The new 'Lion King': What are the biggest differences from the 1994 animated original?

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Lion King.

Twenty-five years after The Lion King arrived in theaters, the 1994 animated blockbuster remains the pinnacle of Disney’s ‘90s renaissance. So it’s no wonder that director Jon Favreau’s new version remains devoutly faithful to what came before. Where the director’s previous remake of a Disney favorite, 2016’s The Jungle Book, took a number of major and minor liberties with the 1967 original, the biggest change between the two Lion King movies is the animation style.

JD McCrary voices young Simba in Disney's remake of The Lion King. (Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

In place of hand-drawn imagery, Favreau employs state-of-the-art photorealistic animation. That’s an approach he credits to Walt Disney himself. “He was often embracing new technology and old stories,” Favreau told Yahoo Entertainment recently. “Really plumbing the depths of old myths, but never being afraid to tell those stories in a new way.”

Even though the new Lion King preserves almost everything audiences love about the previous Lion King — perhaps to a fault, as some of the reviews have taken the movie to task for its beat-for-beat fidelity — there are a few notable tweaks. Here are the biggest changes we spotted between the 1994 and 2019 versions.

Nala is the power behind the throne

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter voices Nala and Donald Glover is Simba in The Lion King. (Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

Even before Queen Bey herself, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, takes over vocal duties as the grown-up version of Simba’s childhood pal, Nala is every bit the royal heir’s equal. While the 1994 cartoon already depicted young Nala — voiced here by Broadway star, Shahadi Wright Joseph — besting Simba (JD McCrary) in their playfighting, Favreau draws increased attention to her strength and agility. (Not for nothing, but it’s also a reminder that, in the wild, lionesses are better hunters.) And Joseph has a larger presence in McCrary’s first musical number, “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” which has been refashioned here into more of a tag-team duet between Nala and Simba versus John Oliver’s busybody bird, Zazu.

The adult Nala, meanwhile, gets her own song in the form of “Spirit,” an original tune released on Knowles-Carter’s compilation album, The Lion King: The Gift. As voiced by the singer, she’s as confident and sure-footed as the grieving Simba (Donald Glover) is hesitant and withdrawn. She remains the more nimble fighter as well, going claw-to-claw with hyena queen, Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) in the climactic rumble. "It was important to the director [Jon Favreau] that Nala and the females in this film were heroes,” Knowles-Carter told Good Morning America in a recent interview. “And he put Nala right alongside Simba. I thought that was very interesting and very real, because the women are, you know, we're the fighters."

Scar’s preparations to overthrow Mufasa don’t include a song

Chiwetel Ejiofor voices Scar in The Lion King. (Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

Jeremy Irons’s smoky-voiced rendition of “Be Prepared” — Scar’s menacing version of a standard “I want” song — is one of the musical highlights of the 1994 film. The tune hasn’t been entirely omitted from the 2019 film as initially rumored, but it’s definitely not the full-throated version delivered by the previous Pride Rock-usurper. As performed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, “Be Prepared” is more of a dramatic monologue that only acquires a backbeat as it builds to its climax. The lyrics have also been amended, focusing more on Scar’s grievances towards his brother, Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role), and less snide commentary about the diminutive intelligence of his hyena allies.

To be fair, this new version of “Be Prepared” is more in keeping with Ejiofor’s take on the role. Where Irons played a villain with a capital “V,” the 12 Years a Slave star is a more quietly dangerous presence who nurses a lifelong grudge. It’s made explicit here that Scar once challenged Mufasa for the throne and lost — hence the signature scar on his face. And he repays his brother scar for scar moments before Mufasa’s death. As a stampede rages in the canyon below him, the lion king clings onto the side of the cliff for dear life. Scar aids his plunge by slashing him across the face, not his paws.

Zazu’s loyalty lies only with the lions

Zazu (John Oliver) gives Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Simba (JD McCrary) the morning report in The Lion King. (Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

John Oliver may not be a conventional news anchor, but millions of people tune into his HBO series, Last Week Tonight, to get his unique take on the headlines. So it stands to reason that Oliver plays Zazu — previously voiced by Rowan Atkinson — as a kind of hornbill roving reporter, soaring over the pride lands to bring observations of the various goings-on back to Mufasa. It’s also Favreau’s tip of the hat to “The Morning Report,” a musical number written for Julie Taymor’s long-running Broadway production that’s since been animated and included on Blu-ray versions of the 1994 film.

The new Zazu continues to deliver news from the frontlines to Nala and the lionesses after Scar overthrows Mufasa. Atkinson’s hornbill enjoyed far less mobility, spending much of his time imprisoned in a rib cage, as the new king demands his loyalty. A deleted scene from the animated film depicts a slightly cozier arrangement between Zazu and Scar: The hornbill is free to dispense advice, and he suggests to Scar that his disastrous rule might improve were he to find a queen. At that very moment, Nala enters the cave and Scar looks at her in a new (and very creepy) light.

Beauty and the meerkat and other Disney Easter eggs

Simba (JD McCrary) meets new pals Timon (Billy Eichner) and Puumba (Seth Rogen) in The Lion King. (Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

Disney is home to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars’s far, far away galaxy, but the studio’s updates of its animated classics don’t share the same world. Or do they? Toward the end of The Lion King, mischief-making meerkat, Timon (Billy Eichner, taking over a role originated by Nathan Lane) gets the bright idea of distracting Scar’s hyena troops by performing the opening lines of “Be Our Guest” — the signature song of a certain singing-and-dancing candelabra located a continent away in Europe. For an encore, maybe he could take his buddy Puumba (Seth Rogen) on a magic carpet ride to a whole new world?

As some online have noted, Timon’s “Be Our Guest” riff replaces a cross-dressing joke from the earlier film that’s somewhat out of step today. But it also continues the Mouse House’s trend of burying Easter eggs for eagle-eyed Disney fans. Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, for example, featured a Frozen cameo, while the fictional theme park seen in Tim Burton’s Dumbo included shout-outs to real Disney Parks. We fully expect a Nala cameo when Disney gets around to remaking The Aristocats.

It’s hard to see Mufasa’s spirit in the sky

Simba sees his father's spirit in the sky in The Lion King. (Photo: Buena Vista Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

Before his untimely demise, Mufasa tells Simba that a father/son reunion is written in the stars... literally. In one of the most famous scenes of the 1994 film — famous enough to earn a Simpsons spoof — the emotionally distraught heir looks up at the night sky, and sees his father staring down at him. That moment is repeated in the 2019 film, but Favreau and his animation team pursue a more impressionistic depiction of Mufasa’s ghost. The dethroned lion king’s face and form are clearly visible in the earlier movie, taking shape out of the clouds until his brown fur is backlit by a glowing light.

In Favreau’s film, the cloud cover obscures a clear view of Mufasa, though we can see the outline of his face and eyes, which are represented by flashing bolts of lightning. The change was most likely made to stay consistent with the photoreal ethos of the rest of the film. Still, comic book fans might want to beware that this moment will give them unpleasant flashbacks to Galactus depicted in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Or, even worse, Parallax in Green Lantern.

The Lion King is playing in theaters now. Visit Fandango or Atom Tickets for showtime and ticket information.

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