From the stirring first moments of Disney’s upgraded “The Lion King” – a turbocharged animal fable that, like 2016’s “The Jungle Book,” uses photorealistic CGI animation to add visual heft and emotional resonance to what was a charming, hand-drawn cartoon – it’s clear that this Africa-set narrative of a doomed king and his reluctant-prince son has tapped into a powerful well of myth. As Rafiki the mandrill hoists the newborn lion cub Simba high above a savanna full of Simba’s future subjects – adoring antelopes, gamboling giraffes and other worshipful wildlife – a heavenly choir sings about the “Circle of Life.”
Translation? In this new, virtual-flesh-and-blood version of the film, the creatures that have assembled to pay their respects to Simba are essentially his breakfast, lunch and dinner. The lives that are at stake, and sometimes lost, in this vivid evocation of human power struggles – expressed via the metaphor of the food chain – have never felt so precious or so vital.
“But Dad,” Simba asks his father, Mufasa, at one point, “don’t we eat the antelopes?”
There’s something about this “Lion King,” which, like the original, has its narrative roots in “Hamlet,” that feels so much more Shakespearean and – there’s no other word for it – so much more tragic than the 1994 feature-length animation, in which the story’s darker themes were subliminal, not center stage. Here, the death of a beloved character, one whose fur looks so real you could pet it, is that much harder to take.
The shadow of mortality is never very far away, even when the action shifts to the lowbrow humor of the flatulent warthog Pumbaa (voice of Seth Rogen) and his catty sidekick, Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner). They’re a scene-stealing duo whose comic relief goes a long way toward softening some of the movie’s harsher angles and brightening some of its duskier corners. Will Shakespeare liked fart jokes, too.
Simba (voiced as a child by JD McCrary) eventually grows up. So, apparently, has the film.
The chorus of awws that arose from a recent preview audience at the first sight of the adorable heir to Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the first film), eventually gives way to genuine awe, in the true sense of wonder mixed with dread. Mufasa rules the “Pride Lands” with a combination of benevolence and a strength that instills fear, teaching his son that all living things are connected (most obviously, those that eat each other). Every strand of Simba’s fur looks cuddle-ably real. But so does everything else in the film too – water, butterflies, teeth – to a degree that is as stunning as it is scary whenever, for instance, Mufasa’s treacherous brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), or sinister hyena-queen Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) take the screen.
In a story loosely based on Shakespeare’s play about the melancholy Dane, Scar is plotting to overthrow his brother and usurp his brother’s mate (Alfre Woodard) – and much worse – casting the blame on poor Simba. Shenzi, whose pack of scavengers have been chafing under the rule of a big jungle cat who decides who eats whom and when, is only too happy to aid and abet Scar’s coup.
Yes, this is a dark story, but it’s not just dark for its own sake. It’s also unexpectedly moving as well. If it’s more likely to upset younger viewers than the first film was – and it surely is – it’s also more likely to satisfy older ones. There’s real meat to chew on in this fleshed-out “Lion” (directed by Jon Favreau, who also helmed “The Jungle Book”). Some of that was always there, but it’s been thrown into sharp relief here by a visual style that’s closer to a Disneynature documentary – one that’s a little more red in tooth and claw than usual.
“The Lion King’s” themes are straight out of the Bard: Simba’s hesitation to avenge his father, for instance, as he escapes into exile, subsisting on grub larvae with Pumbaa and Timon – a sort of furry Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – is a denial of his essential nature. Lions gotta be lions, the film suggests, and crimes must not go unpunished, as much to maintain social order as to satisfy blood lust.
Meat may be murder, but it’s also, for some, destiny.
It’s also Disney. So don’t expect a disquisition on death and dishonor. “The Lion King” is hugely entertaining, from the dazzling visuals to the top-notch voice cast, which includes Donald Glover as the grown-up Simba, Beyoncé as his lioness ladylove and John Oliver as the neurotic hornbill Zazu. Yes, this movie is a safari to the shadowland, a place of death and fear where Simba ventures, early on, in disobedience of his father. And it’s just deep enough to give a cat who’s come of age something to sink his teeth into.