The Lion King and the Great Circle of Nostalgia

The Lion King (2019)
Screenshot: Walt Disney Studios (YouTube )

The year was 1994, and a Tiny Tonja sat in a crowded theater to witness what would become her favorite Disney film, and one of her favorite films of all time. Twenty-five years later, that same film would be reimagined using CGI-animated technology that the younger version of Tonja could’ve never fathomed.

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Jon Favreau takes the reigns as director of The Lion King (2019), which stars Donald Glover (Adult Simba), Beyoncé Knowles Carter (Adult Nala), JD McCrary (Young Simba), Shahadi Wright Joseph (Young Nala), James Earl Jones (Mufasa), Alfre Woodard (Sarabi), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Scar), Seth Rogen (Pumbaa), Billy Eichner (Timon), John Oliver (Zazu), Keegan Michael-Key (Kamari), Florence Kasumba (Shenzi), Eric André (Azizi) and John Kani (Rafiki).

In case you’re itching for a 25-year-old (except shiny and new!) synopsis, here it is, via IMDb:

After the murder of his father, a young lion prince flees his kingdom only to learn the true meaning of responsibility and bravery.

On June 24, I was invited by Twitter to attend a private advanced screening of The Lion King, causing me to convulse into big stan hysterics.

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As time got closer to the screening date (July 10) and as my excitement grew, so did my anxiousness. And I realized something: It was going to be very difficult for me to fairly critique and assess this film in its own right because I feel like it would be impossible to live up to the original, which I hold so near and dear to my heart. After all, a lot of this film is banking on nostalgia. So, the only way I can truly present my thoughts and feelings is if I separate the two, acknowledging the satisfactory balance of paying homage to the old while creating something new.

The Familiar

As soon as the iconic opening chant (which translates to “Here comes a lion, Father; oh yes, it’s a lion”) rumbled through the Dolby speakers at the TCL Chinese Theatre, I knew what time it was. I sunk into my seat with a smile, ready for the gloriousness. My eyes dilated with wonder as I watched one of my favorite film openings replay shot-for-shot (with a few slight differences) in a gorgeous display of crisp and lifelike CGI animation on that huge IMAX screen. Wow.

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Every single fan of the original version breathed a sigh of relief once it was announced that Jones would be reprising his role as Mufasa. Now, while I never expected an echo of his previous delivery, I did notice something seemed much more subdued and quiet about his delivery this time around. I posit that it could be Favreau’s specific direction, Jones’ advanced age or an integration of both. Either way, it made me pause. Not good or bad, but more like a “hmm,” if that makes sense.

McCrary and Joseph have a bit of an advantage, having had experience with the Broadway musical rendition of The Lion King. So, hearing their voices in “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” was like an eerie sense of déjà vu, but with a little bit of McCrary’s added flair (that boy can sing!), which I loved. Plus, McCrary’s voice acting work is so well done (that little growl!). His choked-up little voice during that heartbreaking part—you know the part—had me aww-ing big time. He and Joseph have amazing chemistry.

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The Unfamiliar

Beyoncé’s Nala is definitely more empowered in the current iteration. Not to say she wasn’t in the original—she was the impetus for Simba realizing his place as king—but here, she is not merely a device for the protagonist, but a weapon in her own right. And it was all done in a very Beyoncé manner. In fact, there is one particular action-packed scene where my cousin, Deandre, leaned over to me and whispered with a grin, “Oh my God, it’s like her movie Obsessed.” Oh, and her “Are you with me, lions?” line is totally “Formation.”

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Thankfully, Ejiofor’s Scar isn’t an impersonation of Jeremy Irons’ original. While I will forever cherish the unmatched sarcasm of Irons, Ejiofor takes a bit of that and adds a layer of viciousness not previously seen. For example, the “run away and never return” scene with Simba is punched up so heavily, I found myself cringing. Ouch. Damn, Scar. Yet, it was quite effective as it truly elevated Simba’s journey and arc.

In that same vein, Kasumba’s Shenzi is downright terrifying. She completely transforms Whoopi Goldberg’s snarky Shenzi into someone completely menacing and I actually loved the change. Additionally, Michael-Key and André were a hilarious duo.

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Eichner and Rogen completely impressed me, not only with their camaraderie but their singing (shout-out to Pharrell Williams’ production on the soundtrack, by the way). Also, the big “Hakuna Matata” change made me chuckle, heartily. Other fans of the original will probably appreciate it, too.

Lastly, I do want to touch on the stark differences between the 2D animation original and the more realistic (live-action) CGI animation in this remake. I went in knowing we wouldn’t get the same flamboyant expressions of the original, but I must say I was very impressed by how expressive Simba’s (both young and adult) face was throughout the film without going overboard. Kudos to the animation team for that.

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The Afterparty

The Lion King post-screening afterparty hosted by Twitter
Photo: Tonja Stidhum (The Root)
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Following the screening, we were treated to a delightful afterparty with food, photos and a panel featuring Eichner, Rogen, Kasumba, Woodard, Ejiofor and Favreau. Then a second panel followed focusing on one of the most significant aspects of the film: the music. Favreau returned for that panel along with Lebo M (That aforementioned chant you hear at the beginning of “Circle of Life?” That’s him.) and (Oh my God, I kind of stanned out at this part, as he’s my all-time favorite composer) Hans Zimmer.

The Lion King post-screening panel hosted by Twitter.
Photo: Deandre Smith
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Surprisingly, one of the most interesting parts of the panel involved Chance the Rapper.

“It was a real game of understanding how people who knew [the original film] well would receive it and the guy that actually helped the most with that was Chance the Rapper,” Favreau recalled. “Donald Glover said [to me], ‘this is the biggest Lion King fan you’ll ever meet.’ So, [Chance] came by [...] and I showed some footage and it was so interesting watching him watch [it] because he hung on every word, he mouthed along with it. He knew what we changed.”

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I can relate. While watching, I found myself subconsciously counting the beats in this remake, comparing it to the original (certain moments moved much faster than the original animated film). I can’t help it, I’ve seen the film so many times I could perform it as a solo act—songs, ad-libs and all.

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Plus, here’s a fun fact: Chance voiced a bunch of the animals (most notably, a nervous antelope) during Timon and Pumbaa’s sequence within the grub paradise. Oh, and here’s another fun fact: Lebo initially recorded a demo for the chant in the opening sequence and that first-take was later used in the original film. A more fun fact: That very same demo was used in this remake. Talk about perfection.

Speaking of perfection, to wrap the afterparty, Lebo, Clydene Jackson and The Lion King choir treated us to a rousing live rendition of “The Circle of Life” that left the entire room shook with emotion. It was otherworldly. It moved us all.

Lebo M, Clydene Jackson and The Lion King Choir Perform “Circle of Life” / Tonja Stidhum (The Root)

The entire experience was, indeed, the great circle of life…and nostalgia.

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About the author

Tonja Renée Stidhum

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.