Review: Disney’s new version of ‘The Lion King’ brings a realistic look to a familiar story

(Image courtesy Walt Disney Pictures) The young cub Simba is presented to the animals of the savanna in Disney's computer-animated version of "The Lion King."

Every time Disney has produced “The Lion King,” it’s been a stylized rendition, and the question becomes whether the particular style — hand-drawn animation in the 1994 film, puppet performance in the Broadway production, or now photo-realistic computer animation — works for the story of a young cub maturing into a leader.

With director Jon Favreau and an army of animators and artists arranging pixels into realistic-looking African landscapes and talking animals, the answer is, yes, this lion still roars.

Now, as it did 25 years ago, the opening snaps the viewer to attention. The Zulu chant by South African musician Lebo M. again announces the sunrise and summons animals big and small to Pride Rock for a presentation of King Mufasa’s new heir, the lion cub Simba. As the king’s trusted aide, the baboon Rafiki lifts young Simba up so all may bow, the song “Circle of Life” — written, like most of the songs, by Elton John and Tim Rice — swells to a crescendo in a shot-for-shot remake of the 1994 version’s first minutes.

Missing from the ceremony is Scar, Mufasa’s scheming, scraggly brother and pretender to the throne. Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones, the lone holdover from the ’94 voice cast) refuses to exile Scar (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a fatal decision that leads to Simba (voiced by 12-year-old JD McCrary) running away into exile and putting Scar, backed by a pack of ravenous hyenas, in command of the Pride Lands.

Simba is found by the story’s comic duo, the fast-talking meerkat Timon (voiced by comic Billy Eichner) and the doofus warthog Pumbaa (voiced by Seth Rogen). They teach Simba their motto of worry-free living, “Hakuna Matata,” and the three frolic as Simba grows to adulthood in a single song, acquiring the voice of Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino.

(Image courtesy Disney) Zazu, voiced by John Oliver, left, and Simba, voiced by JD McCrary, in a scene from "The Lion King," directed by Jon Favreau.

Soon, Simba’s lioness friend Nala, who as an adult is voiced by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, arrives on the scene. She provides Simba both a romantic partner (fueled by the song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”) and a chance at redemption over his father’s death. Meanwhile, Rafiki (voiced by John Kani, the elder king from “Black Panther”) catches something on the wind that Simba lives, despite what Scar told everyone in the Pride Lands.

The way Favreau depicts Rafiki’s discovery is one area where this “Lion King” diverts from the ’94 version. It’s a smart, evocative sequence depicting the “circle of life” across the African wilderness. It also forces unsuspecting audiences to contemplate a giraffe’s digestive process from leaf to poop.

Mostly, though, screenwriter Jeff Nathanson follows the same story beats and song cues as the ’94 film. Young McCrary belts out “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” as energetically as ever, and John Oliver’s take on Mufasa’s hornbill majordomo Zazu provides many of the same laughs as the original did. The few variations, like a spot-on Disney inside joke or Beyoncé’s goosebump-inducing solo on the new song “Spirit,” are charming but don’t detract from the familiar theme of a prince accepting his royal responsibility.

Visually, Favreau, as he did with the remake of Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” creates a vivid, tactile world out of nothing. Everything, from the lush jungle foliage to the fur on Mufasa’s mane, was created in a computer, making the leap over digital filmmaking’s “uncanny valley” — the line in computer animation where realistic crosses into creepy — like no other movie before it.

The sumptuous look can be ascribed, in part, to veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (“The Right Stuff,” “The Passion of the Christ”). He is credited as the movie’s director of photography, even though there’s not a frame of traditional “photography” in the film.

That doesn’t make this version of “The Lion King” better than the ’94 version — some parts, like Scar’s ominous “Be Prepared,” were superior the first time — but different. Every story comes down to the quality of its interpretation, and the stunning visual splendor of this rendition tells this story beautifully and dynamically.

(Image courtesy Disney) Mufasa, voiced by James Earl Jones, left, and Simba, voiced by JD McCrary, in a scene from "The Lion King," directed by Jon Favreau.


‘The Lion King’

Eye-popping photo-realistic animation brings the familiar Disney story to life in a whole new way.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens Friday, July 19.

Rated • PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements.

Running time • 118 minutes.