How 'Lion King' Music Differs From the Original

The Lion King Live-Action Still 17 - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.
The songs boast talents such as Beyonce and Donald Glover, but there's something jarring about seeing photo-realistic animals sing.

The multi-year run-up to Disney’s remake of The Lion King has largely been focused on the visual-effects technology utilized to make the film possible. Jon Favreau, who directed the 2016 Disney remake of The Jungle Book, has taken a blend of live-action filmmaking, computer animation and virtual reality to take the story of the lion cub who would be king and transplant it into something that looks almost like the real plains of Africa. That is, of course, until characters like Simba, Nala, Timon and Pumbaa start singing. Like the 1994 hand-drawn animated film, The Lion King (2019) is still a musical, but one that ends up feeling more muted than would be ideal precisely because of how the songs and technology interact, or fail to do so.

If you know the hand-drawn animated film from the mid-1990s, the story of this Lion King won’t come as any surprise. As before, the story follows Simba, a lion cub who is the next heir to the throne of Pride Rock. The current king, Simba’s father Mufasa, tries to teach his son the right way to become a leader, before he’s ruthlessly murdered by his jealous brother Scar, who convinces Simba he’s responsible for the tragedy. After Simba spends his teen years living a no-worries life far from home, he’s convinced to return to take his place as king by his old friend and eventual love interest Nala. Since the story is the same, what has changed in The Lion King is its technology and its cast (except for James Earl Jones, who returns as Mufasa, the cast is all new and full of A-listers like Beyoncé, Seth Rogen, and Donald Glover).

The music, like the story, is basically the same. The film’s opening is still the epic-sounding number “Circle of Life,” and songs like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” “Be Prepared” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” show up as well. And they each serve the same function as they did in the original movie. But while it’s an arguable improvement that more of this pic’s castmembers are talented singers (in the 1994 film, different performers provided the dialogue and singing voices for Simba and Nala, unlike in the remake), the songs feel less memorable and emotional than they did in the more vibrant, bouncy original.

Part of the issue comes down to how the visual-effects tech interacts with the story of The Lion King. For all of the intent behind making this version look as close as possible to real animals occupying space in the real continent of Africa, this is still a story where animals burst into song and (in one instance) refer to other Disney animated pics, things which are deliberately unreal. The hand-drawn animated film, in part because it wasn’t tethered to creating characters that look like the real thing, leaned into the surreality of making a musical. Its version of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” utilizes distinctly colorful backgrounds, a Busby Berkeley-style set of animal dancers, spotlights, and more. Favreau’s version eschews all of those elements, all the way down to even the simplest bit of choreography. Instead of dancing, we just get to see Simba, Nala, and the stuffy hornbill Zazu walking or flying around, in what amounts to a straight line through the savanna.

That style of dancing — as in, just walking around — is what happens in most of the other musical sequences. “Be Prepared” is, like this version of Scar, a dour and more low-key affair overall. Chiwetel Ejiofor, an immensely talented actor, does a form of speak-singing as Scar as he attempts to recruits bloodthirsty hyenas to his side as he enacts a coup. His style is so low-key that you may not even realize you’re listening to a new version of “Be Prepared” until halfway through the truncated number. (The 1994 version, performed by Jeremy Irons, is terrifying in part because of the stylistic choice to have the hyenas goose-step through the elephant graveyard like Nazis.) It also doesn’t help, in songs like this and others in the film, that the animals here have mouths that open and close akin to audio-animatronic robots at Disney theme parks: sound is coming out, but the lips never seem to pronounce or enunciate in a way that feels natural.

To be fair, not all of the songs fall flat; “Hakuna Matata,” performed by Rogen as Pumbaa and Billy Eichner as Timon, is almost as ebullient now as it was 25 years ago. As with the other songs, the animals aren’t so much jumping and dancing around as they are just walking through the jungle. But the enthusiasm in Eichner and Rogen’s performances is impossible to ignore, especially as they serve as the genuine bright spot in the overall film. Beyoncé, as the headstrong Nala, does get to perform two songs, including a new number dubbed “Spirit.” Though Beyoncé is predictably wonderful to listen to, Nala as a character just isn’t in a lot of the film, so the actress/singer gets less of a chance to shine through musically than would be hoped.

Remaking Disney animated films has proven, in a few cases, to be exceptionally lucrative for the studio. (Two of the biggest hits in this subgenre — Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin — are remakes of films that, like The Lion King, were originally released in the 1990s, and nostalgia for the decade will power the box office for a while.) But remaking Disney animated films means that filmmakers either have to reckon with remaking musical numbers or avoiding them entirely. The upcoming Mulan, based on the early ads, may be taking the latter route, but The Lion King unsurprisingly doesn’t. As much as the film includes the musical numbers from its predecessor, the 2019 remake often feels as if the songs are perfunctory; the songs are only there because they have to be there, but they’re present with little creative juice or life.