Disney has cleverly marketed the new Lion King movie as a “live-action remake”, in line with its recent versions of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. The new version is, of course, entirely digitally animated, but the techniques are so convincing that younger children may well be unable to spot the difference. Either way, it's an undeniably impressive achievement that retains the emotional power of the 1994 original, but loses some of the magic in the process.
Directed by Jon Favreau – clearly deemed the go-to guy for this sort of thing after the phenomenal success of 2016's The Jungle Book – the new version is more or less a shot-for-shot remake of the original, yet somehow manages to run an extra 30 minutes longer. It begins with Lion King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his iconic role from the original) presenting his newborn cub and heir Simba (JD McCrary) to the assorted animals of Pride Rock. However, Mufasa's evil brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) puts a dastardly plan in motion to usurp the lion throne and send Simba into exile.
Rescued in the desert by wise-cracking warthog and meerkat buddies Pumbaa and Timon (Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner), Simba (now voiced by Donald Glover) grows up leading a carefree existence, where his mantra is “Hakuna matata”, or “no worries”. However, the reappearance of his childhood sweetheart Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph, then Beyoncé) forces Simba to return to Pride Rock and reclaim his birthright by challenging Scar.
The animation is simply astonishing, in every frame. There's not a single moment of it that looks dodgy, reflecting just how far rendering techniques have advanced, even in the three years since The Jungle Book. It's so good that it arguably backfires a bit, as every time the lions speak, it's a jarring reminder that they aren't actually real. If anything, the entirely photo-realistic animation makes everything a little scarier precisely BECAUSE [italicise, please] it looks so real – as a result, the key scene (stampede, trauma, you know the one) is possibly even more upsetting for young children, as hard to believe as that sounds.
The story works perfectly well on its own terms (it ought to, it's basically Hamlet with lions), retaining the strong emotional impact of the 1994 original, even without the more animated facial expressions. To that end, there are adequate compensations, such as the realistic fight scenes, and the fact that the animals seem to have real weight and presence.
Naturally, if you're a die-hard fan of the original film (or have watched it recently), there's a lot of fun to be had in comparing the two different versions. Some of the changes are very interesting – for example, Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner have a different dynamic as Pumbaa and Timon, and they're an absolute joy to watch, perhaps because of all the performances, they're given the most freedom to go off script and do their own thing.
Similarly, the hyenas (voiced by Penny Johnson Jerald, Keegan-Michael Key and Eric André) have definitely improved, replacing the original's giggling idiot hyena with a bickering back-and-forth relationship between Key and André that is very funny. And then there's Beyoncé, who makes Nala a much more powerful and dynamic character and really knocks it out of the park with her rendition of Can You Feel The Love Tonight.
As for the rest of the cast, John Oliver proves a perfect replacement for Rowan Atkinson when it comes to voicing officious hornbill Zazu and Glover does a great job as Simba, slightly edging it over Matthew Broderick's original performance, owing to his superb singing voice. However, Chiwetel Ejiofor never comes close to matching the delicious pantomime evil of Jeremy Irons' sublime performance – as a result, it's the one aspect of the new version where you find yourself longing for the original, not least because his big song and dance number (“Be Prepared”) is cut brutally short. This seems to be a common theme in the recent spate of Disney remakes – Marwan Kenzawi's Jafar was equally disappointing in the live-action Aladdin when compared to Jonathan Freeman in the animated version.
The other main disappointment is that the film loses some of the magic of the original, principally in the imaginative staging of the musical numbers. That means that the Busby Berkeley-esque flourishes of I Just Can't Wait To Be King have gone – entirely understandable if the goal is photo-realism, but these lions are still singing, so why can't they dance too? (On the plus side, the goose-stepping hyenas have also gone from Be Prepared, which, in the current climate, is probably just as well).
As remakes go, this is thoroughly entertaining, whether you're a newcomer to the story or a die-hard fan of the original. It might not be a better film than the 1994 version, but the technical achievement is extraordinary and more than justifies the film's existence.