Yet the film stumbles slightly in the leads. As we’d expect, Donald Glover (as adult lion prince Simba) and Beyoncé (as love interest Nala) knock the songs out of the park. But they feel flat whenever they’re not singing.
All the buzz about the visuals is true. The Lion King is so stunningly realistic, you at times forget you’re not watching a nature documentary. But there’s a downside to this, too. One reason cuddly creatures work so well in animated films is because we can give them human expressions. Here, even at their happiest or most sorrowful, the animals retain the blank faces of real animals. It robs the film of some emotion, and, if my screening is anything to go by, makes it harder for youngsters to connect with the characters.
That’s a bit of a shame given what a tremendous drama The Lion King is, almost Shakespearean in its use of classic archetypes.
A reckless and proud prince fails to heed his kingly father’s lessons. Only when the prince goes into exile after his father dies at the hands of his wicked uncle does he begin to understand his father’s wisdom. In the wilderness, he faces the temptations of cowardly, worldly philosophy: Life is meaningless, we owe nothing to a larger community, and we should pursue our own selfish pleasures. Catchy as the tune is, this is what Timon and Pumbaa are really counseling with “Hakuna Matata.” Favreau’s update makes this philosophical conflict even more marvelously explicit.
Eventually, suffering refines the prince’s character. He remembers who he is and returns home, humbled and heroic, ready to wrest his rightful throne away from the usurper who—like a kind of animal Robespierre—has built an army of the envious. Simba seeks traditional order not for his own sake, but for the sake of his people. As Mufasa advises his son, “While others search for what they can take, a true king searches for what he can give.” Not a bad paraphrasing of Christ’s lesson that to be great in the kingdom, you must be a servant of all.
Editor’s Note: This is an extended version of the review that appears in the Aug. 3 print issue.