It’s back. Bigger and better than ever.
It’s “The Lion King.”
How do you improve on a classic, which the 1994 animated Disney movie indisputably is?
Indisputably, Disney has done it with this remake, coming to theaters July 19.
The original is visually stunning, deeply moving, splendidly acted. The new version, a half-hour longer than the 98-minute original, likewise.
Director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson have wisely retained all the elements that make the ’94 picture — directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, and written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton and a host of story contributors — so powerful and narratively complex. Also, all the great songs from Elton John and Tim Rice have been retained.
Many of the scenes in the remake are shot-for-shot re-creations of passages from the original. Cub Simba placing a tiny paw in the big footprint of his father, Mufasa? Big shoes (er, feet) to fill. It’s there. Young Simba gazing at his reflection in a pool of water, seeing the image of his father and thereby understanding his destiny to be his father’s living legacy? You saw it once. Now see it again.
Why mess with success?
The new version amplifies and deepens all that is good in the original. The key is in the visuals. Photorealistic computer-generated imagery renders its African landscapes and animals with astonishing realism.
Favreau and the studio’s production team did the same thing with the 2016 remake of “The Jungle Book.” Their work in “Lion King” is even more impressive.
From the movie’s opening moments — sunrise over the savanna, animals of all species converging on Pride Rock to celebrate the arrival of baby Simba, held aloft by the mandrill Rafiki, accompanied by the triumphant cry that introduces “The Circle of Life” anthem — the power of the imagery takes the breath away.
In a later scene when Mufasa (voiced as in the original by James Earl Jones; why mess with success?) stands atop a high promontory with cub Simba by his side and explains how the vast veld that stretches before them is the lions’ kingdom, the vista is indeed remarkably expansive and magnificent.
A change from the original is the presence of primarily African-American and African actors as the voices of key roles. These include Beyoncé as the voice of Simba’s betrothed, Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph voices Nala as a cub); Donald Glover as the grown-up Simba, taking over from Matthew Broderick (young singer-actor JD McCrary voices him as a cub); and Alfre Woodard as Simba’s mother, Sarabi.
Most significant is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who supplies the voice for the villain Scar. Where Jeremy Irons delivered Scar’s lines with silky malevolence in the ’94 version, Ejiofor infuses his delivery with a roughened rage.
Great villains often make for great stories, providing great challenges for the hero to overcome, and Scar, scuffed-up and mangy-looking in this incarnation, is an apex bad guy.
Fueled by his resentment at being denied the throne by the existence of his brother Mufasa’s son, he murders the father and insidiously guilt-trips Simba, making him believe he is the one responsible for his father’s death. Scar’s recruitment of the hyenas as his enforcers deepens the evil. And the CG hyenas, slinking and predatory, are vile as vile can be.
Offsetting the evil are the clowns in the piece, Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) and his buddy Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner). Their comic byplay — Pumbaa, ever overeager, and Timon, vainglorious and slyly mocking of his pal — are delightful scene-stealers, and their singing of “Hakuna Matata” is a giddy high point.
With its message of reverence for the interconnectedness of life (it hits “The Circle of Life” theme hard and repeatedly), “Lion King” is a deeply moving experience. All hail this “King.”
★★★½ “The Lion King,” with the voices of Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, J.D. McCrary, Beyoncé, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Alfre Woodard. Directed by Jon Favreau, from a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson. 120 minutes. Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements. Opens July 19 at multiple theaters.