Entertainment

How the New 'Lion King' Completely Wastes Beyoncé

beyonce lion king
Robyn Beck/Getty Images

The last time Beyoncé played a character that was not Beyoncé in a feature film, she was Queen Tara in the forgettable 2013 animated film Epic. In the years since, Beyoncé evolved beyond a pop star who dabbled in acting. Once and forever Queen Bey, she ascended to deity status with release after release of albums that didn't adhere to any one medium. She became more personal and political as an artist, while also emerging as an untouchable pop cultural figure. So it's a much different Beyoncé who returns to dramatic work in The Lion King, and, as such, you'd think the Disney remake would give her as much as possible to do. That's not exactly the case -- at least in the context of the movie. 

Getting Beyoncé to play Nala was seen as a major coup for the Mouse House. Though their remakes already attracted big names -- everyone from Will Smith to Emma Watson wanted in -- Beyoncé is on a different level. The news warranted a story in the New York Times, a publication that doesn't really do casting announcements. She had seemingly abandoned acting on her way to creating the likes of Lemonade and Homecoming, which meant only a truly colossal project could lure her back. 

But almost as soon as the promo materials for The Lion King came out, something seemed amiss. Beyoncé's entire life is art-directed, whereas everything associated with the movie seemed to be, well, not. Imagine one of the biggest celebrities in the world staring at what could be a stock image of a lion, and you've got one of the official images that was released

The movie confirmed our worst suspicions. Nala's role hasn't significantly increased from the 1994 original, despite the fact that she speaks with the voice of the closest thing America has to actual royalty. Instead, the most exciting contribution Beyoncé makes to the project is in the form of a companion album called The Lion King: The Gift, out Friday. That compilation, which she produced and describes as a "love letter to Africa," features solo numbers as well as contributions from husband Jay-Z, daughter Blue Ivy, co-star Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino), Kendrick Lamar, and Pharrell. It's unclear how explicitly these songs will reference the story of Simba, though one is called "Find Your Way Back (Circle of Life)" and another is "Scar." Other titles are less explicit.

Most of the songs featured on The Gift don't even play in the movie, the notable exception being "Spirit," which has been released as a single and now has an accompanying music video. But Nala doesn't belt out "Spirit" from her lion mouth. Instead, it's featured in a transitional moment as Simba decides to make the journey back home to face off against Scar. 

The lack of Beyoncé in the finished film is odd not just because it's Beyoncé we're talking about. In an era where Disney has attempted to reimagine the Disney princess, Nala still largely plays second fiddle to Simba. Sure, there are a couple of moments where director Jon Favreau's movie swerves from its urtext. In the final battle, Nala essentially acts as a general, and goes head-to-head with the hyena Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), who's reimagined as a fierce villain instead of a wise-cracking Whoopi Goldberg. 

Still, there's no serious attempt to give Nala more of an identity outside her Pride. In the Broadway musical, she gets her own show-stopping number, "Shadowland," in which she describes her pain at seeing her home destroyed and her choice to take matters into her own hands. There's a similar dramatic beat in the 2019 film, but without the emotional resonance of a song to call her own. "Spirit" doesn't serve the same narrative purpose. If anything, it's more about Simba fulfilling his destiny than Nala pursuing hers. 

Recent Disney remakes have labored to give their female characters significant moments, with varying degrees of success. In Aladdin, Jasmine has a new song in which she refuses to remain "speechless." Beauty and the Beast gives Belle a STEM hobby. A tragic backstory motivates an evil queen in MaleficentThe Lion King feels like a huge missed opportunity to at least attempt something similar for Nala and Beyoncé.

Which isn't to say that Beyoncé underperforms with the material she's given. Her unmistakable intonations put Nala on an equal playing field with Simba, and she throws vocal flare onto a song like "Can You Feel The Love Tonight." But if The Lion King were real -- and that's what the aggressive CG imagery would have you believe -- Simba would have left his Pride for good and Nala would be ruling shit all on her own.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Streamail for more entertainment, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.