There are certain things we know to be true. We know that a week has seven days. The square root of 81 is nine. And Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, the biggest popstar on this and perhaps several other planets, can add voicing a lion to her long list of achievements.
Disney’s live-action remake of 1994’s The Lion King is in cinemas from July 19, and though it follows hot on the heels of two other remakes by the studio – Aladdin in May and Dumbo in March – Disney is banking on the singer’s involvement to help distinguish it as a must-see film this summer.
Her character Nala has relatively few lines in the film. Both Beyoncé and Donald Glover, who voices Simba, do not make an appearance until roughly an hour or so in, on account of their characters being voiced by younger actors. But Beyoncé’s involvement stretches beyond the film; the singer announced ahead of the film’s premiere that she has curated and produced an accompanying album, titled The Lion King: The Gift, to be released alongside it.
Beyoncé said she wanted to do more than find a collection of songs inspired by the film. “It is a mixture of genres and collaboration that isn’t one sound. It is influenced by everything from R&B, pop, hip hop and Afro Beat.” Pharrell Williams and Chance the Rapper, who respectively worked as a consultant on the film and voiced a bush baby, are said to feature on it.
Both Dumbo and Aladdin made conscious choices to update their stories as part of their reintroduction to cinemas. The latter attempted to give Princess Jasmine more agency as a character, while Dumbo introduced a new storyline about the circus being bought out by huge a entertainment conglomerate.
The Lion King hews much closer to the original, almost to a fault, which means Beyoncé doesn’t get a whole lot to do in the movie despite Nala’s reintroduction serving as a kind of moral compass to help Simba step up and reclaim his home from his murderous uncle, Scar.
The most notable change to the film is the best. Beyoncé’s lead single from The Gift, a ballad called Spirit, is the only new song featured in the film, and comes at a pivotal moment, as Simba and Nala traverse the desert together in order to return home to Pride Rock.
It’s a huge, uplifting part of the film, perhaps because it’s fresh and unexpected among the fairly business-as-usual moments everywhere else. Beyoncé and Glover’s rendition of Can You Feel The Love Tonight feels unwieldy, with Beyoncé’s vocals being dulled and dragged down by Glover’s fairly heavy singing voice. Spirit, by comparison, gives Beyoncé room to do her own thing by herself, and the film is all the better for it.
When she gets the opportunity to show off her talent, Beyoncé’s enunciation and line delivery are like a soothing balm. She says “Danger? I laugh in the face of danger” like she means it, and when she says Scar has “decimated the pridelands” it sounds downright angelic out of context.
Beyoncé is no stranger to incorporating her music into her acting work; she released singles accompanying her appearances in Goldmember, Dreamgirls and The Pink Panther. But much like Black Panther and The Hunger Games, which released curated soundtracks inspired by, but not directly related to the films, Disney has wisely harnessed the power of Beyoncé to do far more than just voice a lion. People are already speculating that Spirit could be Beyoncé’s ticket to bagging an Oscar, which tells you the kind of long-term strategy Disney might have had in mind when they booked her in the first place. To borrow a phrase from Scar; long live the Queen.