'The Lion King' review: Disney remake brings new life to animated classic

'The Lion King'
"The Lion King" stars Donald Glover, Beyoncé Carter-Knowles, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, and James Earl Jones. |

BEVERLY HILLS — Disney’s “The Lion King” returns to the big screen on Thursday in a live-action photo-realistic remake of the 1994 animated classic. Directed by Jon Favreau ("The Jungle Book," "Iron Man"), the film is chock-full of A-list talent, including Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Billy Eichner, and James Earl Jones.

The new version of “The Lion King” doesn’t veer far from the original: Simba (Glover) flees the Pride Lands after he believes he causes the death of his father, Mufasa (Jones). However, at the behest of his childhood friend, Nala (Knowles-Carter), Simba returns to his homeland, seeking to reclaim it from his evil Uncle Scar (Ejiofor) with the help of his friends Timon (Eichner) and Pumbaa (Rogen).

The 1994 “Lion King” became one of the highest-grossing animated films of all time, earning nearly a billion dollars at the box office — and the 2019 version is likely to follow suit. It’s a visually stunning film: In the opening scene, herds of gorgeous animals — zebras, elephants, and antelope — bound across a sprawling African landscape. King Mufasa stands proudly, waiting to hold up his newborn cub, Simba, as “The Circle of Life” resounds in the background. The hyper-realistic CGI and sound effects continue throughout “The Lion King,” immersing viewers in a world of color, adventure, and beauty. 

Biblical truths are sprinkled throughout “The Lion King.” Life is celebrated, evil is abhorred, and sacrificial love is an overarching theme in the film. An original song by Knowles-Carter called “Spirit” includes the biblically-infused lyrics, “Spirit, watch the heavens open/Spirit, can you hear it callin’?/So go into that far off land, And be one with the Great I Am.”

The film stresses the importance of sacrificing one’s own comfort for the greater good: Hakuna Matata, the “no worries,” nihilistic philosophy presented by Timon and Pumbaa, is acknowledged to be terrible and dangerous advice. Nevertheless, Simba’s sidekicks provide comic relief in an otherwise heavy story, interjecting cheeky one-liners that will likely please the younger audience.

However, “The Lion King” also includes some pagan mysticism and images children may find terrifying, from the mean-spirited hyenas to the tragic death of Mufasa at the hands of his scheming brother. Given the hyper-realistic nature of several scary scenes, the film merits caution for younger children.

Disney purists will appreciate “The Lion King” for its faithfulness to the original; Favreau doesn’t reinvent the wheel with the live-action remake. Also working in the film's favor is the impressive soundtrack, composed by Hans Zimmer. Lebo M. returns with the iconic “Circle of Life,” while Glover — known by his stage name Childish Gambino — and Beyoncé bring new life to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Eleven-year-old J.D. McCrary, who voices the young Simba, skillfully performs the poignant song “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.”

While the live-action “The Lion King” doesn’t quite possess the charm of the cartoon original, Favreau has encouraged fans to view it as the restoration of a historical landmark.

"We kept the same film culture and planted into this VR realm," Favreau explained during a press conference in Beverly Hills attended by The Christian Post. "It's nice to look at technology as an invitation for things to progress and not always something that is going to change the things that came before."

And “The Lion King” indeed takes full advantage of modern technology, with its hyper-realistic animals and convincing animation. But 25 years after its release, the film’s message remains unchanged, highlighting the importance of sacrifice, integrity and honor. With a compelling storyline, captivating imagery and positive message, “The Lion King” is the summer blockbuster all ages will enjoy. 

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