BWW Album Review: THE LION KING Remake Takes Its Place in the Circle of Musical Life
It's been a crowded year for Disney remakes, with Dumbo, Aladdin, and now The Lion King hitting screens. While The Lion King's updated soundtrack doesn't quite roar to life, it does manage to pull off most of the iconic music and take its place in the story's own circle of life.
The album gets off to a promising start, with "Circle of Life" led by the comfortingly familiar tones of Lebo M., the film's co-composer, and Brown Lindiwe Mkhize, a veteran Rafiki of multiple The Lion King stage companies. The soaring chorus kicks things off with exactly the song that we're used to, assuring us that we're in comfortable territory and reminding us of what made the original soundtrack so special.
JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph are enthusiastic and charming as young Simba and Nala in "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," along with a suitably stuffy John Oliver as Zazu. The slight tweaks in the midsection of the song are noticeable but neither good nor bad - simply different. The much more interesting are the vocal flourishes that McCrary and Wright Joseph add to their lines: they're playful and overwhelming with youthful energy.
"Hakuna Matata," likewise, has small but smart tweaks courtesy of its actors, here the talented comedians Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. The duo give a fresh style to Timon and Pumbaa's banter, just as Donald Glover, leaping in as adult Simba, does. It's a welcome shift that helps identify this version as - at least a little bit - its own thing, rather than a paint-by-numbers copy of the original. Their contemporary banter marries the corniness of the '90s original with a modern sensibility.
On the other end of the change spectrum, though, lies "Be Prepared." Chiwetel Ejiofor growls his way through an intimidating Scar, but gone is the horrifically catchy villain song of the animated film. In its place is an alternately spoken and sung number that involves, well, just a lot of yelling and very little in the way of clever lyrics. Scar's gleefully evil anthem was one of the highlights of the original soundtrack, and one of the best villain songs of all time, so hearing it cut back in this way is wildly disappointing.
There's a certain elegance to "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," and the Glover-Beyoncé led duet is as exquisite as you could ever hope for, and manages to capture the character-driven emotional moments. That key change on the final chorus is as thrilling as it has been for 25 years, with the added bonus of Glover and Beyoncé's riffs.
In terms of new additions, we have to talk, of course, about Beyoncé's "Spirit." It's got a more contemporary flavor than the rest of the score, which makes it stand out a little too much from the rest of the score. That being said, on its own, it's a wonderful song, full of empowerment and strength (and blissfully adding a much-needed female presence to the score). Also in the "new song" category: "Never Too Late," a cheery, charming Elton John tune for the end credits.
For the rest of the score outside of the big songs, Hans Zimmer and Lebo M. bring back all the epic leitmotifs you remember from the original, lushly orchestrated and sung. Much of The Lion King's magic has always lived in the music that is either not in English or is lyric-free altogether, and that holds true here as well. For fans of the stage version, the soundtrack has a wonderful Easter egg: a translated cover of "He Lives in You," performed by Lebo M. Overall, this soundtrack is beautifully made and comfortably familiar, checking off all the nostalgia boxes.