‘The Lion King’ is a Beautiful Elevation of the Original Masterpiece

You’re on a safari, driving across Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a hot day, and your canteen is empty. You glance out the side of your open-air safari vehicle, and you see it: a musical, unfolding before your eyes. The performers are animals; the plot is oddly Shakespearean. Not only do the lions talk – they sing. One sounds like Beyoncé. It’s a mirage. It has to be.

Your safari guide turns around. It’s not a mirage. On your right: it’s the 2019 reimagining of The Lion King. None of those animals are real. This isn’t actually a live-action film. It’s all computer-generated. Drink water. You’re going to need to be properly hydrated when you sing along to all the songs you loved from the original. They’re all there. Even “Be Prepared.” You were told otherwise. I know. But don’t worry. It’s there. It’s all there. 

Jon Favreau directs the coming-of-age story that follows Simba, a lion cub who struggles to find his place in the Circle of Life after the untimely death of his father, the ruler of the Pride Lands. Favreau, already having dipped his toe in the Disney remake lake with The Jungle Book (2016), masterfully navigates another classic with the use of breathtaking, photorealistic CGI technology.

Sunrise. Nants Ingonyama. You know the rest. As soon as the film begins, you know what you’re going to get. Expect familiar scenes and quotes; the iconic moments that propelled the original into the forefront of American pop culture aren’t going anywhere.

The movie is essentially a beat-for-beat remake of the 1994 classic. You know the story – it’s a good one – and Disney isn’t fixing what isn’t broken. So… what are they doing?

They’re adding another piece to the puzzle that is The Lion King franchise. Much like the Broadway musical, they’re retelling the same story in a way that makes you enjoy the property even more. 

Whereas in the original animated film, hand-drawn animals were designed to emote like humans, this new film’s photorealistic depiction of lions limits their expressiveness. Nevertheless, impressive voice acting, purposeful direction, and unparalleled visual effects come together to achieve the sense of Disney magic that we’ve come to expect. 

Sarah Halley Finn, a surefire first-ballot inductee to the Casting Director Hall of Fame (see also: assembling the Avengers, among others), pairs beloved characters with talent capable of elevating them to higher ground on Pride Rock. JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph, reprising her role from Broadway production, breathe new life into young Simba and Nala. They riff and flaunt their vocals even before they pass the baton to Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Glover’s growling, the range-climbing persona of Childish Gambino perfectly accentuates Simba’s personality and vocal flair, while Beyoncé shines as Nala in “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and her new song, “Spirit.”

Favreau takes his time (29 minutes more than the predecessor, to be exact) adding nuance to already well-known characters. A frightfully funny Zazu (John Oliver) and a fleshed-out Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) bring new dimensions to well-tread ground. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen hone their trademark comedic stylings in their take on the hilariously self-aware Timon and Pumbaa, respectively. The fast-talking meerkat and warthog seem to know this is a remake. They revel in their big moments, running through jokes like comedy veterans while keeping the audience on their toes. Meanwhile, stalwart James Earl Jones reprises his role as Mufasa. As he tells Simba from the booming, thunderous clouds: he’s never left.

Favreau finds success in combining groundbreaking visual effects technology with the rich history of a beloved franchise. When it comes to the legacy of The Lion King, there’s simply no putting your behind in the past – or your past behind you. The soundtrack tells this story for itself: Elton John is back with a new end credits song, “Never Too Late;” original lyricist Tim Rice partners with Beyoncé to create a welcome addition in “Spirit;” Hans Zimmer returns to compose the score; and Lebo M.’s “He Lives in You” is taken directly from the Broadway musical.

The blend of Lion King past and present results in a heavy focus on the Circle of Life theme and its stark juxtaposition to the problem-free, Hakuna Matata lifestyle, which are conveyed through strong sound and light designs, as well as especially effective visual motifs. The believability of it all is a bit shocking; the cinematography rivals that of Disneynature films, which is completely different in only that its subjects are real, tangible animals and environments. 

Unlike past Disney remakes, such as The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast (2017), and Aladdin (2019), The Lion King falls into a subgenre of its own. It knows it’s a remake. It knows it’s the same story. It doesn’t set out to fill in the blanks left by its animated source material, and it certainly does not want to take the story in any new direction. And at the same time, it transcends nostalgia and finds its own unique place in Disney’s reimagined Circle of Life – and in the growing legacy of The Lion King.