‘The Lion King’ Is a Familiar Roar That Entertains but Changes Little 

Disney’s new version of “The Lion King” is the summer spectacle you already know by heart. An almost shot-for-shot remake of the majestic 1994 classic, it delivers the curious result of being technically impressive while struggling to justify itself. However it can’t be denied that it’s an entertaining film, because Disney knows how to break the bank.

You know how it begins. The sun rises over the African plains as all the animals (now rendered digitally) gather at Pride Rock to pay tribute to the newborn prince Simba (JD McCrary), son of his lion majesties Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). No one is missing from the famous roster. There’s the king’s majordomo Zazu (John Oliver) and Mufasa’s scheming, well-spoken villain of a brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Young Simba just can’t wait to be king, but neither can Scar, who plots with a pack of hyenas led by Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) to take power. After nearly nabbing the cub and his friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph), Scar has better luck when he provokes a massive wildebeest stampede that traps Simba and results in Mufasa’s death. Scar declares himself king and lets the hyenas roam freely to gorge themselves while Simba is exiled. Found by the quirky, free-living pair made up of meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), Simba (now voiced by Donald Glover) grows up adopting the philosophy of “hakuna matata,” meaning “no worries.” Then a grown Nala (Beyoncé) escapes Pride Rock and finds Simba, demanding he return to take his rightful place as the king. 

“The Lion King” has always been the most Shakespearean of Disney tales, with obvious references to “Hamlet.” Watching this new version is precisely like going to a production of some classic play where the text, costumes and music are kept nearly intact. With the famous Disney Renaissance of the 90s now nearly three decades behind us, the studio is playing a strange balancing act in simply remaking its animated catalogue without taking any fresh risks. Jon Favreau returns to direct, but by the looks of things it meant just having a Blu-Ray of the original playing next to his chair all the time on set. He was given a bit more free reign in his fun 2016 version of “The Jungle Book.” That one felt more like a refreshing take on a familiar story. The opening scene of “Lion King,” scored to the soaring “Circle of Life,” has a natural awesomeness because of its scope. Here we’re also astounded by seeing it reframed in a live action setting with CGI animals that fool the eye. Yet it’s more curiosity than inspiring, the technical craft is magnificent, but it’s the same as taking a Rembrandt and staging it as a photograph. Even Hans Zimmer returns to re-score his original Oscar-winning music. 

Audience members who have grown up watching the original movie will undoubtedly walk in first wondering what’s been changed. One of the major challenges facing these Disney live action remakes is that animation has a unique expressionism you just can’t get anywhere else, including its overwhelming colors. When Zazu flies over to Mufasa and bows he lacks the respectful smile and looks like a regular hornbill, Scar doesn’t have the devilish grin inspired by his 90s voice, Jeromy Irons. Visually this is still a striking movie, demonstrating how far digital animation has come. None of it looks unconvincing and miles more creative than the stale lack of creativity in “Aladdin,” released earlier this year. Where Favreau can he expands scenes into gorgeous sequences full of exquisite nature photography. Antelope rushing by in slow motion or microcosmic shots of insect life have vibrancy worthy of National Geographic. Cinephiles will appreciate the “Lawrence of Arabia” nod in the scene where Timon and Pumbaa find Simba passed out in the desert. They first appear like a tiny speck in the distance of a heat wave. 

The way Favreau works around some of the musical numbers is inventive, like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” where the camera excitedly follows Simba, Nala and Zazu around a watering hole. The show stealer will certainly be the new take on Pumbaa recounting his flatulent days as a young warthog. The reimagining of “Be Prepared” is disappointing however, reducing Scar to basically chanting and snarling while walking around the hyenas’ gothic hangout, the Elephant’s Graveyard. Most of the song’s deliciously conspiratorial lyrics are chopped down. And we don’t get that glorious shot from the original of hyenas goose-stepping as if in a Leni Riefenstahl film. But the oddest visual choice when it comes to the songs is how when Simba and Nala frolic to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” (sung by Queen B herself) it’s all shot in the daytime. 

Writer Jeff Nathanson deserves some credit for finding spaces to throw in new flourishes in dialogue that is mostly word for word the original script. Now the lions are not necessarily monarchs lording overall, but “protectors,” as Mufasa explains to Simba. The hyenas are more of a roaming rebel band led by Shenzi as opposed to goofy henchmen. We even get new insights into how Scar got his scar and even some past history with Sarabi. Good for Nathanson for throwing in a bit of “Royals”-style scandal. 

The rest of “The Lion King” is pretty loyal to, well, “The Lion King.” Timon and Pumbaa are still a total riot, even when rendered as fully realistic animals. Legend James Earl Jones at 88 is a more low-key Mufasa, Donald Glover’s Simba does nothing new and Beyoncé does Nala so faithfully we wouldn’t know it was her if it weren’t for the credit, and the fact that she sings on the soundtrack. She’s all over the end credits with the uplifting “Spirit.” Chiwetel Ejiofor is the stand out as Scar, bringing his own sense of malevolent sophistication to the role. Back in ‘94 Jeremy Irons also stole the spotlight and Ejiofor is a worthy follow up.

We didn’t need a new “Lion King,” in fact we don’t need any of the Disney classics that have become cultural landmarks to be remade annually. Favreau is a skilled filmmaker, but what’s missing is the real heart and soul brought to unforgettable life in the original through that masterful animation. But if you seek a popcorn spectacle that retells a favorite story, then on that level this movie delivers with all the music and narrative intact, literally. Alas, with so many resources and unmatched talent, we are still waiting for Disney to deliver new heirs to the kings and villains of yesteryear.

The Lion King” opens July 19 in theaters nationwide.