Never have I ever had to eat crow so completely as when I complained that “Be Prepared,” the second-best song in The Lion King, was apparently going to be cut from Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King, only to discover that an infinitely and unspeakably worse version had been swapped in. In an instant, I went from “how could they cut this song?” to “how could they keep this song?”
Instead of a bombastic number filled with goose-stepping hyenas and clouds of sickeningly green gas, we get a moody speech that just happens to be set to music, delivered in the fog and dark of the elephant graveyard. All of the joy has been sucked out of Elton John and Tim Rice’s eighth-notes-versus-triplets rumpus (as well as Hans Zimmer’s score), leaving behind a computer-animated husk and some bland spoken-word poetry.
Plenty has been written about the expressionless, deepfake-like animation of the 2019 remake of The Lion King, which trades the emotion of the original for some uncanny realism. But less has been said about the similar mangling of its music. You can hear the dissonance just as easily as you can see it, with familiar tunes shifting into radio-friendly and “cooler” territory.
The attempted shift toward “cool” is audible not only in the new “Be Prepared” (which is the worst offender) but even in the relatively unaltered songs — “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” — which now feel more like would-be pop hits than part of a musical. Which is a shame, because this movie is a musical.
The production on every song is bigger, brighter, and poppier. If the intention was to make them more awe-inspiring, the result is the opposite. Rather, the laserlike precision of the voices in the new recordings makes the songs sound narrow rather than full. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them; it’s just their context. They’re too smooth, coming out on the other side of sonic uncanny valley in sounding so ultra-produced that they no longer sound real — just as the animals, for looking so perfect, no longer seem to be possessed of any relatable feelings.
There is a reason The Lion King translated so well to Broadway, just as there’s a reason it was rendered in 2D to begin with. The two forms allowed the animal characters to express the full range of human emotions in a concise and spirited runtime.
Even Beyoncé’s new number, “Spirit,” can’t avoid this problem. It’s great as a stand-alone song, but so divorced from the rest of The Lion King that it causes musical whiplash. Written by Ilya Salmanzadeh, Labrinth, and Beyoncé herself rather than John and Rice, it sounds as if it’s been beamed in from an entirely different album (that album being The Lion King: The Gift, Beyoncé’s upcoming album of music inspired by the film). The same goes, to a lesser extent, for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” which, besides now taking place during broad daylight (as if to further stress the distance — or disregard? — for the original material), is a showcase for Beyoncé and Donald Glover’s remarkable vocals rather than a crucial turning point for the story.
Thank goodness for the comic relief, which brings the songs back to earth, delivering the lines with as much clarity as the high notes. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, as Timon and Pumbaa, respectively, get to chime in now and then. They’re the only people who sound like they’re in a musical rather than recording a new album. (And to some degree, John Oliver as Zazu, who has to scream his way through “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to aurally make up for how photorealism sucks a lot of the zest from the number.) Eichner fares the best out of anyone on the album, nailing the Broadway-ready tone of the original compositions, while Rogen’s imperfect pitch ends up being charming simply because it doesn’t seem as manufactured as everything around it.
Similarly, the other new song in the film, Elton John’s “Never Too Late,” is so funky and unconcerned with being cool — i.e., in the spirit of the original Lion King — that it’s easily the remake’s best addition. However, it’s played over the credits rather than slotted into the movie, as are new recordings of “He Lives in You” and “Mbube” by Lebo M. Their inclusion only rubs salt into the wound of just how much of the great music from the Broadway musical (or The Lion King 2, in the case of “He Lives in You”) was ignored, including “Shadowland,” a Nala number that Beyoncé would have crushed. I want Beyoncé to perform at the Oscars as much as anything but, come on, “Spirit” is kind of boring! “Shadowland” wouldn’t be eligible for a Best Original Song Oscar, but at least it’d pop off.
That’s the fundamental problem with the new Lion King: Despite being so upgraded, it no longer pops off. There’s no “oh yeah, that’s my jam!” moment anymore, and the orchestral arrangements have become so big that they more closely resemble Zimmer’s work on, say, Pirates of the Caribbean (fantastic, but very different from The Lion King) than lion-Hamlet. The film, in striving for “cool” cred as a trendy update, feels unwilling to embrace its cheesy roots — which are what made it great to begin with.
If you’re curious just how the music (specifically the songs, not the score) holds up, here is my scientific ranking:
1. The Circle of Life
It’s “The Circle of Life.” It will practically always be strong no matter what you do to it, and it handily occurs in the new Lion King A) without any animals visibly mumble-singing (watching Zazu “talk” is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, as birds don’t have any real mouth articulation so it’s just the equivalent of miming talking with your hand) and B) before you’ve been clubbed into exhaustion by the rest of the movie. I teared up when “The Circle of Life” played. I regret giving this movie even an iota of my emotional bandwidth.
2. Never Too Late
When this song came on at the end of the movie, I felt like the clouds had parted and a beam of sunlight had come streaming through. “It’s Elton!” I screamed, hopped up on the song’s welcome silliness. Sure, it takes a little while to get going, but as soon as the chorus kicks in, it gets cookin’. This is the one song on this whole soundtrack that would make me happy if I heard it come on in the club.
I would also rank the new recordings of “He Lives in You” and “Mbube” here, just lumping all of the credits songs here as a technicality.
3. Hakuna Matata
Honestly, this has never been my favorite Lion King song, but Eichner and Rogen deliver. I love that Rogen is not a good singer! It’s like being fed meal replacement products (e.g. Soylent) because they’re “efficient” and “healthy” and “good for you” and then receiving a cheeseburger. In the words of Gordon Ramsay, “Delicious. Finally, some good fucking food. Wow.”
4. The Lion Sleeps Tonight
Barely a song in the movie, but good for the same reasons as “Hakuna Matata.”
5. Can You Feel the Love Tonight
It’s a good song, but it’s not really a “getting in the mood” song anymore, you know? It’s a riffing song now, like when your friends who kept doing a cappella after graduating from college come to karaoke and do a “duet” which turns out to be more of a “which one of us can sing louder/better” contest. Obviously the winner here is Beyoncé.
Great advertising for The Lion King: The Gift.
Seriously, though, there has never been a musical that has been made into a movie that has had a new “we want an Oscar” song that was good. “Evermore” in the new Beauty and the Beast is … well, now that I listen to it again, it’s OK, mostly because it mostly meshes with the songs around it. But it’s still not great. “Suddenly” in Les Misérables is just bad. “Spirit” is the best of the bunch, but it’s its own thing. When you talk about this song in years to come, you’ll refer to it as “Beyoncé’s Lion King song,” but you won’t think of it as part of The Lion King.
7. I Just Can’t Wait to Be King
I really can’t stress how much John Oliver has to scream in order to save this song. It’s downplayed in the soundtrack, but in the film, every instrumental break has Oliver warbling over it as Zazu tries to find Nala and Simba, because footage of animals loping around isn’t as exciting as the music would suggest.
8. Be Prepared
Ugh. I would even prefer the b-boy dance break in the Broadway version of “Be Prepared” to this non-song. I should note that this is not the fault of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who chooses a bit and commits to it. The problem with the new Lion King is not a penchant for “grittiness” or anything, but the new “Be Prepared” certainly skews in that direction. In the new movie, cloud Mufasa is a featureless mass of grey that looks like a lion for approximately 0.05 seconds when lightning flashes. This song is the equivalent of that.