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Anticipating a bountiful box-office feast, “The Lion King” deviates sparingly from the beloved 1994 original, for better and worse. The result is a polished and satisfying film, yet one that conspicuously feels even more like a consumer product than most Disney revivals of its animated classics.
Part of that, perhaps inevitably, stems from the absence of human characters. The realistic appearance of the animals thus retains an animated texture, much like “The Jungle Book” – director Jon Favreau’s first successful foray into the studio’s animation-update business, which at least had a human kid at its core.
The total immersion into a world of talking animals differs from the likes of “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast” or “Cinderella.” Without a human component, there’s little to differentiate the redo from the animation that inspired it, making this latest trip into the vaults – as beautifully realized as it is – less a “live-action remake” than simply another animated take, one that comes with advantages balanced by drawbacks.
On the plus side, the lovingly rendered lions, hyenas and other assorted fauna have more edge to them, bringing a fierceness, grit and genuine majesty to the action sequences. It’s like one of those “Planet Earth” documentaries, except for, you know, the songs and dialogue.
In the negative column, the characters lose some of the expressiveness associated with traditional animation and its anthropomorphized designs, more of an issue in the early going than as momentum builds toward the climax.
A distinguishing feature thus becomes the big-name voice cast, a major marketing tool for this familiar storyline about a young prince, Simba (Donald Glover once he grows up), who flees his responsibilities before being convinced by childhood friend Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter) to fight to reclaim his birthright.
In terms of making the character his own, Chiwetel Ejiofor stands out by sinking his teeth into Scar, the envious lion who betrays his brother, Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role), and chases Simba away in order to steal his throne.
Ejiofor transforms Scar’s song, “Be Prepared,” into an edgy, spoken-word rallying cry to the hyenas, who he enlists as part of his plot. It’s a breath of fresh air rivaled only by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen’s playfully goofy antics as Simba’s adopted pals Timon and Pumbaa, with the movie capitalizing on the PG rating to somewhat enhance the flatulent qualities that turned the warthog into a jungle pariah.
Other than that, there’s understandably no interest in reinventing the wheel – or the circle of life. Having wowed audiences in animated form and on Broadway, the enterprise comes heavily presold to those who can hum the songs and recognize every soaring beat of Hans Zimmer’s score.
Indeed, the one conspicuous disappointment financially speaking among Disney’s recent adaptations has been “Dumbo,” a true reboot that by necessity took more liberties with its predecessor than the aforementioned hits.
“The Lion King,” by comparison, resides at the top of the studio’s food chain, clearly knows it, and doesn’t have to roar to announce its presence. A quarter-century later, that has birthed an heir that’s easy to like, without necessarily feeling the love.
“The Lion King” premieres July 19 in the US. It’s rated PG.