A live-action take on The Lion King? Featuring one Beyoncé Carter-Knowles as a future queen?! It would be so tempting to Hakuna Matata this baby and just butter the popcorn. Instead I urge you to adhere to one of the lesser-known soundtrack titles and be prepared. Though gorgeously rendered to highest technological degree, this version is paint-by-numbers in terms of story recreation. And for all its joy and majesty, the special mystique unique to the 1994 original — and the epic 1997 musical adaptation — lies beyond where the light touches.
In fairness, director Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book) and his team had to make a no-win decision. The Lion King, you see, is the rare animated Disney entity sans a source material. (Let’s not count Hamlet and Star Wars.) It’s authentic. If you take creative liberties with the hero’s journey of Simba, fanatics will want to throw you to the hyenas. If you don’t change a frame, it’s obsolete and pointless. They chose option B, with a few extra non-essential scenes to fluff out Beyoncé’s presence. That’s a key difference between this summer remake and the surprising delightful and refreshing Aladdin. Without a narrative risk, the incentive to see a longer version of a beloved classic diminishes.
But what a tale (tail?) it is! Surely you remember Simba, the precocious cub who just can’t wait to be king. Life is sweet in Pride Rock, thanks to his loving-but-protective father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his iconic baritone) and his totally platonic friend, Nala. His uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is peeved about his also-ran status but he mainly (manely?) keeps to himself. Still, Simba is restless and Scar is embittered. And the only way for the elder lion to ascend to the throne is to take some seriously sinister action. He does it, and poor Simba must learn the hard way to accept his destiny. This is a good reminder that parents taking small children should be cautious of the violence and heavy themes.
Part of the fun of these upgraded 2.0 versions is seeing and hearing new stars put their spins on well-worn roles. Heck, the casting rumors alone are enough to affect the trending topics on Twitter. For The Lion King, we all had palpable excitement at the thought of Beyoncé dueting with Donald Glover’s adult Simba on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” — heightened even more when the single was recently released. To answer your next question, Mrs. Carter is . . . fine. Despite the fleshed-out part, there’s just not much for her to say. The real stand-outs, other than Jones, of course, are Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as sidekicks Pumba the warthog and Timon the meerkat. They’re fast and loose and — yay! — go off-script riffing off each other. Their comic relief is needed during the darker moments.
All this vocal prowess is offset by the peculiar visuals. No, not the jaw-dropping and flat-out gorgeous sun-kissed African jungle backdrop. I don’t know how Favreau and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel pulled off the sight of a mouse scampering through the tall weeds in Pride Rock, and I don’t want to know. It’s pure movie magic. The characters are another matter. Even if you believe in a world in which lions speak perfect English to each other, there’s just something distracting and disarming about digitized animals mouthing the words. It takes a bit of time to adjust. And despite the technology advances since 1994, these characters can no longer emote or expressively belt out the numbers. How telling that only “The Circle of Life” is chill-inducing, as it’s a shot-by-the-shot reprisal and none of the characters actually sing it. (Carmen Twillie and Lebo M. once again provide the soaring vocals.)
The Lion King roar didn’t need to be restored. Though the original is a quarter-century old, the animation stuns. The soundtrack won Grammys, Tonys and Oscars for a reason. The Elton John songs are lovely. Jones, Jeremy Irons, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Matthew Broderick, Whoopi Goldberg and a prepubescent Jonathan Taylor Thomas are all commendable as our favorite animals. A new phone-obsessed generation can effortlessly enjoy it — and if the two movies both become available to watch on a flight, I suspect you and your seat partner will pick the 88-minute 1994 version every time. Forget the circle of life; that’s just a fact of life.
The Lion King opens in theaters on Friday, July 19