With its mythic story of life and death, not to mention a cast of lions and hyenas, The Lion King was an unlikely candidate for a photo-realistic treatment. But the new film leaps into naturalism, with dazzling authenticity as computer-generated herds of zebras, elephants and antelope stride across the screen against a wide African vista, toward Pride Rock, where King Mufasa stands waiting to hold up his cub, Simba. With The Circle of Life soaring in the background, this majestic scene draws us into the film’s enthralling world before a word is spoken. It may all be CGI, but The Lion King feels more life-like than Disney’s many recent live-action remakes of its animated classics.

The opening scene echoes the start of the 1994 original almost shot for shot. It doesn’t take a detective to see why that film quickly became a classic. It has adorable animals and rivals Bambi in its moving death of a parent storyline. Elton John and Tim Rice’s original songs are so buoyant and stirring, they are now as familiar as anything from The Sound of Music.

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Jon Favreau’s film is funnier than the original, even while it enhances the story’s dark themes. It adds a couple of helpful scenes and two ordinary songs. For all that, it doesn’t stray far from the classic. This is not a visionary, artistic reimagining as the Broadway version was. There, director Julie Taymor brilliantly added more African-infused music, masks and fantastical giant puppets. This film, however, is a cautious remake which takes its cue from its life-like visuals. Some actors have a more realistic delivery than others, which makes the tone a bit erratic. But if the new Lion King is not as seamless as the earlier versions, it is full of adventure and is just as sweetly engaging. The animals’ words are not perfectly in synch with their mouths – the one conspicuous flaw amid all the technical wizardry. That distraction soon falls away, as the power of the story takes over.

As in the original, the first words are from Mufasa’s resentful brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), spoken to the mouse he’s about to catch and eat. “Life’s not fair,” he says, setting off the rivalry theme – both in the animal kingdom and between siblings. This Scar still schemes to kill Simba and inherit the throne, but he is the character most radically changed from the original. Then, Jeremy Irons’s Scar, emerald-eyed and gloriously black-maned, delivered lines in such a withering, sly tone that he remains one of Disney’s most indelible villains. The new Scar has gaunt flanks, a ravaged face and a mangy coat. Ejiofor speaks his lines in a sinister growl that is almost too subdued and real for this outsized production.   

James Earl Jones, the only actor returning from the first film, was apparently irreplaceable as Mufasa. Jones reliably brings credibility to this larger-than-life character, as Mufasa teaches a young Simba (JD McCrary) about the cycles of nature, the duties of a king and the way his ancestors will look down from the stars and guide him.

Eichner, who nearly runs off with the film, has a tone of witty cynicism running through his lines

John Oliver tells deliberately hokey jokes as Zazu the hornbill, flying around and hovering protectively over Simba. Like Ejiofor, Oliver talks his songs more than he sings them, which works perfectly well. The music usually flows into the action so gracefully that it’s jarring when it doesn’t – when Simba prances around singing I Just Can’t Wait to Be King, the film seems too in love with its National Geographic backdrop.

Even if young Simba doesn’t realise it, that song is about a boy wishing for his father to die. Like in the original, he doesn’t have to wait long. But first he endures some extremely scary action scenes, including one in which the vicious hyenas chase him and Nala, his friend and future love, into a tunnel. Throughout the film, Favreau and the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel mimic the camera movements of live-action films. That approach can be felt most emphatically as we see a terrified Simba race toward us in the tunnel, or get caught up in a wildebeest stampede, as Mufasa rushes to save him. When Mufasa scrambles up a cliff and Scar pushes him off, Hans Zimmer’s beautiful orchestral music bolsters this scene’s impact.  

After all that tragedy, the film makes a smart turn to comedy as Simba runs off and meets his new friends. Casting Billy Eichner as Timon, the wisecracking meerkat, and Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, the good-hearted but flatulent warthog, are among the film's happiest choices. Eichner, who nearly runs off with the film, has a tone of witty cynicism running through his lines. “Let me simplify this for you. Life is meaningless,” he tells Simba, laughing at the very idea of “royal dead guys in the sky,” watching over us. Of course, he will come around.

Beyoncé was obviously cast for her music

Eichner and Rogen’s gleeful version of Hakuna Matata takes us through the scene in which Simba crosses the screen, seen in silhouette as he grows from a cub to a lion, emerging on the other side with Donald Glover’s voice. Glover is a wonderfully real Simba, capturing the petulance of an adolescent on the cusp of manhood. Beyoncé plays the grown Nala, and together they sing Can You Feel the Love Tonight. Beyoncé brings a convincing fierceness to the character, and some fresh scenes with her and Simba’s mother, Sarabi (Alfre Woodard), add a contemporary feel. The women of this pride are powerful, going after the hyenas. It’s merely a nod, but one worth making.

Beyoncé was obviously cast for her music, though. The anthem-like song she co-wrote and sings, Spirit, is perfectly fine, but feels forced in, heard while Nala and Simba meander back to Pride Rock for a final confrontation with Scar. The new Elton John song that pops up under the final credits, Never Too Late, is lacklustre compared to the originals. 

There has been angry grousing among some early critics of the film, who see it as soulless and treat it as if it were a crime against humanity. They need a dose of hakuna matata (no worries). That ludicrous outrage – the new version isn’t even a crime against cinema – speaks to how precious the memory of the original is. You can go back to the original film for its sweep and beauty and for Jeremy Irons. See the new version for its fun and immersion into a fantastical world that feels real. The appealing new Lion King proves that the story and music are endlessly adaptable, and pretty much fool proof.


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