From the ecstatic Zulu chant that opens the film — “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba!” — to the thundering drumbeat that ends it, director Jon Favreau’s exhilarating live-action take on “The Lion King” hews closer to the Walt Disney animated masterpiece than any of the studio’s recent remakes. Technically, “live action” is the wrong way to describe the movie — it’s more a cover version, really — which is every bit as animated as the 1994 original, and leagues beyond Favreau’s 2016 “The Jungle Book” update in terms of how breathtakingly photo-realistic the visual-effects work looks.
At times, the movie mimics the earlier Disney toon practically shot for shot — as in the presentation of baby Simba on Pride Rock and the spectacular wildebeest stampede that endangers him as a cub — so much so that composer Hans Zimmer didn’t need to change a note for these sequences. That raises the inevitable question, “Why bother?” and though any number of artistic arguments could be made (no one balks when a fresh version of “Hamlet” hits the stage, and what is “The Lion King” but a leonine riff on Shakespeare’s regicidal classic?), the answer here can be spelled in dollars. Considering the 1994 film was the top-grossing movie of its time, and factoring in the success of “The Jungle Book” (the project whose nearly billion-dollar box office sparked this entire phenomenon), “The Lion King” could be Disney’s most successful do-over yet.
If the lesson of the original “Lion King” was one of birth and death and mutual respect — a concept represented by the movie’s intuitive “Circle of Life” motif — then its successor’s driving philosophy could be described as the “Circle of Commerce”: First there was “Hamlet” (which scholars consider to be a retelling of an earlier Scandinavian legend), then “The Lion King,” then a Broadway musical, and now this, the latest trend in Disney’s efforts to mine new gold from its animated catalog.
Audiences are either on board with the Disney remake machine or they’re not, and apart from Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” — an artistic and financial disappointment that strayed too far from the source — the box office for the remakes has been strong enough that “The Lion King” was inevitable. And let’s be honest: It’s not like Disney would have otherwise used that money to solve world hunger. If the studio was going to update “The Lion King,” it might as well do it right.
I have a theory that all 20th-century American kids go crazy for at least one Disney animated movie in their lives. They demand the toys; they own the home video; they watch it so often, they have it memorized. Think back to your own childhood. Maybe you got hooked on “The Little Mermaid,” or if you’re older, fell for “Lady and the Tramp” or “Fantasia.” That magic connection seems to occur when kids are 4 or 5 years old, although in my case, it happened right before my senior year in high school — embarrassingly late to develop a cartoon fixation. The movie was “The Lion King,” and I loved it so much, I bought the lunchbox, I bought the bedsheets. I didn’t care that it wasn’t cool, because I’d never seen anything like it.
Looking back, it’s clear that “The Lion King” was the pinnacle of what we now refer to as the Disney Renaissance. Pixar’s “Toy Story” came out the following year and began the transition to computer animation, but at the time, “The Lion King” was a revelation: It brought cinematic techniques to a medium in which something as basic as a 3D camera move (anything more than a zoom or a horizontal pan) posed enormous challenges for animators. Just compare the opening sequence — as Zazu swoops over herds of animals who’ve gathered to witness the presentation of Simba — to the magic carpet ride in “Aladdin,” which cheated “over, sideways and under” with tight framing and standard left-to-right movement.
“Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Tarzan” would follow, but of all these movies, “The Lion King” holds up most beautifully all these years later. That means Favreau’s most important responsibility in overseeing the remake was simply not to mess it up. Which he doesn’t. Then again, nor does he bring the kind of visionary take to the material that Julie Taymor added when staging the Broadway version. That makes Favreau’s “The Lion King” an undeniably impressive but incredibly safe entry to the catalog — one whose greatest accomplishment may not be technical (which is not to diminish the work required to make talking animals look believable) but in perfecting the performances.
Even a quarter century ago, audiences were savvy to the kind of representation problems that Hollywood creators are finally addressing today, and “The Lion King” rightly took flak for casting white actors in Disney’s first Africa-set animated movie (“Home Improvement” star Jonathan Taylor Thomas played young Simba, while Matthew Broderick performed the adult version). Favreau doesn’t make the same mistake, casting actors of African descent as the lion and hyena characters and bringing back just one voice from the original, the incomparable James Earl Jones, to rerecord nearly all the same dialogue as Simba’s father, the mighty Mufasa.
