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The Lion King roars to life: Disney’s classic is back with a dazzling revamp

There can be few films so beloved across the generations as The Lion King. The 1994 Disney classic is a masterpiece of visual spectacle and emotional storytelling, with a memorable soundtrack of Oscar-winning songs by Elton John and Tim Rice.

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The tale of lion cub Simba’s battle to reclaim his throne from his evil uncle is one of the highest-grossing animated films of all time, inspiring sequels, a long-running stage musical and a lucrative sideline in merchandising.

It means the new ‘live-action’ remake, which will be released on July 19, is hotly anticipated.

Only it isn’t really live action. The movie uses cutting-edge technology to create an animal kingdom that looks so realistic, viewers won’t believe it’s computer-generated. 

Every detail of the animals, from the rippling of their fur in the breeze to the tiniest movement of their paws, is lifelike enough to be lifted from a nature documentary. Until, that is, they start singing.

The cast is stellar, with A-list stars including Seth Rogen, Beyoncé and James Earl Jones. Add new songs by Beyoncé and Elton John and it’s little wonder the film – likely to have cost more than £250 million to make – is set to be a billion-dollar triumph.

So as London prepares for the red carpet premiere next weekend – attended by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, a ‘who’s who’ of Hollywood and Beyoncé herself – what can we expect from the summer’s biggest film?

Beyonce has spoken of her delight at being asked to voice Nala – Simba’s love interest – and how much she’s looking forward to her children, Blue Ivy, seven, and two-year-old twins Rumi and Sir Carter, seeing it. ‘It’s something that I grew up watching,’ she said.

‘Oh, you’re in for a treat! She’s wonderful,’ director Jon Favreau says of her performance.

Donald Glover, who plays Simba, created the US TV series Atlanta, about young rappers; played the young Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story; and has won five Grammys for his music, released under the name Childish Gambino.

Scar, Simba’s malevolent uncle, was originally voiced by Jeremy Irons, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is stepping into the role now – following the unwritten Hollywood rule that villains must always be British.

Comic actors Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner were encouraged to improvise dialogue for their roles as Pumbaa, the gluttonous warthog, and Timon, the wisecracking meerkat, to make their scenes even funnier.

The only original cast member to reprise their role is James Earl Jones as Mufasa, Simba’s father. Favreau said the 88-year-old’s inclusion was important as a way of ‘carrying the legacy across the two versions’.

He added: ‘The timbre of his voice has changed. That served the role well because he sounds like a king who’s ruled for a long time.’

Favreau was recruited to direct late in 2016, when his remake of The Jungle Book was becoming a global success. 

Films like Elf and Iron Man had already made him one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, while he has also acted in the comedies Couples Retreat and The Break-Up, and executive-produced all four Avengers movies.

Favreau, 52, is believed to have been given a budget more than double the £141 million of The Jungle Book to bring the African savannah and its animals to dazzling life.

‘I don’t think anybody wants to see another animated Lion King, because the original still holds up really, really well,’ he said. 

Instead, his aim was to convince the audience that they’re watching live creatures. For inspiration, he watched Sir David Attenborough’s BBC documentaries. 

‘It’s like seeing a really good magic trick,’ he said of the film’s effects. ‘Your brain can’t process what’s actually going on, so emotion takes over.’

Actor Seth Rogen echoed the entire cast’s awe when he said: ‘I could never have conceived that something could look the way this movie looks.’

Although it has been called a ‘live action’ remake, all the animals are actually computer-generated. 

However, it’s not animated in any conventional sense of the word. The animals are so photo-realistic that Disney doesn’t intend to enter the film in the best animated feature category for next year’s Oscar’s, instead focusing on visual effects.

Sean Bailey, president of production at Walt Disney Movies, recently declared that the film is a hybrid, a ‘new form of film-making’ which combines live-action and animated elements.

So how was it done? The process began with the actors acting out the script, filmed by multiple cameras which tracked their movements. Videos of their performances were sent to the animators, who used them as points of reference while crafting the animals’ movements.

Then state-of-the-art technology came into play. A virtual reality Serengeti was created, in which the filmmakers could move around wearing headsets.

When Favreau found shots he wanted, they were captured and sent to animators to be fleshed out with an extraordinary level of detail.

The director and his team focused an incredible degree of attention on every tiny element, from the way light plays on the animals’ fur to the rocks scattered in canyons, to make it look as much like a nature programme as possible – albeit one where the animals talk and sing.

A Disney source told The Mail on Sunday that the director has even inserted real-life footage of the Serengeti into the movie which blends seamlessly with computer-generated visuals: ‘Jon wants to see if any fans can spot the real images because the technology is so good it’s virtually impossible to tell. 

‘You truly feel like the line between reality and fantasy has been blurred. People need to prepare to have their minds blown!’

The soundtrack to the 1994 movie remains one of the best-loved in the history of film. Sir Elton John and Tim Rice won an Oscar for Can You Feel The Love Tonight, which also bagged Elton a Grammy for his vocal performance. 

This time, Beyoncé and Donald Glover will duet on the soaring, emotional ballad, which will join Hakuna Matata, I Just Can’t Wait To Be King and Circle Of Life in the new soundtrack, which will be released on Thursday.

With production by award-winner Pharrell Williams, all the songs have been updated with the voices of the new performers, and a new song, Never Too Late, written and performed by Sir Elton, will also feature. 

It could put him in the running for two entries in the 2020 Oscars Best Original Song category – the other being Rocketman’s (I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated track, though, is a new Beyoncé song written especially for the film. 

It’s been kept under wraps – even the title – but director Favreau revealed the star created the song ‘in the spirit of the production’ with the same composers who worked on the new and original scores.

‘They were all collaborating to bring this new piece of music into a film where there’s already a very established musical personality to the piece,’ he said.

Disney are masters at wringing the maximum financial return out of every film and The Lion King is no exception, set to make millions in merchandising deals.

Along with new Lion King-branded toys and clothing available at Disney’s theme parks, other brands are launching tie-in ‘collaborations’ with the film.

Jewellery company Pandora has released a collection which includes a bracelet, charms based on the film’s characters, plus Simba and Nala rings.

Online fashion retailer Asos has a Lion King range, while Primark has items including £8 Hakuna Matata snow globe and a Simba-shaped cushion. 

There’s even a Lion King cosmetics range, by Beyoncé’s makeup artist, Sir John, and Luminess Cosmetics, which include a Circle Of Life highlighter.

More altruistically, Disney has donated £1.2 million to the Lion Recovery Fund to tie in with the film. In the 25 years since the original film was released, Africa’s lion population has halved because of poaching and the destruction of their habitat.

Following the success of The Jungle Book, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, other Disney classics are also having new life breathed into them for a new generation.

A live-action version of Lady And The Tramp, starring American actors Justin Theroux and Tessa Thompson, will be released on Netflix in November, Mulan will hit cinemas next March and La La Land star Emma Stone will play Cruella de Vil in a story about the 101 Dalmations villain.

There are also plans to remake The Sword In The Stone, Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid.

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