark Tatham portray Scar’s henchmen, the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed respectively. While their performances cannot be faulted, the hyena costumes are this reviewer’s least favourite. There’s a distracting gap between the head and the body, they seem kind of floppy and just don’t have the same efficiency in the design as some of the other costumes/puppets in the show. The hyenas’ number “Chow Down”, completed with electric guitar riffs, is the most incongruous in the show.

Photo by Deen van Meer © Disney

The Lion King is a show with so many moving parts, a show that’s so technical, and yet its overflowing with resonant emotion and never feels like an impersonal assemblage of sets, props and costumes. The show packs in jaw-dropping spectacle, but never loses sight of the themes of facing one’s past and the father-son relationship at the heart of the story. 21 years after its Broadway premiere, The Lion King is still a crowning achievement of stagecraft and still has the power to move audiences to tears.

Jedd Jong

Pride Rock of Ages: The Lion King musical press call

For inSing

PRIDE ROCK OF AGES: THE LION KING MUSICAL PRESS CALL

inSing is transported to the plains of Africa for a peek at The Lion King musical

By Jedd Jong

“Nants ingonyama! bagithi Baba!”

That’s the evocative cry by Lebo M. which opens the 1994 animated film The Lion King. It’s Zulu for “Here comes a lion, Father” –  and several lions have arrived back at the Marina Bay Sands Theatre in Singapore.

The Lion King stage musical premiered in 1997 and took the world by storm. It has gone on to become the world’s top-grossing musical, and when it first came to Singapore in 2011, enjoyed a record-breaking eight-month-long run.

The show features an eclectic blend of music, incorporating the expanded film score by Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin, songs by Elton John, Tim Rice, Lebo M., director Julie Taymor and Robert Elhai.

Even more than its sound, it is the look of The Lion King that has captivated theatre-going audiences around the world. Taymor approached translating the animated film to the stage with a specific vision, incorporating puppetry inspired by traditional Balinese, Javanese and Japanese dance and theatre. Technical innovations were married with a variety of cultural inspirations, creating a unique theatrical presentation.

Loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Lion King tells the story of Simba, who suffers a tragic loss in his childhood and must return to rescue the kingdom he has fled, where his evil uncle Scar now rules.

The 2018 international tour presented by The Michael Cassel group in association with Disney Theatrical Productions enjoyed a run in Manila before transferring to Singapore. There’s an emphasis on ‘international’ – cast members from 19 countries including South Africa, New Zealand, Mexico, China, Australia, and the United Kingdom comprise the ensemble.

This iteration of the show began with casting and rehearsals in South Africa, with the participation of co-composer Lebo M and the show’s original director Taymor.

“It’s been quite an adventure, a lot of milestones, too many to remember,” Lebo said wistfully.

When Lebo M. was brought into the studio by Hans Zimmer to sing a demo, the animated film didn’t even have an official title yet. What could’ve been just another gig for the South African singer wound up changing his life. “It turns out that the demo I did, “Nants ingonyama”, what you hear around the world for the last 25 years is exactly what it was when we did the demo. Two takes.”

It’s clear that even after all this time, Lebo M. is deeply attached to the show. “It keeps you very busy, keeps you fresh, you don’t feel like you’re doing the same thing for 22 years,” he remarked, adding that “when you have a project like this, it’s very hard to do something else.”

Michael Cassel and Lebo M.

Australian producer Michael Cassel also has a history with the show – he was responsible for setting up Disney Theatrical in Australia at age 21 in 2002. “It’s where I learned how to be a producer,” Cassel said of The Lion King. Cassel promises that the experience that audiences watching the show in Singapore will get is exactly the same as what they can expect from a Broadway or West End production of The Lion King. “It’s the same show. There are no changes, no compromises, no reductions to the show,” Cassel declared. He added that interest in the Singapore season has already “exceeded expectations”.

At the press call, the opening number “Circle of Life” was performed. It’s a truly overwhelming piece in which audiences first witness the various types of puppetry and movement used to bring animals from cheetahs to elephants to life. Right out the gate, the show’s magic embraces the audience.

“I love watching the reaction of the audience during “Circle of Life”. I’ve seen grown men cry,” dance captain Theresa Nguyen commented.

The show is a physically intensive one that requires its performers to be skilled in multiple disciplines. “We have some of the best dancers in this company, so I was very fortunate to start with highly technical, highly trained and very strong performers,” Nguyen said of the ensemble. “It’s a real challenge to put on a puppet on your head, or a cheetah on your back, or to carry heavy shields and dance and tell a story.”

For Jonathan Andrew Hume, who plays Simba, returning to Singapore with The Lion King holds a special significance. Hume joined the ensemble of the show in the West End in 2001, and worked his way up to audition for the role of Simba in 2010. In 2011, he starred as Simba when the show came to Singapore.

“To be able to come back to Singapore to do the show which is so special to me, it was my crowning of being Simba, I really feel like I’m coming home,” Hume said. Things have come full circle for him – a circle of life, if you will.

Speaking about the international cast and crew, Hume said “We rely on each other, we support each other and we respect each other – not just onstage, but offstage. That kind of relationship only breeds a beautiful performance that you see every single day on the show.”

Noxolo Dlamini and Jonathan Andrew Hume

Noxolo Dlamini stars opposite Hume as Nala, Simba’s childhood friend-turned-love-interest. This writer asked about her reaction to Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, which recently brought cultural elements from across the African continent to mass audiences.

