If you translated the Zulu opening of the iconic song “Circle of Life” the line “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba, Sithi uhm ingonyama” just means “There comes a lion, Oh yes, it's a lion.” Yeah.
That pretty much sums up this new photo-realistic version of “The Lion King” from Disney’s top dog Jon Favreau. After delivering a decent update of “Jungle Book” in 2016, it’s obvious that Favreau over-analyzed this remake of the 1994 animated film that exemplifies Disney’s trademark. The result is all glitz with no soul. A National Geographic musical that even Queen Bey can’t save.
There are many shot-for-shot recreations in the “Hamlet”-inspired remake including the opening “Circle of Life” scene as the realistic animals gather to celebrate the birth of Simba (JD McCrary) the lion cub destined to be king. James Earl Jones returns to voice Mufasa, Simba’s father and King of the Pride Lands, the only holdover from the animated classic, while Simba’s mother Sarabi is voiced by Alfre Woodard and Chiwetel Ejiofor takes over for Jeremy Irons as Mufasa’s brother the villainous Scar.
Gone are those menacing green eyes, exaggerated facial expressions, and over-sized paws that made the King Claudius stand-in so wonderful to watch. Here the character is reduced to a lackluster live-action version.
As you know Scar murders Mufasa clearing his way to the throne with little Simba on the run. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen are one of the films few bright spots as they put a fresh perspective on the funny meerkat-warthog duo Timon and Pumbaa responsible for the catchy “Hakuna Matata.” The rest of the first-rate cast features Donald Glover as the grown Simba, Beyoncé as Nala, John Kani as Rafiki, and John Oliver as Zazu. There’s a lot of A-list talent here and new songs by Beyoncé (“Spirit”) and Elton John (“Never Too Late”) but unfortunately it doesn’t make a difference. The magic of the original is gone.
The special effects are amazing. We know these are not real animals, but they look so authentic that it's eerie when we see them speak. Yet for all of Favreau’s verisimilitude, “The Lion King” falls flat as the animals take on a Stepford Wives quality, impressive looking but missing a soul. If the Circle of Life represents nature’s way of giving and taking then maybe we should be grateful for the 1994 animated classic and hopeful that nature will take back this live-action retread.