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Anxiety Check: ‘The Lion King’

Creepy photo-realistic warthogs, shot-for-shot replicas of scenes, Donald Glover’s singing voice—can Beyoncé’s presence overcome all of these things?

Ringer illustration

We’re a month away from the premiere of the big-screen remake of perhaps the most beloved Disney movie of all time, starring perhaps the most beloved pop star of all time—and somehow, we don’t quite know how to feel. Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, a “photo-realistic” remake of the 1994 original, has experienced a surprisingly rocky rollout, ranging from complaints about “live action” remakes to extreme concern over one unbelievably creepy warthog.

The “jaw-dropping” first footage from Favreau’s remake originally aired at Disney’s D23 Expo in the summer of 2017, and included the entire opening “Circle of Life” segment of the film, which reportedly received rave reviews. A few months later, the full cast list was announced—with one notable standout—and it seemed like the film would be an instant smash hit.

Beyoncé! Donald Glover! James Earl Jones! John Oliver! Beyoncé! Seth Rogen! Beyoncé! Billy Eichner! Beyoncé! People lost their damn minds, on social media and beyond. Yours truly deemed Beyoncé’s casting “the best thing that has ever happened to cinema,” which frankly I stand by.

Throughout the following year, information surrounding the film was largely limited to announcements about the musical score and soundtrack: Hans Zimmer was confirmed to return to score the 2019 remake, and Elton John was attached to the film in February 2018, when he revealed plans to work with Beyoncé on reworking the soundtrack and creating an original end-credits song. (Can You Feel the Best Original Song Oscar Nomination Tonight?) Buzz for the film remained overwhelmingly positive, until Thanksgiving 2018, when the first teaser trailer dropped.

Chills! Goosebumps! And also … the first inklings of real concern, as Favreau’s “live action” version appeared to be a shot-for-shot remake of the 1994 version. More realistic, obviously, but also less colorful, and much, much creepier:

Cue the anxiety. The Ringer’s Claire McNear, among others, expressed concern that a completely faithful remake would squander the story’s creative potential: “A no-risk reproduction of The Lion King is especially a bummer given that the story has proved to be a fundamentally malleable text … If you’ve seen [the Broadway show], you know that it both scratches all the attendant Lion King itches while also being—admittedly largely out of necessity given, uh, humans—quite a different experience than watching the movie.” But as a whole, many Lion King fans remained cautiously optimistic. The 1994 version is perfect, so did Favreau really need to change much at all?

Maybe so! The official full-length trailer dropped in April this year, and reactions were decidedly mixed. That score! Those shots of the Pride Lands! That Chiwetel Ejiofor voice-over! And yet … something was off. Maybe it was the lack of Beyoncé, or maybe it was the realization that lions can’t really … express human emotion. Or sing! Or dance! At least, not without looking decidedly creepy. It seemed like Favreau’s attempt at photo-realistic wildlife may have created the impossible task of staying away from uncanny-valley characters while giving viewers something beyond Planet Earth: The Musical.

Then a set of character posters, released in May, added fuel to the Animal Planet fire.

Somehow both creepy and boring, the posters caused concern for the movie to reach a new peak. Hyper-realistic, nightmare-fuel Pumbaa seemed a far cry from the lovable character of our childhoods. And where, we asked again, was Beyoncé?

A few days later, our prayers were finally answered, in the form of a post on Beyoncé’s personal YouTube channel. The 30-second spot included no singing, but we got a few spoken lines. “Simba, you have to take your place as king,” says Beyoncé in the trailer. “We need you. Come home.” What I heard was, “Remember, this movie has me. It cannot fail. Don’t worry.”

And finally, in case her spoken words didn’t do the trick, this week finally gave us a sneak peek of Beyoncé’s musical performance in the film. An international TV spot made its way onto Twitter, featuring a snippet of Glover and Beyoncé dueting on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”

And just like that, my fears are allayed. This movie could be claymation, or literally a flip book, or just two hours of Jon Favreau playing with stuffed lions in a crumbling Toys “R” Us—if it gives us the Beyoncé-filled soundtrack of our dreams, it will all be worth it in the end.