“Watching Black Panther was absolutely incredible because I’m from South Africa and it was lovely to see me being represented in a Hollywood film, and The Lion King is just the same,” Dlamini observed. “It’s beautiful because we love to share our culture, and I think with any culture all around the world, it’s so beautiful to see people appreciate your culture.”

The many demands of the roles require the cast to be in peak physical condition. “I try to eat well. Singapore has such good food and I love good food, but I also need to remember that I have a job to do,” Dlamini quipped with a laugh. “It’s just remembering that I need to keep in shape and I need that corset to fit me over the next three months,” she said, adding “I do it for Nala.”

The father-son relationship between Mufasa and Simba is at the emotional core of the show. Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile, who plays Mufasa, drew on his personal background for his interpretation of the role. “I come from a very spiritual family and tradition myself, as a Zulu man. I believe in my ancestors as well. It helps to have that connection when Mufasa has to impart his life lessons and his traditions and his spirituality to Young Simba.”

Antony Lawrence and Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile

Even out of costume during our interview, Khanyile projects the ideal blend of regalness and warmth. Speaking about how Mufasa must be both a king and a father, Khanyile mused “it’s a balance that he has to find. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know he’s running out of time, but he has a sense that he has to get this message across to [Simba] now. He has to take the mask off at certain points and be a father and just not be the king at all, and there’s a different Mufasa that comes out in that instance.”

Khanyile takes the expectations audiences will have of him in his stride. “Everyone remembers the first time they saw The Lion King, and when Mufasa dies, how they felt,” he said. “Having that as something that I am entrusted with to give to an audience eight times a week is a huge responsibility.” Rather than being daunted by it, Khanyile is empowered by the expectations. “I know that I have to do the best and I know that I have to enjoy it, because if I’m enjoying it, then the audience gets to enjoy the character as well,” he explained.

English actor Antony Lawrence plays Scar, the villain of the piece – or, as this writer likes to refer to the character, ‘Clawdius’. Lawrence identified Scar as marking a turning point in the chronology of Disney villains, who had earlier mostly been cackling witches. “He has his scary moments, but then he’s incredibly funny and incredibly sarcastic and he’s witty and he’s charming,” Lawrence observed. “He’s not just evil, there are all these other layers to him.”

Scar derives pleasure from manipulating others so he can get a rise out of them. “He loves winding Zazu up, he loves winding Mufasa up,” Lawrence said. “If he makes his brother snap, all of a sudden the king’s not acting very king-like, and he made that happen.”

For a show with so many moving parts, there are bound to be the occasional snags, but Lawrence and his castmates roll with the punches. “If something happens, the important thing is to stay in character and use it in a way,” he reasoned. “My mask can sometimes be a bit temperamental and if it moves by itself, I just go with it.”

Zazu, the king’s majordomo, represents the colonial presence in Africa and is a caricature of a stuffy English butler. Australian actor André Jewson portrays the supercilious hornbill. He recalled being “blown away by the inventiveness and beauty of the production” when he first saw The Lion King during a family holiday to Sydney. Dressed in a bowler hat and tails, sporting white and blue facepaint and manipulating a Zazu puppet, Jewson sticks out from the rest of the cast, and that’s by design.

“He’s very erect, he’s like a butler or even a waiter – the arm [held out in front of him] is like a waiter in a posh restaurant with a white napkin over the arm,” Jewson said as he demonstrated the Zazu puppet for the press. Jewson summed up Zazu’s traits as “twitchiness, reminiscent of fight, of flight, bird characteristics melded with this posh Englishman.” Jewson said that acting with the puppet felt awkward for the first month of rehearsal, but after that point, it all became muscle memory.

The puppets were designed by Taymor and Michael Curry – Curry recently devised the Sven reindeer costume for Disney Theatrical’s latest Broadway musical, Frozen. A core concept of the presentation of the Lion King musical is the ‘double event’ – the actors operating the puppets are not hidden, so the expressions and movements of the actors, in addition to the way they manipulate the puppets, informs the character.

Tim Lucas Tan and Doc Zorthian

Tim Lucas Tan is the head of the puppet department. He was inspired to get into modelmaking by the Star Wars films, and is a part of the Singapore-based animatronics effects and specialty costume studio Core Crew FX. “A lot of the stuff that was used the make the puppets was cutting-edge technology that’s now the norm,” Tan said. The puppet department is on high alert during the show to ensure everything is shipshape. “This show runs at a particular speed and pace,” Tan noted. “Should anything happen, we need to get it fixed on the side and get it to work.”

Production supervisor Doc Zorthian was the original stage manager for The Lion King on Broadway in 1997 and has been a fixture of the show ever since. “Everything is so unique. Everything is designed so specifically, and yet it’s like a simple stroke,” Zorthian enthused. “You don’t really realise how powerful the details are, and when the details are missing, it loses such an impact.”

Over 20 years on, Zorthian still finds the magic in the routine. “We’ll rehearse it and rehearse it, but that first preview when there’s an audience in the auditorium for the first time, I still get chills,” he said. “There’s an energy in the room and your body just tingles. I’m still trying to figure out what it is, but it’s so electric and so exciting. People really react to it.”

Before The Lion King returns to the big screen in 2019, in the form of a photo-realistic CGI remake directed by Jon Favreau, audiences in Singapore can venture into the Pridelands at the MBS Theatre. The Lion King is now playing until 26 August 2018. Tickets start from $65 (excluding $4 booking fee). Visit https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/lionking0918 for tickets.