Between the 1994 animated Disney classic and the stunningly stylized stage adaptation that has been running on Broadway for more than 21 years, the new CGI version of The Lion King has some very big paw prints to fill. The eagerly awaited big-screen remake, in theaters July 19, is a visually stunning but wildly familiar crowd-pleaser that is content with tamely retracing the first film’s steps.
Directed by Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book), the film’s undeniable saving grace is that it’s packed with wall-to-wall eye candy, whether it’s the majestic opening shots of beasts of the earth and sky gathering for their future king, adorable Cute Overload-like lion cubs, or that terrifying, hold-your-breath wildebeest stampede. And there’s those hideous hyenas. Yes, they’re all echoes from before. But they’re also now all mouth-wateringly realistic.
That actually cuts both ways. Since pains have gone into creating a near-nature documentary world, it’s jarring and sometimes silly watching the beasts’ mouths move as if the critters are speaking and singing. That’s true whether it’s Simba (Donald Glover), his dad Mufasa (an invaluable James Earl Jones), his evil uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), his pal Nala (a fiery Beyonce Knowles-Carter), or his winged caretaker Zazu (John Oliver) and the rest of the gang.
Julie Taymor’s Tony-winning stage version avoids this pitfall because its masks and costumes don’t attempt to fully hide the actors. So the new movie’s talking animals work best when the action gets down to goofiness and games, as in whenever Pumbaa, the warthog, and his bestie, Timon, a meerkat, are onscreen. Their banter is hipper than ever and voiced to the hilarious hilt, respectively, by Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner, who practically walk away with the movie. (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella did likewise.)
Otherwise, Jeff Nathanson’s script dutifully follows the original, with some lightning-fast quips about “giraffes necking” and a sly, if chilling, reference to the devastation Scar leaves in his wake as being “heavy on the carcass.”
When all is said and sung, though, the real highlights come when you simply let the visuals and music wash over you. Hans Zimmer’s score soars, and songs by Elton John and Tim Rice still do their work. “Circle of Life” is as stirring as ever, while “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” underscores a sweet reunion. Beyonce’s “Spirit” is a rousing new anthem.
There’s one surprise: In 25 years, The Lion King story of how a cub grows up and finds himself after a savage, self-serving ruler seizes power actually crackles with fresh urgency. “A true king shows his power in his compassion,” Simba’s mom (Alfre Woodard) tells Scar. At a time when it’s anything but “hakuna matata” (aka “no worries”), the words have real bite.