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The Lion King review: Even David Attenborough would agree it's spectacular

The Lion King (PG)

Rating:

Verdict: Another wild success

Anyone who grew up in front of the telly between 1962 and 1983 will remember Animal Magic, which for most of its many episodes was presented from Bristol Zoo by an affable Welshman called Johnny Morris.

He died 20 years ago this summer, but I thought of him again while watching The Lion King, Disney’s remarkable ‘live-action’ remake, directed by Jon Favreau, of its own 1994 animation.

The Lion King, which has already opened in China and is breaking box-office records there, is a terrific film in its own right. It fully deserves to be lionised, a new brand of animal magic

Dear old Johnny Morris used to humanise creatures by giving them voices; an African elephant which for some reason sounded French, a Cockney ring-tailed lemur, a squirrel evidently from a genteel district of Edinburgh, tropical fish from the Rhondda Valley. Geographical accuracy didn’t trouble him too much.

Watching clips of Animal Magic on YouTube is to be assailed by a mixture of wistful nostalgia, and sheer wonder at how primitive we all were back then. 

In the Sixties, the technology to make real animals talk, and act out a narrative, amounted to one man’s ventriloquism act. Now, it’s a billion-dollar industry, and Disney has it perfected.

It really is beautifully done, and a wonderful platform for some of the best of all Disney songs — written and composed by the more fragrant double-act of Tim Rice and Elton John

On the other hand, just because it can be done, does that mean it should be done? The roaring success of the 1994 version of The Lion King, not to mention the spin-off stage musical which is still raking in millions, might make you wonder why they would bother with any kind of remake. To make more millions, is the short answer.

This year alone, Disney have already re-fashioned Dumbo and Aladdin as live-action adventures. Before that, Kenneth Branagh remade Cinderella (2015) and Favreau himself did a fine job with The Jungle Book (2016). Beauty And The Beast (2017) was a huge hit, too. 

With Mulan, Lady And The Tramp and Pinocchio still to come, is all that Disney expertise to be directed at modernising old favourites, and none of it on original story-telling?

Watching clips of Animal Magic on YouTube is to be assailed by a mixture of wistful nostalgia, and sheer wonder at how primitive we all were back then. In the Sixties, the technology to make real animals talk, and act out a narrative, amounted to one man’s ventriloquism act

Still, by the time the breathtaking ‘Circle Of Life’ sequence has opened Favreau’s exhilarating film, as hordes of African animals converge on Pride Rock to pay homage to their newly born future sovereign, you’ll probably find that your cynicism has melted like a snowman on the savannah.

The Lion King might just be Disney’s most impressive remake yet. Most of us have spent enough Sunday evenings in the company of David Attenborough to know exactly what lions cubs at play look like, or circling hyenas, or stampeding wildebeest.

Favreau and his computer-animation department have wrought miracles to replicate them with absolutely breathtaking precision.

Mind you, my own children, now all grown up, sat devotedly in front of the original so many times that they’ll still need to be persuaded that a live-action Scar (uncle of Simba, the lion cub born to be king) can be as villainous as the animated version voiced by Jeremy Irons. Or that the smelly meerkat-warthog double-act Timon and Pumbaa can be as funny.

I can’t wait for them to see this. It really is beautifully done, and a wonderful platform for some of the best of all Disney songs — written and composed by the more fragrant double-act of Tim Rice and Elton John.

Simba then escapes Scar’s attempt to kill him but goes into exile, befriending Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and Timon (Billy Eichner), before being reunited with his childhood friend and future queen, Nala (Beyonce)

For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s one Shakespeare could have written, and in Hamlet, more or less did.

Simba (voiced in young adulthood by Donald Glover) is the leonine prince of the Pride Lands, son of mighty Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from last time).

He grows up under the beady eye of Mufasa’s loyal servant Zazu, the pompous hornbill voiced 25 years ago by Rowan Atkinson and now by John Oliver, the British comedian better-known in the U.S. than he is here.

But Mufasa is murdered by his treacherous brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who hoodwinks Simba into taking the blame.

Simba then escapes Scar’s attempt to kill him but goes into exile, befriending Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) and Timon (Billy Eichner), before being reunited with his childhood friend and future queen, Nala (Beyonce).

