By the time Disney is done with its current wave of remakes of its own animated classics, the only one left might be the Mickey Mouse short subject “Steamboat Willie.”
There’s nothing wrong with doing that, of course, particularly with your own properties … but the hope is that the result will be an entirely different experience, as familiar as the given tale may be. Technically stunning though it is, the revised version of “The Lion King” doesn’t supplant the traditionally animated 1994 original as the defining telling of the story – and there’s a certain comfort in that, since for so many fans, the first always will be “the one.”
Still, give update director Jon Favreau big credit for using computer-generated imagery to the max in putting a more realistic sheen on the saga of lion Simba (now voiced in older years by Donald Glover), who tries to claim his birthright from his devious uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
It’s notable that as Simba’s father Mufasa, James Earl Jones is the only member of the original voice cast to return. Let’s face it, no one else could equal nor surpass that actor’s singular intonations, and this film’s makers were smart to realize and accept that.
Beyonce surely is a major addition to the cast as Nala, but arguably the most successful recasting is that of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa. They are absolutely hilarious together here, as you would hope and expect from two experienced comedic talents. And everyone on board gets to give a new workout to the great Elton John-Tim Rice music score that includes “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “Hakuna Matata” and “Circle of Life.”
Favreau used a very similar approach in revising “The Jungle Book” for Disney, though he did mix some live action into that project, and it’s always a bit mind-boggling to recognize that the director who takes on such staggering creative challenges also is the good-humored actor known for his on-screen presence in such pictures as “Iron Man” and ”Something’s Gotta Give.” Whatever the overall effect, there only can be respect for the painstaking, time-consuming (three years, in this case) work involved for him.
In the course of being visually flawless in what it tries to (and does) achieve technically, “The Lion King” also makes a trade-off in losing some of its organically stirred emotion. Watch this in awe, then, but never forget the enduring impact of the forerunner that made it possible.