You're watching “Planet Earth.” A lion charges across the plains with explosive, predatory power surging through its thick cat thighs. You think to yourself, “Yes, but hear me out — what if there was this, but also Beyoncé?”
Is this you? Oh, do I have a movie for you.
From the people who brought you Will Smith in Smurf drag and Emma Watson dancing with a man-sized buffalo comes the latest live-action update of a 1990s Disney animated classic: “The Lion King.” Instead of the most stylish, vibrant cartoon animation 1994 had to offer, this re-reimagination of the “'Hamlet' with lions" concept renders its ark of beloved characters in photorealistic CGI. Also: an all-star voice cast, directed by Jon Favreau. Simba’s fur blows in the wind, and you feel the breeze on your own skin. Mufasa and Scar duel over that fateful stampede in the gorge, and your mind tricks you into thinking the stakes are higher with these seemingly flesh-and-blood animals — your heart pounds as dust blooms off the screen. Seth Rogen’s voice comes out of a warthog’s wiry snout, and you feel the promise of death take root deep in your sternum.
I kid about that last one, mostly. But any logical misgivings you might have about the new “Lion King” — Is its existence harmless but unnecessary? Is it beautiful but slightly unsettling to look at ? — are probably warranted.
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There is a thrill to hearing the opening chant of “Circle of Life” jolt you to life in the midst of a National Geographic spread. For many who grew up in the 1990s, “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba” is as potent as an espresso shot. But this time, we’ve got vistas. Vistas, baby! Golden light bathes the iconic tableau of Pride Rock. Mufasa (voiced again by James Earl Jones) is there to nuzzle Sarabi (voiced by Alfre Woodard). Zazu (voiced by John Oliver) flits overhead. Rafiki (voiced by John Kani) hoists aloft the actual cutest lion cub you have ever seen in your miserable, non-computer-generated life. Feathers, hooves and paws hurtle through glassy water and swaying grass toward the presentation of the prince that was promised. It feels right, and it’s gorgeous to look at.
But man, once those marvels of technology start talking, you start squirming. One imagines a conversation in production about how best to put Beyoncé’s voice into a cat’s mouth without breaking any natural laws or offending any deities (chief among them Beyoncé). The animators never quite get there. They largely avoid unholy snout contortion in service of forming English syllables. Everyone’s got a touch of Kermit mouth, though. Flap flap. That’s fine, but as it turns out, those realistic animal eyes betray little inner life. That takes the air out of the big emotional beats in the plot; it takes almost all the whimsy and style out of the beloved Elton John/Tim Rice songs. You’ve never missed a warthog’s ability to box step more.
Though hyenas prowl the uncanny valley in this “Lion King,” the magnificent voice cast makes every moment its own. The movie spends lots of time with young Simba, and preteen actor JD McCrary imbues the cub with princely petulance. Then Donald Glover’s voice comes out of adult Simba like a bolt of lightning and reminds you why he’s rocketed to superstardom in recent years. Glover also makes a goosebump-worthy duet partner for the Houston drawl looming over this whole affair, the Queen Bey herself. History might only remember this film as the time they remade "The Lion King" with Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, and she shows up to work accordingly. Her Nala gets an update similar to Jasmine's in the live-action “Aladdin” released this year. Read: Disney gives her character actual agency aside from “Here is the girl character to put on the lunchbox," as well as an original song. I confess that I wished the spot the film used “Spirit,” the new tune, had instead contained “Freedom” from the singer’s “Lemonade” album. Pardon me the indulgence.
Chiwetel Ejiofor menaces with weary bitterness as Scar (you might miss Jeremy Irons’ sense of camp from the original) and Seth Rogen is as cuddly a Pumbaa as there ever was (plus he gets some great lines that break the fourth wall just enough).
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But the real star of the show is neither Glover nor Knowles-Carter, but comedian Billy Eichner as the meerkat Timon. He’s the only actor who brings something entirely fresh and exciting to his character. All respect to the O.G. Timon, Nathan Lane. Eichner gives the most layered portrayal of a member of the mongoose family that has ever been committed to the screen. Timon quips and brays, but he also radiates love and concern for his young leonine charge. Somehow Eichner conveys the weight of a harsh life spent avoiding snapping jaws across the African wilds? And he belts! No one is more surprised or delighted than me at the palpable obsession I have for someone’s performance as a meerkat.
Maybe it shouldn't be surprising. For all its dazzling visuals and gorgeous reinterpretations of beloved childhood songs, “The Lion King” struggles to find heart between the viewer and the cold, algorithm-designed eyes of its menagerie. Lions and hyenas claw at each other with terrifying realism but without viscera. Cubs croon about waiting to be king, but it’s hard to get worked up about the royal ambitions of a really expensive screensaver.
However, the kids at my screening weren’t picking at those nits. This is a classic tale told beautifully — as long as the toddler in my row felt like roaring whenever Simba did, all must be well in the Pride Lands. Hakunah freakin’ matata.