Review: Dazzling photo-real 'Lion King' comes to life

The remake of the beloved 1994 classic sticks to the bones of the original story but gives it a new visual punch

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones) and Simba (JD McCrary) in "The Lion King."

Ah, the circle of life. Over the last 25 years, it has evolved from the theme song to "The Lion King" to Disney's overriding corporate strategy, as the company is in a mad dash to remake its library of cartoon favorites.  

But it's tough to argue with the results in "The Lion King," a dazzling visual spectacle that trades the animated roots of the original for a stunning photo-realism that should enthrall audiences with and without fond memories of the 1994 original. 

"The Lion King," the animated tale about the cyclical nature of existence set in the African wilderness, has become one of Disney's all-time biggest properties, launching a hugely successful soundtrack and a long-running, Tony award-winning Broadway musical. 

This new version, which is not live-action but you could have fooled me, is Disney's third remake this year, following March's "Dumbo" and May's "Aladdin." Around a dozen more projects are in various stages of development, and outside of gross financial gain, it's unclear why Mickey Inc. is in such a rush to pump out remakes of its beloved catalog. (Do they know something we don't know about our time left on Earth?)   

Director Jon Favreau, who also helmed 2016's "Jungle Book" redo, once again does an ace job of making talking animals both palatable and believable. That's the biggest hump "The Lion King" needs to get over, and it does so quickly, as James Earl Jones returns to bring his booming, resonant voice to Mufasa, who oversees his expansive kingdom from his perch high up on his rock. (The great Caleb Deschanel is credited as cinematographer, and while it's not clear what he shot — backgrounds? frames? — "The Lion King" certainly looks spectacular.) 

Mufasa teaches his son, Simba (voice of JD McCrary) about life and how everything is interconnected — the animals they eat are eventually given back to the earth, and that circle of life propagates itself — and tells him to be wary of the shadowy area at the horizon line. That's where the elephant graveyard lies, as well as the hyenas who'd love to make a meal out of a young cub and his ever-present sidekick, Nala (voice of Shahadi Wright Joseph).

You know where all of this is headed, of course, and the script by Jeff Nathanson doesn't stray from the original. Where "The Lion King" excels is in its visual presentation, not just in a "oh, look what they can do with technology!" way, but in the way Favreau's animals come to life when paired with choice voice performances from a talented, invested cast. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor gives dramatic gravitas to Scar, Mufasa's brother, who plots to take over the kingdom. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner, warm and full of laughs, are able to riff and find their own space as comedic relief duo Pumbaa and Timon, who teach Simba the ways of Hakuna Matata, "The Lion King's" version of fugheddaboutit. John Oliver comes on strong and takes some getting used to as Zazu, the bird who delivers his lion masters the daily download about what's happening in the kingdom, but comes around. 

On the other end, Donald Glover and Beyoncé both come up short as the grown-up Simba and Nala, their flat line readings coming off as stiff, one of the few instances where the characters on screen actually feel as if they're being voiced by actors in a recording studio. Their duet of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" also flatlines, as the centerpiece emotional moment shifts to the Beyoncé offering "Spirit," which works but doesn't deliver goosebumps. 

As "The Lion King" builds toward its climax and Scar rules over a dilapidated kingdom with a group of scheming hyenas at his side, there are political allusions to today that weren't present in the original. Perhaps that's the circle of life we're in now. Times change, sure, but the bones of "The Lion King's" story are so good that it still reigns supreme.

It's a remake with roar.


'The Lion King'


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

Running time: 118 minutes