Remember, this is no ordinary property Disney is dealing with, this is a beyond beloved story and a commercial juggernaut that’s as close as it gets to box office inevitability.
Not only did the original 1994 animated film win two Oscars, it earned enough at the box office (more than $400 million) to make it the No. 1 G-rated film of all time.
Then there was the Broadway show, which brought home six Tonys and is still running at 9,000 performances and counting. No wonder practically the first thing director Jon Favreau says in the film’s production notes is, “I felt a tremendous responsibility not to screw it up.”
A machine purpose-built to maintain the cinematic status quo, this new computer generated “Lion King” has taken a sure thing and made it surer, making choices like retaining James Earl Jones and adding Beyoncé Knowles-Carter to the voice talent and sticking so closely to the original version it duplicates both specific images and lines of dialogue.
But though the new ground it breaks is visual rather than dramatic or emotional, this is a polished, satisfying entertainment that just about dares you to look a gift lion in the mouth.
Director Favreau (in a curious career coincidence, currently costarring in the new “Spider-Man”) has done this kind of thing before with 2016’s “The Jungle Book.” (Robert Legato and Adam Valdez, who won Oscars for that film, are the visual effects supervisors here.)
This new film has taken the notion of digitally built environments and photo-realistic computer generated animals one step further, generating gorgeous visuals (six-time Oscar nominated Caleb Deschanel was the cinematographer) and taking pains to create the feeling that it was all shot with a camera.
This is especially true with the animals, not just the lions and other marquee species but so many different kinds of birds and beasts, all looking and moving in a completely lifelike manner. You practically need a college zoology textbook to identify them all.
Starting with a research trip to Africa during which 12.3 terabytes of photos were taken (that’s a lot), the “Lion King” team, which includes 130 animators from 30 countries, labored intensively to create situations where lions can talk to each other in casual conversations that look completely plausible.
One place where Disney always is invariably savvy is the voice talent casting, which in addition to Jones and Beyoncé includes such top names as Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Seth Rogen and John Oliver, each one adroitly matched to their role.
Voices also matter in the singing, where all the familiar musical numbers, from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to the Tim Rice-Elton John standards “Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata” and “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” benefit from fresh producing by Pharrell Williams with African vocal and choir arrangements produced by Lebo M.
There is also a rerecording of Hans Zimmer’s Oscar-winning score, a new Rice/John song, “Never Too Late,” sung by John, and Beyoncé singing her new “Spirit.” Calling the current film a musical would not be that much of a stretch.
Though this film is longer than the original, as written by Jeff Nathanson it’s essentially the same story that’s told in the Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton original screenplay.
So once again everything starts with a pre-title “Circle of Life” sequence, with lion pride leader Mufasa (Jones) and his mate Sarabi (Woodard) presenting their newly born cub and future leader Simba to the assembled multitudes.
Key players in Mufasa’s inner circle include the primate shaman Rafiki (John Kani) and the red-billed hornbill Zazu (Oliver, making some of the same jokes Rowan Atkinson made in the original), a kind of majordomo.
Notably absent, it turns out, is Mufasa’s jealous and manipulative younger brother Scar, a lion you definitely don’t want to turn your back on.
Expertly realizing this pivotal role is Ejiofor, and though he is less theatrically evil than Jeremy Irons’ animated Scar, he brings a strong level of credibility to the proceedings.
After Mufasa shows young Simba (JD McCrary) the lay of the land (“everything the light touches is our kingdom”), the youngster makes the mistake of listening to Scar, and soon enough he and his young female friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) make another blunder.
That would be wandering into territory controlled by hyenas, no friends to lions, and run by hard-nosed Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) with Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) and Azizi (Eric Andre) providing comic relief.
Not one to learn from his mistakes, Simba makes another one that leads to him feeling he has to abandon his home and even his desire to stay alive.
From this malaise he’s rescued by everyone’s favorite warthog/meerkat duo, Pumbaa (Rogen) and Timon (Billy Eichner), unlikely and hilarious friends who convince Simba that the “no worries” motto of hakuna matata is a philosophy he should be embracing.
A bit like Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” (think of Pumbaa as Falstaff), the adult Simba (Glover) can avoid his responsibilities for only so long before a visit from the adult Nala (Knowles-Carter) straightens him out.
All this, of course, is familiar to anyone who’s seen either the animated feature or the Broadway musical (or both) and that is exactly the point. By joining familiar material with mind-expanding technology, “Lion King” knows how to bring you around.
‘THE LION KING’
Rating: PG for sequences of violence and peril and some thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
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