It was the very first thing one heard when Disney’s animated classic “The Lion King” premiered in 1994, and the first voice one hears when the movie is replayed on home media. It is the first lines that will be sung when one watches the stage musical adaptation on Broadway or any other venue around the world that hosts said production. The beginning of the song “Circle of Life” features lines originally sung by South African musician-producer Lebo M, in the isiZulu language: Nants ingonyama bagithi baba (Here comes a lion, father) Sithi uhhmm ingonyama (Yes, it is a lion).
Those lines help set the tone for the 2D-animated film; it also holds meaning for the photorealistic 3D-animated remake of “The Lion King,” directed by Jon Favreau and released last week. For the singer saying that a lion comes, and when the viewer sees the lions for the first time in the remake, they would have to agree, like the singer’s counterpart line says, it is a lion. Such has been the technological prowess of Disney computer animation, first displayed in their 2016 remake of 1967’s “The Jungle Book,” a recreation also directed by Favreau. The photorealistic animated animals were of a secondary role there. They are primary characters now.
Almost all of the live-action remakes of Disney’s Animated Canon have met with some resistance from the “traditional” and “purist” quarters of their massive fandom. “The Lion King” however, as one of the biggest hits of their library and a veritable highpoint of the Nineties-era Disney “Renaissance,” got one of the most intense scrutinizing ever for its remake. It generated one of the loudest questioning on the right of its production to even exist. Despite advances in movie effects magic, despite its star-studded cast (nearly all of African or Afro-American background), is it reasonably right to remake “The Lion King”?
In this review’s opinion: a cautious yes. True, the story has not gotten too old beyond the 1994 film, considering its Broadway musical is still going strong. Retelling “The Lion King” in a manner so closely approaching real-life photography would certainly make for impressive visualization. But there is also the charge of a frame-by-frame adaptation, where the charge of frivolousness comes in again. If all the same beats are carried over, what is the point when the original is there already? To that, this review counters: can a story not be redressed for viewing by a new generation of fans?
Followers of the House of Mouse can recall the narrative of this film, about wild animals in the Pride-lands of Africa, ruled over by a pride of lions from the aptly-named Pride Rock. Mufasa the king welcomes a son and heir to the world, much to the annoyance of his brother Scar, who seeks to rule instead. It has been said that “The Lion King” is a reworking of the plot of Shakespeare’s grim tragedy of “Hamlet” into a heroic story of fighting back against a royal usurpation, mixed with an environmental message about the interconnectivity of organisms in nature.
With the plot so well and done with, the real differences can be discerned in the voice cast. James Earl Jones was the sole returning actor from 1994, and his older timbre in re-recorded lines for Mufasa sells further his role as the wise king. His heir Simba, voiced by Donald Glover and J.D. McCrary in childhood, is effectively realized in the naïve cub transitioning to a traumatized soul hiding behind a wastrel life, to a lion with a mission. Nala (Beyoncé and Shahadi Wright Joseph when young) is a strong presence like in the 1994 original, and nails in her second VA role (after 2013’s “Epic”) that she could make a secondary career here.
Playing the role of antagonist Scar is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is already a Disney regular with roles past and future. In his own words he adds a more brutal edge to the sinister and conniving lion usurper, delivered sheer menace that is complemented by the nastier take on his hyena minions (Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre). The “Hakuna Matata” duo of Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) get a slightly beefed-up role in this remake. Conversely, John Kani’s Rafiki was largely an extra who mumbled in isiZulu when not talking to another.
“The Lion King” is also a big deal for its award-winning soundtrack, and its major creative forces in Hans Zimmer and Elton John have returned to give the songs a new do-over. Beyoncé also contributes her own new addition, “Spirit,” while doing a dynamic duet with Donald Glover for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” About the only downer in this recording was how her vocals as Nala seem to dwarf Glover’s as Simba, giving the impression that she is bigger than the future king.
Trying to debate the merits of remaking “The Lion King” will take too much of this review space and the reader’s time. Suffice to say that conflicting opinions on the original and new version will have to agree to disagree. For those who choose to give the remake a chance watch, they can be assured that no time will be wasted. They will be in awe of the photorealism, enjoy hearing the cast, and sing along to the numbers, much like the original audiences from over two decades ago did. This movie has a spot in the Circle of Life.
Image courtesy of The Wrap