Ah yes, the circle of life. Celluloid dreams become home video babysitters become globetrotting Broadway musicals and digital streams to infinity.
And 25 years or a moment later — because time and memory and nostalgia have long since collapsed in on each other — Disney’s The Lion King is back again for the first time, to roar across the savannah of superheroes, half-baked reboots and lazy spin-offs that our recycled culture keeps spawning.
This new old Lion King is a strange, multi-million-dollar state-of-the-digital art rendering that takes the 1994 story and transplants it wholesale into a stunning, photorealistic realm populated by hyperreal animals, painterly vistas and all your favourite showtunes.
It’s like experiencing past, present and some eerie computer-generated future all at once — dazzling and alienating and even a little bit emotional, in all the ways you know it probably shouldn’t be and yet a great magic act can convince you otherwise.
Disney hasn’t messed with the formula of the beloved original for a second.
It hasn’t overhauled or reimagined or even updated (notwithstanding a stray “You do you, Simba”) its classic tale of a young lion prince’s reclamation of his father’s kingdom in a storybook, postcard-pretty Africa.
Those familiar with the story — so everyone over the age of, say, five — will be relieved, or just puzzled, to find that The Jungle Book director Jon Favreau’s remake plays out the same beats of its predecessor, sequence for sequence and sometimes shot for shot, like some bizarro reiteration of the gag Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake played on moviegoers.
It begins with the still-majestic refrain of Tim Rice and Elton John’s Circle of Life (performed here by Brown Lindiwe Mkhize and Lebo M.), as newborn Simba (JD McCrary) is presented to the subjects of his parents King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), recreating the relatively funky two-dimensional animation in lush computer-generated imagery.
The entire world is realised in elaborate detail, from the wind-rippled manes of the lions to the fireflies that seem to constantly dart around the film’s night sky.
It feels like you’ve stepped into a lifelike taxidermy exhibit at the Natural History Museum and fallen right through into another dimension.
There’s an unusual dissonance to the photorealistic animals, who have only a fraction of the expression of their cel-animated counterparts, speaking with the voices of the human actors, even those as imposing as James Earl Jones (uniting prides, galaxies and entire generations with his unmistakable basso profundo) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (whose fearsome rendition of Mufasa’s displaced brother, Scar, equals Jeremy Irons’ performance for theatrically wounded treachery).
It’ll be off-putting for some, as though the original voice soundtrack had been dropped into a wildlife documentary, but it can be refreshing, too — at least for those who sometimes find Disney’s anthropomorphic animals a bit cloying, and even creepy in their traditional human likenesses.
The effect nearly runs the film aground during the first appearance of the chattering hyenas. They’re goofy-psychotic in the original but terrifying and forlorn here — characters whose attempts at humour grate against the nightmarish netherworld of the elephant graveyard and its jagged, foreboding shadows.
What these sequences lack in originality they make up for in sheer awe — these are images that stick to the mind’s eye — and the movie’s emotional heart, however familiar, beats resoundingly beneath the uncanny effects wizardry.
Rogen, in particular, is wonderful here — there’s something deeply satisfying about a realistically rendered warthog rattling off fart jokes and existential non-sequiturs.
As the young adult Simba, meanwhile, Donald Glover makes his laconic purr and silky vocals fit the role with casual ease, and Beyonce lends future Queen Nala her brash superstar spark.
Queen Bey also curates the film’s tie-in soundtrack, which includes Hans Zimmer’s faux-African ballast and her original composition, Spirit, for good measure.
Sure, there are those pesky, lingering issues of royal entitlement, arranged marriage and grand destiny that kind of sour the whole benevolent circle of life thesis, and the film fails to interrogate Scar’s outcast rallying of the disenfranchised against a monarch who rules according to the dictates of birthright.
And the inherent beauty of many of the visual sequences — from Mufasa and Simba gazing upon a star-flecked sky to an intense final showdown of lion-on-lion combat that appears to be set in the pits of hell — suggest there may have been a more fascinating film to be made without any human dialogue at all.
Here’s looking forward to Disney’s next version of The Lion King — told in primitive cave paintings when the Earth has finally been razed by the coming cultural apocalypse — in another 25 years. Or tomorrow. Maybe you’ve already seen it.