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The Lion King live-action remake debuts stunning 'Circle of Life' opener

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Everett Collection

The Lion King first look? What a wonderful phrase.

Disney debuted its first glimpse at footage from the upcoming “live-action” adaptation of the beloved animated feature at D23, Disney’s biennial fan convention in Anaheim, California on Saturday.

As previously reported, the film will star Donald Glover as young cub-turned-king Simba and James Earl Jones reprising his role from the 1994 classic as Mufasa. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner play Timon and Pumbaa, with John Oliver newly announced as Zazu.

Jon Favreau was tapped to direct the film after mastering the technology that brought animated animals into the relative real world with The Jungle Book. Much has been made of the idea that the “live-action” film features, yes, animated characters, and while Favreau didn’t elaborate on the difference between his process for The Lion King compared to his approach to Jungle Book (which featured a human character), the director did introduce the footage at D23 with something of an acknowledgment over fans’ interest in the approach. “We know how important this is. People want to understand what our approach is, what we’re doing, and as soon as I found out we were going to be doing this film, my first question was, when’s D23?” (It was at the convention that Favreau first showed off a peek at Jungle Book.)

The footage itself was a doozy, opening with the African sun rising over the Savannah while the familiar opening chant blares out to mark the beginning of “Circle of Life.” From there, audiences saw rhinoceroses, antelopes, cranes, zebras, and elephants (with birds and bugs hitching a ride on their tusks) answering the royal call and trotting over to Pride Rock. The action basically mirrors the 1994 film’s opening, rendered almost identically in the style of The Jungle Book, but to stunning degree; the iconic wide shot of Pride Rock zooms out to show an ever vaster panorama that essentially looks like the IMAX museum documentary version of Mufasa’s domain.

Rafiki then pops up, fully realized in the realistic animation style but with the unmistakable features of the cartoon baboon. Baby Simba rests in his mother’s arms when Rafiki anoints him, smudging oil across his forehead, drawing an aw-inducing sneeze from the little cub. Rafiki holds up the baby, the animals rise and bow, and Elton John’s “Circle of Life” reaches it symphonic peak before the familiar title card drops.

Following the footage (which received some of the loudest applause of the live-action panel), Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn commented “I visit a lot of sets… this is the first time, I thought to myself, when I went to visit Jon making the film, I had a hard time understanding how you do this. And yet, they do. And I do know that Jon and his team will create something that is completely respectful and faithful to The Lion King you already know and love, just as he did with The Jungle Book.”