Recasting animated classics of the 20th century as live action in the 21st has become Disney’s own kind of circle of life: Dumbo, Aladdin, Cinderella, Beauty and The Beast.
And now maybe inevitably, its circle of Lion, too — though the 1994 original is unique, at least, in also becoming the third-longest-running Broadway musical of all time before making its way back to the screen again.
Why presume you can improve on a film that already earned close to a billion dollars at the box office, took home two Oscars, and is still winning over new tiny iPad-conversant consumers of farty warthogs and fast-talking meerkats every day?
The short answer might be: technology. 2019’s Lion King is a marvel of photorealism from the first frame, nearly indistinguishable from the real real; it looks like Netflix’s Planet Earth, if gazelles could share watering holes with their natural predators, and zebras semi-regularly broke into song.
The longer answer may still be simple, too: because it’s the closest the notoriously fickle movie business comes to a sure thing; a beloved, highly lucrative property, helmed by a director, Jon Favreau, who already delivered another near-billion-dollar conversion with 2016’s The Jungle Book.
And also because a panoply of A-list talent agreed to lend their voices, including Donald Glover as grown Simba, prodigal son; Beyoncé as his future queen, Nala; James Earl Jones reprising his role as the original king Mufasa, with Chiwetel Ejiofor stepping in for Jeremy Irons as his mangy, malevolent brother, Scar. (No wonder Mufasa and Scar seem so estranged; even their accents come from different continents).
The story is a dark one, even by old-school Disney standards of early orphan-ing and heedless villainy. A little lion cub must watch his father die violently, and believe it’s entirely his fault; he must be pursued by ravenous predators, threatened by wildfire and stampede, and commit his own family transgressions to save the pride.
Favreau does his best to amend that with comic relief: Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as Timon and Pumbaa, centipede-snuffing hedonists of the animal kingdom; John Oliver as a fussy, officious hornbill; Keegan Michael-Key, underused as a never-not-peckish hyena.
And he (or more accurately, an untold collective of studio wizardry) lavishes care on the look of the film, over and over: It’s in every breeze that lifts Mufasa’s mane; in the Serengeti sweep of sun-drenched plains and sleepy giraffes; even the wriggly grubs squirming beneath an overturned log.
If the film feels a little airless for all that open space, maybe it’s because the movie’s CG is so elaborately, meticulously made that it doesn’t leave much room for the spark of spontaneity. The story and the songs, with a few notable if hardly unexpected updates, are fondly faithful to the original; the magic mostly intact. Another reboot was never terribly necessary, maybe — but it’s good, still, to be King.