The Lion King
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring: Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, John Oliver, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril and some thematic elements
1 hr. 58 min.

The early and mid-1990s brought a resurgence of the Disney animated

musical: Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Mulan and Aladdin were instant classics, cultural touchstones, etched into the memories of children and their parents around the world.

Then there was The Lion King. A story Shakespearean in tone, with delightful, uplifting music by Tim Rice and Sir Elton John, three of their songs nominated for Oscars: “Hakuna Matata,” “The Circle of Life” and the winner, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” During the annual rundown of Oscar nominees, the late critic Gene Siskel told Roger Ebert that he was hearing people say “Hakuna Matata” to each other. Ebert (now also gone) was skeptical. “Gene, that’s ridiculous.” There was, however, no mistaking the impact of the film, that won an additional Oscar and earned over $400 million, best ever for a G-rated movie.

Julie Taymor’s stage adaptation took Broadway, then the nation, by storm, winning six Tonys. It’s still running in cities across the country. When I say that this new, photo-realistic rendering of The Lion King takes your breath away, it means the standards and spirit of previous versions are upheld, and then some.

The African landscape and animals are startlingly created through the CGI process, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel utilized some 130 animators in 30 different countries to perfect this stunning effort.

Visually, each image looks so real, you’d swear it was footage provided by National Geographic. I wondered about young children watching, and quite possibly being confused when these authentic-looking lions break into song.

The realism makes it more concerning for parents. Some parts, excellently directed by Favreau and faithfully adapted by Jeff Nathanson from the original script, are dark, and the lions do act ferociously.

It’s a call Mom and Dad will have to make, depending upon the child.

Once you process the idea that you’re watching effects, not actual animals jawing and singing, you can appreciate the humor of John Oliver, as Zazu the hornbill, an ersatz chief-of-staff to Mufasa (voiced, once more, by James Earl Jones), Seth Rogen’s warthog Pumbaa and Billy Eichner’s meercat Timon. They’re all hilarious. Chiwetel Ejiofor adds dulcet shades of menace to the mangy Scar, Mufasa’s brother and threat to little Simba. Scar is a lion that looks like he’s lost the battle for power and is hell bent on revenge.

Along with Hans Zimmer’s grand, uplifting original score is music from Pharrell Williams and new songs “Never Too Late,” sung by John, and “Spirit,” by Beyoncé. She also voices the adult Nala. If there is one quibble with this awe-inspiring revisiting of The Lion King, it’s that Queen Bey is merely an average voice actress.

I’m assuming that most are now familiar with the story of Simba, the lion cub (Donald Glover) forced into exile when his father Mufasa,(Jones) is killed by a stampede and his complicit Uncle Scar. Living amongst animals like Pumbaa and Timon, he grows and returns to his pride to take his rightful throne. It’s a beautiful story, with songs that soar. And with this version, extraordinary visual imagery that will literally leave you agape. If it had to be done again, it could only have succeeded with this kind of cutting-edge technology. It has, with a record-setting opening weekend. The Lion King reigns again. The circle of life, indeed.