Who knew this is what Disney meant by the Circle of Life? The Lion King is the studio’s latest assembly-line attempt to roar to the top of the box office by reimagining its animated classics into live-action and CGI spectacles.
Like the recent Dumbo and Aladdin remakes, however, there’s no meaningful attempt to differentiate old from new. That’s fine for those who haven’t seen the original film, and can experience the same powerful story of courage and redemption without any preconceived notions.
For the vast majority who recall the 1994 version, though, this new attempt doesn’t provide much nostalgic value or improve upon its predecessor in any substantial way. It’s just unnecessary.
Our hero is Simba (voiced by Donald Glover), a rambunctious cub whose father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones) rules their prosperous kingdom by maintaining a delicate balance in the ecosystem. But Mufasa’s jealous brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has eyes for the throne, and surreptitious plans to assume control.
His scheme sends Simba into exile, where he befriends meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) to form a trio of goofball outcasts. Still, Mufasa’s wise words keep his homeland on Simba’s mind, especially a potential reunion with his mate Nala (Beyonce).
Many of the best aspects of the first film carry over, most notably the musical numbers. “Circle of Life” still stands out as the opener and closer, while the playful “Hakuna Matata” and the love ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” are well staged.
The narrative changes are minimal, consisting mostly of some amusing Timon and Pumbaa banter, a new song before the finale, a few wildlife shots, and a gender-based effort to boost Nala’s role.
As directed by Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book), this parade of computer-generated special effects is richly detailed and often beautiful to behold, from its picturesque re-creation of the African savanna to its colorful array of CGI characters. Yet the facial movements of the anthropomorphic creatures are awkward, especially while singing, and the enhanced violence during the vivid wildebeest stampede and the final showdown likely will frighten smaller children.
Long before now, Disney essentially sold its soul by ditching the hand-painted animation that was a hallmark under its namesake in order to maximize profits in a new technological landscape. However, it’s possible to change with the times without cannibalizing your history. Take Mufasa’s advice: “Remember who you are.”