The Lion King is easily the best of Disney’s live-action remakes. But when the competition is Dumbo, The Jungle Book, Aladdin et al, being the best is a pretty low bar to clear.
And this film has one thing none of the others had: Beyoncé.
I am completely here for Queen Bey. She brings maternal fierceness to the role of adult Nala. When her original song, Spirit, begins, it lifts the tone of the movie and adds a whiff of freshness. This is a really good film with Beyonce. Without her, it is serviceable and just cashing in on nostalgia and new technology.
The open grabs you by the nostalgia from frame one. It’s almost a shot-for-shot re-creation of the original, as infant Simba is presented to the Pridelands population as Circle of Life plays. It is visually stunning and musically amazing.
From there, unlike Mufassa, the movie doesn’t go off a cliff. It just plateaus. It hits a literal high note in the opening moments and just kind of rides that momentum for the next 105 minutes.
There are highlights. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner are a great team as Pumbaa and Timon. They should really work on a project together. John Oliver is great as the neurotically loyal Zazu.
But like a young Simba trying to find his voice in the canyon, this movie never really roars. And can we please quit calling this a ‘live-action’ remake?!? There is nothing live about this. Dumbo, Aladdin and their ilk all had live people co-mingling with CGI characters. This is just a remake of an animated film using next-gen animation.
Setting The Tone
There is one category where this film improves on the original: the music. It combines songs from the original film and the Broadway production, as well as original music from Elton John and Beyoncé.
But the songs are reworked to be true to the setting’s African roots. The music matches the visual tone set by director Jon Favreau and his artistic team. Beyoncé said in an interview that she wanted to honor the spirit of Africa, and the soundtrack succeeds. From the reaction of the packed theater, I’m not the only one loving the music. People were swaying and singing along as the classics, and even Beyoncé’s new song played.
While I wouldn’t necessarily add this movie to my collection when it comes out on DVD, I already have the album on my iTunes.
The Circle of (Studio) Life
The Lion King has taken its place in Hollywood’s version of the circle of life. While sequel and reboot are watchwords in Tinseltown, Disney’s ‘live-action’ project tries to be a hybrid. But it’s a pretty clear formula:
- Make animated classic
- Release as many VHS/DVD versions as possible
- Announce ‘live-action’ version
- Attach big stars to the project
- Collect money from fans of the original
- Ignore reactions from disappointed fans
And we’re far from finished with the craze. A trailer for Mulan played before this screening.
In the end, this movie is entertaining. Kids will love it, and at 110 minutes it’s just the right length. Some of the younger audience members were getting noisy and fidgety before the climactic battle. Adults will probably like it, but if you don’t have kids it’s easily one you can wait to come out on digital.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
Beyoncé’s song is called Spirit, so we must avoid beer and wine and move right to spirits!
I’m making a Witblits, or “White lighting” (aka firewater), It’s a grape-fermented amateur brandy from South Africa that definitely packs a punch.