Some scenes in the revamped “Lion King” will astound you. Thousands of stars glitter over the African savanna. A round, red sun rises over heat waves. A mouse scampers across crisply-defined leaves. A dung beetle rolls its exquisitely rendered cargo across the ground.
Zazu, a red-billed hornbill and adviser to King Mufasa, flaps into view. You marvel at the sharp outlines of feathers clustered around the bird’s eye, each one a miniature miracle of animation.
But then the bird opens its beak — and instead of a squawk, John Oliver’s nasally English accent comes out. In the flick of a tail, the blink of a membraned eye, the filmmakers fall into the trap they’ve laid for themselves: animation so convincing that breaking the rules looks wrong.
The movie’s obsession with photorealism also betrays that phrase the original popularized a quarter century ago: hakuna matata. It means no worries — except that in the 25 years since “The Lion King” premiered, the Walt Disney Company has worried. About how to channel viewers’ nostalgia for the hits of their childhood into a slate of stage versions and live-action remakes. Directors regurgitate old scripts, add the latest visual effects and sprinkle in some star power. “The Lion King” on Broadway. “Beauty and the Beast,” but with Emma Watson and a computer-generated monster. “Dumbo,” but with Colin Farrell and a little CGI elephant with realistic pebbly skin.
Now director Jon Favreau, hot off a successful 2016 redo of “The Jungle Book,” offers this remake of one of the most beloved children’s movies. If that wasn’t enough, nearly the entire thing was filmed in virtual reality.
But if “The Lion King” redux sounds wild, the result is surprisingly tame. Parents should note that roars are louder, and the wildebeest stampede is startlingly scary. But besides an almost-entirely new, star-studded cast (Beyoncé!), Favreau makes only modest changes. He fiddles with dialogue, weaves in a new Beyoncé song, and revises a few minor characters. Problematic hyena duo Ed and Banzai are reborn as Kamari (Keegan-Michael Key) and Azizi (Eric Andre), led by the terrifying Shenzi (Florence Kasumba). Lioness Nala (Beyoncé!), gets a few, but only a few, new lines.
Otherwise, Favreau’s young lion hero Simba treads carefully in the footprints of his predecessor. Jaded uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) conspires with a pack of lawless hyenas to murder his brother, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his 1994 role), and forces into exile princeling cub Simba (JD McCrary). Adult Simba (Donald Glover) comes of age an outcast, slurping down caterpillars with meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), until friend-turned-love-interest Nala shows up and reminds him of his royal responsibilities. Simba reclaims his rightful place in the circle of life. “Hamlet,” sort of, but with claws, fur, and tails.
Eichner and Rogen overcome their animal bodies to score big laughs, in part because they have the funniest lines. The pair launch perfectly-timed ad-libs like old podcasting buddies. “They’re local,” warthog-Rogen jokes as he slurps down a worm from a tree branch. “They’re from right here.”
Singing lion cubs, on the other hand, look persistently weird. Simba and Nala in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” recall the awkward talking-animal movies that flooded the Gen Z childhood market: the “Buddies” movies, “Babe,” even “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.” Key and Andre try and fail to make their hyenas funny, constrained by inflexible jaws and too-few lines. Lion-Glover and lioness-Beyoncé (Beyoncé!) gorgeously riff on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” but struggle to convey any intimacy in conversation. It’s hard to know whether the voice actors or their furry avatars are to blame.
You’ll find yourself longing for the freedom afforded by simple lines and pixels. Scar, weighed down by lifelike musculature, can no longer leer. His body, once a threatening combination of green eyes, angles, and droopy, oversize paws, loses its edge. Mufasa’s impressive squareness — once coded as extraordinarily masculine — deflates, to match the contours dictated byactual anatomy.
Ironically, the characters’ verisimilitude only draws attention to the artifice of the narrative. On Twitter, Erin Biba, a science writer for National Geographic, went viral for pointing out that lion prides are matrilineal societies. If these were real lions, Simba would have run away from home and never come back. Some circles of life are more circular than others.
THE LION KING
Directed by Jon Favreau. Written by Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman; based on characters created by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton. Starring the voices of Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé(!), John Oliver, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX, Reading and Natick. 118 minutes. PG (hyenas, wildebeests, and a violent fight scene at the end might scare the littlest cubs).Nora McGreevy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mcgreevynora.