With her encouragement, and guided by the voice of his dead father, Simba returns to the Pride Lands, deposes the despotic Scar, and takes up his rightful role as king.

Many scenes and much of the dialogue exactly replicate the 1994 animation, though fans of the original might mildly object to a few changes, such as the flatulent warthog’s use of the F-word (no, not that one, the one that rhymes with ‘heart’) which in the first film was wryly side-stepped.

Moreover, Favreau has not reproduced one of the most powerful sequences from the first version of The Lion King, the unmistakable image, that might have been lifted from Nazi Germany or modern-day North Korea, of a loyal army of hyenas goose-stepping past Scar.

There are, in truth, other areas in which this version doesn’t quite measure up. Traditional animation made the animals’ faces more expressive than they are here, and splendid as the voice cast is, Ejiofor can’t match Irons for fruity, baritone menace.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s one Shakespeare could have written, and in Hamlet, more or less did. Simba (voiced in young adulthood by Donald Glover) is the leonine prince of the Pride Lands, son of mighty Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from last time)

So if I had to choose, I would favour the original, which had the inestimable advantage of surprise. 

But there is still a huge amount to cherish, including a hilarious rendition of Hakuna Matata, the glorious song Timon and Pumbaa introduce to Simba to help him forget his worries, not to mention Beyonce belting out Can You Feel The Love Tonight.

It might also be that the twin themes of responsible and irresponsible leadership are even more in tune with our times than they were back in 1994.

Still, irresistible as comparisons are, maybe in the end they’re pointless.

The Lion King, which has already opened in China and is breaking box-office records there, is a terrific film in its own right.

It fully deserves to be lionised, a new brand of animal magic.

A shorter version of this review ran in last Friday’s paper.

Soundtrack: Disney’s The Lion King (UMC)

Rating:

Verdict: Roar power

Music plays a vital role in the latest Lion King film — as it did in the 1994 original.

Composer Hans Zimmer’s orchestrations have a refreshing immediacy, even if the score sounds a little overblown away from the movie’s dramatic visuals.

He’s aided, too, by Sowetan composer Lebo Morake, whose African ensemble pieces are excellent, and two cracking new songs.

The first, Elton John’s Never Too Late, captures the Rocketman at his most upbeat, underpinning a rasping I’m Still Standing-style vocal with percussion, vibraphone and a township choir.

The second is Beyoncé’s Spirit. Featured at a crucial point in the film, the Halo-like power ballad finds Queen Bey in full-on diva mode as she hits those high-pitched whistle-notes with bracing power.

Adrian Thrills

Small-town romance has a sting in its tail . . .

Tell It To The Bees (15)

Rating:

Verdict: Fifties lesbian drama

Gwen (15)

Rating:

Verdict: Dose of Welsh misery

It’s all very nicely acted, and while the bee motif gets a bit heavy-handed, and downright daft near the end, the film doesn’t warrant the lacklustre reviews it got when it was unveiled at last year’s Toronto Film Festival

Of a trio of period dramas this week, the pick is Tell It To The Bees, Annabel Jankel’s loose adaptation of a 2009 novel by Fiona Shaw (not the actress of the same name).

In early Fifties, small-town Scotland, Lydia (Holliday Grainger) is struggling to raise her ten-year-old son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk) alone, with no help from her embittered, estranged husband.

Lydia is an outsider, from near Manchester, and still regarded with suspicion by the locals after getting pregnant out of wedlock.

Matters take a distinct lurch for the worse when she is fired from her job at a local mill, and evicted from her home. But by then she has met the new local doctor, Jean (Anna Paquin), whom Charlie has befriended through their shared interest in bees.

Jean invites Lydia to become her housekeeper and to move in with Charlie.

Meanwhile, Jean tells Charlie that her late father, who was also the town doctor, used to say that if you tell bees your secrets, they won’t fly away. 

Well, there is soon a heck of a secret to tell, as what has so far looked like a feature-length episode of Dr Finlay’s Casebook becomes an overwrought lesbian romance, featuring an abortion, a rape, and various other things that Dr Finlay never found in his casebook.

Jean, it turns out, left town years earlier following a fling with a girl. Now, she and Lydia fall in love, which scandalises everyone and damages Lydia’s relationship with Charlie.