It can be distracting to be constantly comparing the line readings between the two versions. As Zazu, John Oliver is essentially doing his best Rowan Atkinson, repeating mostly the same jokes, whereas Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner rehearsed together to play warthog Pumbaa and meerkat Timon, the “no worries” buddies who convince Simba to adopt an all-bug diet during his time in exile. Rogen and Eichner’s riffing sessions result in a fair amount of fresh material, and an overall even-more-likable version of these two beloved characters — although the most hilarious change to Timon’s personality comes from observing how real meerkats sit, sprawling awkwardly back on their haunches. To punch up their personalities even further, Favreau and DP Caleb Deschanel work out a GoPro-style way of “shooting” them at clownishly close range.
Midway through Timon and Pumbaa’s jungle anthem, “Hakuna Matata,” Simba’s voice changes — as actor-singer-comedian Donald Glover takes over for JD McCrary — and it’s then that something remarkable happens: The character assumes a dimension that was missing from Broderick’s performance, and the detail that never quite rang true in the original (that Simba thought he was responsible for Mufasa’s death) becomes part of a bigger and more plausible self-confidence problem. As Simba’s bride-to-be, pop goddess Beyoncé Knowles-Carter lends still more depth, conveying aspects of bravery and independence in Nala’s personality that weren’t there before. And, of course, Glover and Beyoncé are both singers, which gives the “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” montage new life as an old friendship turns romantic, reinforced by the two lions’ body language. Beyoncé also contributes a largely unnecessary but exhilarating single, “Spirit,” over the couple’s return to the Pride Lands, which Mufasa’s scheming brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has turned into a barren desert.
Of all the cast, Ejiofor has the toughest job, reinventing the film’s second-most-iconic performance, Jeremy Irons’ conniving purr. His is the character who changes the most. Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (who boasts some of the hackiest high-profile credits in the biz) hardly deserves the sole credit he gets, considering the debt he owes to “The Lion King” writers Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton, although he does add a few key lines here and there to explain — and update — Scar’s motivations. Elsewhere, his song, “Be Prepared,” is whittled down to a verse or two of spoken-word evil, after which Ejiofor repeats the title like some kind of malicious mantra.
Overall, the songs pose a unique challenge to Favreau’s approach, since he’s striving for realism — or at least the illusion that we’re watching flesh-and-blood animals — whereas the original belongs to that period of Disney animation when the stories often halted to make room for Broadway-style show tunes. Rather than replicating the Busby Berkeley-style choreography of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” the director does a fantastic job of reimagining this sequence, tipping his hat to certain memorable shots without anthropomorphizing the animals too much.
Rendering technology has advanced so much in the short time since “The Jungle Book” — to say nothing of the vastly increased amount of labor assembled to pull it off — that “The Lion King” no longer requires audiences to pretend that the CGI looks more believable that it does. With the exception of the strangely out-of-sync mouth movements seen when these digital creatures talk, effects house MPC makes the animals look utterly convincing, blending characteristics of their various species (the way a cat’s ears hinge backward when it’s hesitant or scared) with recognizable human expressions (where a subtle eye flicker serves to reinforce those same feelings).
By focusing his attention on upgrading the look of the earlier film while sticking largely to its directorial choices and script, Favreau reinforces the strength of the 1994 classic. If you were never a fan of “The Lion King,” then nothing here will win you over. On the other hand, for those too young ever to have seen it, this could be a life-changing experience, one that strives to create a kind of understanding between audiences and the animal kingdom that Disney once made a regular part of its mission, back in the era of films such as “The Legend of Lobo” and “The Incredible Journey.” It’s a shame to sacrifice the hand-drawn artistry — whose human touch will surely hold up better in the long haul — but those are the terms with this latest wave of remakes, and “The Lion King” at least honors what came before, using current animation technology to convince us that we’re watching the real thing.