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Review: Disney's new 'Lion King' revamp razzles and dazzles but feels all too familiar

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Disney’s live-action remake of “The Lion King” features the familiar voices of Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen and more.
USA TODAY

For anyone truly worried that Disney’s new redo of “The Lion King” will disappoint, well, hakuna matata and all that.

The Circle of Life has never looked so good: Director Jon Favreau’s visually wowing update (★★★ out of four; rated PG; in theaters nationwide July 19) stuns the senses with photorealistic animals and an immersive African landscape, all courtesy of game-changing, incredible visual effects. (Even the grubs are computer-generated, and pretty dang cute.)

As for the rest of it? This “Lion King” is akin to a revival of an iconic Broadway musical, with an all-star cast and a few welcome improvements but lacking a certain magic and originality.

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Unlike fellow Disney revamps such as “Maleficent” and this year’s “Dumbo,” Favreau’s film sticks extremely close to the 1994 animated classic – while not a pointless, painfully familiar effort like, say, Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” remake, it’s not markedly different, either. That shot everyone knows of the crazy-adorable baby Simba being hoisted above Pride Rock is here, obviously, and as a youngster, the cub (voiced by JD McCrary) is groomed to rule one day by his dad King Mufasa (a returning James Earl Jones).

Tragedy strikes when Mufasa saves Simba from a stampede and is then killed by his evil brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who takes the throne for his own. But before that, Scar essentially banishes Simba, and the kid grows up living a nomadic life with snarky meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and jolly warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen). Childhood best friend Nala (Beyonce) runs into older Simba (Donald Glover), and sparks fly – yes, you can feel the love tonight – before the inevitable lion-on-lion tussle with his villainous relative.

What’s remarkable is the whole thing looks like a well-done nature documentary. The eye-popping visuals Favreau used three years ago for “The Jungle Book” seem obsolete compared to what he unleashes here. The attention to detail is exquisite, from Timon’s jittery hands and random scratching fits to the water droplets hanging off the whiskers of wise mandrill Rafiki (John Kani) during a torrential rainstorm. It only gets strange when those realistic animals start singing, though you’re less weirded out by the time hippos and antelopes are seen crooning “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

The new “Lion King” is also a lot funnier thanks to a contemporary sense of humor in Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay and the scene-stealing comic relief of Timon and Pumbaa. The teaming of Rogen and Eichner, whose maniacal shtick is amazingly hilarious even as a furry critter, are reason alone why this revamp should exist. The musical stars of the cast aren’t too shabby, either: Glover riffs playfully in songs and balances his usual cool with gravitas, and Beyonce brings all the necessary fire as Nala, a lion willing to do anything to protect her pride.

The soundtrack remains top-notch, too, with the new Beyonce-powered song “Spirit” added in a fist-pumping sequence for Simba and Nala, plus the new Elton John tune “Never Too Late” (with an African choir) waiting for you during the credits. 

Was “The Lion King” really in need of a souped-up version? Nope. The original holds up exceedingly well and honestly has the edge in overall charm. Favreau at least loves and respects the story enough to do it justice, as well as lean into the core themes.

The interconnectedness of us all – the Circle of Life, if you will – isn’t just talked about but felt in new ways. That mangy Scar, with his freaky jowls and Ejiofor’s vicious vocals, is the new poster boy for brutality. And the moment when Simba tearfully snuggles up next to his fallen father will ruin you all over again, even more so than 25 years ago, because of how immersive Favreau’s world and characters are.

This “Lion King” does an OK job roaring to life for a new generation and looking spectacular along the way. The OG, however, will always be the real mane attraction.

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  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Beyonc attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 11610712321 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: (L-R) Blue Ivy Carter and Beyonc attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 11610734892 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Donald Glover attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 11610686483 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Donald Glover attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 11610675084 of 41
  • Tiffany Haddish arrives at the world premiere of The Lion King on Tuesday, July 9, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP) ORG XMIT: CAPM1095 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Alfre Woodard attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 11610710936 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Kelly Rowland attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 11610712337 of 41
  • US singer Michelle Williams arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GU8 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: (L-R) Chloe Bailey and Halle Bailey attend the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 11610675559 of 41
  • US-Canadian actor Seth Rogen arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ85J10 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Shahadi Wright Joseph attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116106951111 of 41
  • British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ85V12 of 41
  • US actor Keegan-Michael Key and his wife US producer Elisa Pugliese arrive for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6HB13 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Jon Favreau attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107268314 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: (L-R) Chance The Rapper and Kensli Bennett attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 116106937515 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Chrissy Metz attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107283916 of 41
  • US actress Zooey Deschanel arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6H617 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Jimmy Kimmel attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 116106771518 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Ali Wong attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107366919 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Florence Kasumba attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107099320 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Raven-Symon attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116106749821 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Daryl Sabara and Meghan Trainor attend the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116106659722 of 41
  • US actor LeVar Burton arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ85I23 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: JD McCrary attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775361937 ORIG FILE ID: 116107295624 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Patrick Starrr attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107275825 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Jason Maybaum attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107289226 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: LeAnn Rimes attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107018427 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Maia Mitchell attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116106865128 of 41
  • US actress Skai Jackson arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GS29 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Hans Zimmer attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107022530 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Eric Andre attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116107094631 of 41
  • US actress Marsai Martin arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GP32 of 41
  • US actress Zooey Deschanel (L) and her sister actress Emily Deschanel (R) arrive for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6HE33 of 41
  • US actor Billy Eichner arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6H734 of 41
  • HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 09: Emily Deschanel attends the premiere of Disney's The Lion King at Dolby Theatre on July 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775350860 ORIG FILE ID: 116106651635 of 41
  • English actor Rufus Sewell arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GT36 of 41
  • US actress Yvette Nicole Brown arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: Premiere ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GR37 of 41
  • US actress Ruth Righi arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GL38 of 41
  • US actress Demi Singleton arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GN39 of 41
  • US actress Denise Rodriguez arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6GZ40 of 41
  • Executive producer Tom Peitzman arrives for the world premiere of Disney's The Lion King at the Dolby theatre on July 9, 2019 in Hollywood. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images ORIG FILE ID: AFP_1IJ6H241 of 41

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