'The Lion King' Review: Beyoncé, Donald Glover Bring Real Heart to Photoreal Animals

The Lion King
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

And Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen steal the movie.

Jon Favreau's remake of The Lion King opens with a picturesque frame of the sun rising over the Pride Lands, the African plains set against the gauzy reds and oranges of the skyline like one of those too-stunning-to-be-real screensavers when your AppleTV goes to sleep. Except this isn't real. The entire film has been painstakingly, awe-inspiringly constructed from 1s and 0s to look as close to live action as technologically possible, but like the 1994 original, this Lion King is animated.

You forget that though, to a degree. Everything, from the titular lion and his royal pride to their animal cohorts and every leaf and rock and water droplet in between, looks marvelous. There's never been anything executed to this level, visually-speaking. And that leads to some uncanniness as the lions talk, because they do look so real. The effect is something like pulling your dog's lips back and pretending to do their voice, but it becomes less distracting as the movie goes on. Then the voices coming from the lions' mouths switch to Donald Glover and Beyoncé, and it takes a second again.

The very nature of telling this story photorealistically gives and takes away, providing a new experience no matter how much the story beats line up with what came before. Gone is the cartoonish emoting of the animated lions, as real lions don't exactly emote, aside from the occasional snarl. That emotional heft is left for the voice cast to carry. At the same time, there are higher stakes, with those realistic-looking teeth and claws, the clashing muscles and gnashing fangs, that don't reach Our Planet-level grisliness but make someone like Scar more menacing than camp. (He's still camp, too. Because there's always camp when your villain sings his evil plan.)

I don't need to tell you, reader, the plot of The Lion King; I would sooner assume someone didn't know the plot of Hamlet. This time around, it's Glover voicing Simba and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala, a role that's been beefed up for the remake. (Even female lions weren't getting the roles they deserved back then.) Alfre Woodard lends her voice to Sarabi and Chiwetel Ejiofor to Scar, with the soulful James Earl Jones reprising his role as Mufasa. John Oliver takes on Zazu and Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen voice Timon and Pumbaa, respectively, among other marquee names voicing hyenas and primates.

Spending time debating the necessariness of Disney's live-action remakes in a review feels like wasted words -- this is the third already this year, the debate is moot -- but I do tend to enjoy the remakes that stray a bit further from their animated counterparts, that endeavor to tell new stories, even within the framework of the story we know and love. This Lion King isn't as dissimilar as, say, Dumbo, or even Aladdin, but it's certainly not a shot-for-shot recreation, either. It expands upon the animated version, filling out the story and adding meat to the bones to the tune of 30 additional minutes.

Yet, I do wish Favreau and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson had dared to stray further, even if just to the Broadway production for an added song or two. (It's a shame Beyoncé does not have a solo moment within the film, despite recording an original song. "Shadowland" exists for this very moment) The biggest liberties are taken in the comedy -- both updated jokes and new laughs in the placeholder of sight gags that don't translate -- and Eichner and Rogen, especially, waste no time running with it. Eventually, their Timon and Pumbaa run away with the entire movie.

In the end, that's the good and the bad: Staying too true to the original can leave audiences wondering what could have been. But with a movie like The Lion King, if you stay true to the original, you're also guaranteed a great movie, because that's what every version of The Lion King has been and this is no exception.