Anyone asking why we needed a new version of The Lion King only has to look as far as the film’s stunning opening sequence to reconsider that question. Herds of animals – zebras, elephants, antelope – stride across the screen majestically against a wide African vista in what appears to be footage culled from a wildlife documentary…except that it’s not. This incredible sequence, like the rest of the film, is a marvel of modern technology, of computer-generated photorealism. The birds, the beasts, the sceneries, and frankly everything you see on screen has been conceived and crafted through advanced, sophisticated visual effects. It’s amazing how far cinema has come!

In terms of plot, director Jon Favreau sticks closely to the original 1994 animation film. You know the beats: jealous lion Scar, plots to kill his brother, the Lion King Mufasa, and his little nephew Simba so he can claim the throne. It’s a dark story, especially by Disney standards; one that involves a child watching his parent die violently in front of his eyes, the cub being hunted by ravenous predators, and being manipulated into running away from his home. There are echoes of Hamlet, but the overarching themes are those of bravery and learning responsibility.

Favreau, who employed similar technology to remake The Jungle Book in 2016, assembles a first-rate voice cast to dazzle the viewer: James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, and Beyonce among others. But I decided to watch the Hindi dubbed version, which is in no way short of star power. Shah Rukh Khan, aptly cast as the noble Mufasa, brings commanding authority to the part. In a clever move, the superstar’s son Aryan is recruited to play Simba, nicely modulating his voice to convey the cub’s coming of age. Ashish Vidyarthi too is in excellent form as the mangy, sinister Scar, delivering his lines with a growl. But it’s the sidekicks who get some of the best moments in the film, namely Zazu the hornbill, is voiced with fitting humor by Asrani, and also the warthog-meerkat duo Pumbba and Timon who steal every scene they’re in, thanks in no small part to the tapori approach of Sanjay Mishra and Shreyas Talpade who voice them. A word here for Mayur Puri who’s done a terrific job with the Hindi script and dialogues, never reducing the film to a mere ‘translation job’.

The original Lion King, you might remember, was a musical, and the remake revisits classic numbers like Circle of Life, dubbed Zindagi dor si and belted out with full lung-bursting power by Sunayana Sarkar. Sunidhi Chauhan and Armaan Mallik bring their velvet voices to the desi version of Can you feel the love tonight? and Armaan puts a playful spin on Hakuna Matata

But the film truly works because it’s an unmatchable sensory experience. Little things like the movement of the fur on an animal’s back, or the cloud of dust that rises when a paw hits the ground, are rendered in minute, amazing, authentic detail. A stampede sequence is one of the big eye-popping set pieces in the film. Meanwhile other characters like Scar’s hyena army, or Simba’s childhood friend, the lioness Nala, also get considerable screen time.

If you loved the original animation film from 25 years ago, there’s a chance this remake might feel redundant, since it doesn’t put a fresh spin on a beloved story. But it’s hard to deny the thrill of watching these gorgeous creatures realize the same story in the closest we may ever come to watching a live action version of the film.

I found myself transported to Pride Rock, reliving many of my favorite moments from the earlier film. The chief reason to give this film a chance is to marvel at the sheer artistry at display. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for The Lion King. Did you know hyenas were called lakkad bhagge in Hindi? You’ll chuckle each time Sanjay Mishra’s Pumbaa takes a wry shot at them.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

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