The screening notice for the new version of The Lion King strangely came with a plea for critics not to include any spoilers in their reviews. If that strikes you as an odd request, given that the original film is one of the most well-known stories of the past 30 years, you’re not alone. The only spoiler to be had is that the film, despite being 30 minutes longer than the original, is essentially a shot-for-shot remake.
But that doesn’t mean that the film is not worth seeing. Unlike the legion of other Disney “live action” remakes, this version of The Lion King actually brings something new to the table. Director Jon Favreau utilized virtual reality to achieve a type of photorealism that heretofore has not been seen in movies. There are no actual animals or locations in the film, but the stunning imagery will have you second-guessing whether what you’re seeing is real or not.
That means that Simba (JD McCrary as a cub, Donald Glover as an adult), Mufasa (James Earl Jones), Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph as a cub, Beyoncé as an adult), Zazu (John Oliver), Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), Timon (Billy Eichner), and more appear fully believable as animals, making Simba’s harrowing journey all the more intense. The realistic nature of the imagery turns certain elements even more menacing, a useful tool given the lack of surprises the story holds.
The film does have a few other tricks up its sleeve. The extra length of the film mostly comes in the form of extensions of various scenes, giving certain characters a little more time to be fleshed out. Two memorable Pumbaa and Timon scenes from the original are given clever twists that draw even more laughs from the comic duo. The new Beyoncé song, “Spirit,” which is sure to be nominated for an Oscar, appears not in the closing credits but in the middle of the film, coming off as a superfluous addition rather than something organic.
The one big trade-off from having ultra-realistic animals is that it’s actually a bit odd to watch them talking and singing. Cartoon characters have the freedom to be anthropomorphized, but “real” animals don’t form words with their mouths, and the effect can be jarring. The energy of the movie keeps this idea from being anything more than a minor distraction, but it’s there nonetheless.
Most of the original five songs work just as well this time around, save for one notable exception. “Circle of Life” is inspiring and uplifting, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Hakuna Matata” are bouncy and fun, and “Be Prepared,” even with new lyrics, is as ominous as ever. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which was weird but effective in the first film, is accompanied by visuals that completely neuters its impact this time around.
The new cast members are a mixed bag. Glover and Ejiofor add new dimensions to their characters, Jones is as effective as he was in the original, and Rogen and Eichner make their characters even funnier than they were before. Beyoncé is not bad, but her distinctive voice and runs she inserts into her singing make Nala feel like an extension of herself, not a true character.
As is the case with most Disney remakes, there’s nothing necessary about the existence of the new version of The Lion King. Certain elements could have worked better, but the filmmakers went above and beyond in creating an immersive world for the characters to exist, and the classic story has never looked better.