There’s nothing quite like it.
The opening moments of “Circle of Life”, with South African composer Lebo M’s legendary opening call and the hushed African chants building up beneath, evoke the grand tranquility and emotional vibrancy of one of the most sensational cinematic sequences ever animated. 25 years after The Lion King first unveiled it to an unsuspecting populace, those first seconds of “Circle of Life” retain the ability to leave you breathless.
The experience isn’t initially different with the live-action film’s interpretation. Lebo M’s opening is as spine-tingling as ever, and the chants are enhanced by a subtle but stronger beat beneath them. But then Lindiwe Mkhwize begins the first verse, and the spell is broken. Carmen Twillie, the original vocalist, interpreted the soul-stirring lyrics with a triumphant regality befitting the lions of Pride Rock. Her immaculate phrasing conveyed both the wonder of the Pride Lands and the responsibility of protecting it, intimately connecting to the film’s central theme. Mkhwize is a more-than-capable singer in her own right, with a sweet quality to her voice, but that original feeling that Twillie evoked is gone. It’s particularly jarring because of how closely the new version adheres to the original. It’s not that Mkhwize’s performance is wrong, per se, but the nostalgia that the original arrangement taps into makes it feel that way.
That tension permeates much of the live-action Lion King’s soundtrack. Like the film promises, the album aims to faithfully recreate the 1994 original. It’s understandable: The Lion King’s music is sacred to millions worldwide, and the risk of defiling it was likely too high for Disney to contemplate (instead, they tapped Beyoncé to curate an “Inspired By” complimentary album called The Lion King: The Gift). Sometimes, changes can’t be helped: for instance, “Be Prepared” accommodates Chiwetel Ejiofor by transforming into a truncated spoken word piece set to music. The rest of those unforgettable songs are mostly untouched, which means that, like “Circle of Life”, the original versions from 1994 loom large. The challenge is laid at the new vocalists’ feet: can they capture the same spirit, the magic that audiences remember (and Disney is banking heavily on)?
For the most part, yes, they do. “Circle of Life” misses the mark, and “Be Prepared” doesn’t quite land either, but the others work by sticking to their timeless scripts. “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is a surprising delight thanks to JD McCrary’s charismatic performance. He invokes early Michael Jackson to convey Kid Simba’s youthful, obnoxious charm, and John Oliver’s exasperated Zazu is a perfect foil for him. Billy Eichner is good, but he loses the exaggerated humor that Nathan Lane brought to Timon. “Hakuna Matata” is fine without it, but that spirit is definitely missed (the song also feels unnecessarily longer). Of all the songs, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” makes the greatest impact, brilliantly re-worked into a duet between Simba and Nala. Eichner and Rogen keep their verses, but you wish there was more of Beyoncé and Donald Glover, who sound incredible together. That said, it isn’t exactly a performance of equals. Unlike his younger counterpart, Glover struggles to leave an impression on the soundtrack, and up against an exemplary Beyoncé, he nearly vanishes.
Alongside the classics are three new songs, with varying degrees of unnecessary. “Spirit” is beautifully sung by Beyoncé, but unremarkable. “He Lives in You”, composed by Lebo M for the Broadway adaptation and performed by him here, is nice, but lacks the original’s stunning power. Elton John, who won an Oscar for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, contributes “Never Too Late”, a spirited but silly toe-tapper. None of them are offensive, but in the company of the John and Tim Rice’s brilliant compositions, they fall flat. The only new music that comes close is from composer Hans Zimmer, who returns to update his Oscar-winning score to astonishing effect. Listen to “Remember” and dare yourself not to tear up; it’s a foolhardy effort.
My greatest fear of The Lion King remake was that Disney would damn its soundtrack to a fate similar to its other remakes. Thankfully, Disney understood the unforgivable sin that would be and, for the sake of its relentless nostalgia factory, leaves Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer’s legendary work alone. The strict edict to play it safe isn’t foolproof, most notably with “Circle of Life”, but The Lion King, arguably the most valuable jewel in its musical crown, is untarnished. While the film itself is still an unknown quantity (although critics have not been kind at all), at least the soundtrack survives the live-action transition largely unscathed.