The best scene in Disney's incredibly photo-realistic remake of The Lion King features a computer-generated beetle rolling a ball of computer-generated dung across a computer-generated African landscape. It might sound mundane, but this particular ball of dung is carrying a tuft of fur from the runaway lion Simba, and its eventual discovery will renew hope that the rightful king of the savanna is alive and well. It's a funny, touching reminder that in the circle of life, every little creature and every lump of waste has an important role to play.
The best thing about this scene is that it's completely wordless, and it convinced me that this Lion King would have been far better as a silent movie, one that treated its newfangled visual style as more than just a digital facelift. But that wouldn't have suited Disney's game plan: to produce an essentially risk-free remake of the 1994 animated film that remains one of its all-time greatest hits.
The Hamlet-inspired plot is nearly identical to the original. So are Elton John's memorable songs and Tim Rice's less memorable lyrics, this time sung by a solid voice cast that includes Donald Glover, John Oliver and Beyoncé. (The soundtrack also includes a new Beyoncé song, called "Spirit.") The crucial difference is that, instead of the original's gorgeous hand-drawn visuals, the new movie looks and feels like live-action, an illusion achieved through a sophisticated mix of digital imagery and virtual-reality techniques.
The result plays like a Hollywood blockbuster disguised as a National Geographic documentary, or perhaps the world's most expensive safari-themed karaoke video. The movie feels both overwhelmed by its technical virtuosity and shackled by its fidelity to the source material. It begins with a nearly shot-for-shot re-creation of the first film's famous opening sequence: The sun rises over the landscape; the lush, soaring melody of "Circle of Life" rings out; and some very persuasive-looking elephants, zebras, giraffes and other critters gather to celebrate the birth of Simba, an adorable little cub destined to succeed his father, Mufasa, as king of the Pride Lands.