It’s all very nicely acted, and while the bee motif gets a bit heavy-handed, and downright daft near the end, the film doesn’t warrant the lacklustre reviews it got when it was unveiled at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. It deserves an audience.

So does Gwen, though it’s more of a challenge, a real slab of Gothic gloom by director William McGregor, making his feature-film debut.

On TV, he has directed several episodes of Poldark and Gwen is set around the same period, but in Snowdonia, where our oppressed title character (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) lives on a humble smallholding with her younger sister and moody, epileptic mother (Maxine Peake).

Peake’s last turn as an early 19th- century misery was in Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, in which she (and everyone else) had far too much to say.

Here, she says hardly anything, as one thing after another goes horribly wrong. It seems the family is being intimidated by a flint-hearted quarry owner, who wants the land.

But is there also something devilish afoot? McGregor uses horror-film tactics to make us think that maybe there are demonic forces converging on the small farm. Gwen is unremittingly grim, but nothing if not atmospheric.

Dream that ended in Ashes 

The Edge (15)

Rating:

Verdict: Testing time for cricketers

With excitement yet to subside following the breathless finale to last Sunday’s extraordinary World Cup final, England cricket enthusiasts must ready themselves for an Ashes series against Australia.

This documentary, which chronicles the rapid rise of England’s Test side from seventh place in the world rankings to number one spot, over 18 dramatic months from April 2009 which included Ashes victories home and away, should get them in the mood.

The film, directed by Barney Douglas and written by him and Gabriel Clarke, is not without flaws.

The narration by actor Toby Jones is over-lyrical practically to the point of parody. ‘Imagine your wicket is your bank account,’ he says, embarking on an absurdly fanciful extended metaphor which, in attempting to emulate the best of cricket’s great wordsmith John Arlott, succeeds merely in evoking the worst of Alan Partridge. 

But if that might be called the film’s off-side, there is plenty to compensate, including terrific clips, insightful interviews, and a few really funny observations, such as bowler James Anderson recalling the way batsman Jonathan Trott would meticulously clean the inside of his protective box before a match, then ‘stare into it as if he was reading his future’.

Players talk candidly about themselves, about each other, and about the architect of their success, the team’s tough Zimbabwean head coach Andy Flower.

The film also tackles the deteriorating mental health of several players as the team, following its spectacular ascent, tumbles down the rankings. It’s fascinating stuff.

The Vulture

Mail critics’ pick of the week’s must-see events

On tour 

Jenny Lewis

The former Rilo Kiley singer (right) follows up today’s appearance at the sold-out Latitude Festival in Suffolk by resuming a short UK tour at SWX, Bristol, on Tuesday. 

Lewis’s latest album, On The Line, reiterated her gift for classy, sumptuous pop songwriting and featured contributions from Beck, Don Was and Ringo Starr. She also visits London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire on Thursday.

jennylewis.com

Adrian Thrills

On Stage

Oklahoma!

Josie Lawrence from 1990’s TV improv show Who’s Line Is It Anyway? stars in Chichester Festival Theatre’s revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s cowboy musical. 

Lawrence is wise Aunt Eller, with Hyoie O’Grady as Curly who’s fallen head over tasselled chaps for Amara Okereke as farm girl Laurey (both pictured).

Jeremy Sams directs the show that includes such belters as the title tune and Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’.

Previewing now, opens Monday, Chichester Festival Theatre (01243 781312/cft.org.uk). 

Patrick Marmion 

On show

John Frederick Lewis 

A visit to the Watts Gallery is always a treat, but this J.F. Lewis show is a spectacular bonus. 

He lived in Cairo for ten years and came back with a wealth of stunning pictures, but the resulting celebrity turned him into a recluse. 

John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame; Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey, until November 3; wattsgallery.org.uk 

Robin Simon 

On TV

Keeping Faith 

Eve Myles (left) returns for a second series of the hit drama (the Welsh-language version has already been shown in Wales). 

We pick up 18 months after the first series as lawyer Faith (Myles) is drawn into a new mystery when she represents a farmer accused of murdering her husband. 

The series is available on BBC iPlayer straight after episode one.

Tuesday, 9pm, BBC1.

Mike Mulvihill 

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