WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for The Lion King, in theaters Friday nationwide.
Disney's live-action adaptation of The Lion King doesn't make a lot of changes to the overarching narrative of the 1994 animated classic. Although somewhat understated, its few alterations are to character motivations. A handful of the supporting players are tweaked here and there, contributing new layers.
And no one receives as much of an update as Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), the leader of the hyena pack. The original movie featured her more as a just another goofy member of the comically inept henchmen for Scar. But in the new film, Shenzi is a much more intimidating and serious character. None of her dialogue is played for laughs, and she's given a lot more imposing moments to make herself a true threat to the lion pride.
Played by Whoopi Golberg in the animated movie, Shenzi was just another one of the main three hyenas, alongside Banzai and Ed. All three of them are giggling henchmen who work alongside Scar to try and take over the Pride Lands. They don't offer much in terms of strategy or malice, they're mostly just an empty threat.
They can still be dangerous in the right situation, though, such as when they turn on Scar in the final moments of the film. But they don't really offer any real menace at all in the majority of the film. Even when they're trying to kill Simba, they're making colorful jokes and performing slapstick comedy.
In fact, Shenzi is just as silly as the other hyenas. She banters with Banzai and makes many of the same small mistakes that the other hyenas do. She doesn't have much ambition outside filling her belly. She's treated as the most competent of the hyena trio, but that's not a very impressive figure to be. She blends into the trio more often than not, to the point where she doesn't really stand out any more than any of her compatriots.
THE LION/HYENA WAR
The new version of Shenzi is a drastically different character. Instead of being just any random hyena, she's established early on in the film as their leader. While the other hyena laugh in short giggles, her laughter is harsh and cruel. In fact, she's outright scary, crawling out of the shadows; immediately frightening.
She plainly orders the death of Simba (JD McCrary), more to slight Mufasa (James Earl Jones) than anything else. Even when she's warned that doing so could jumpstart a full-blown war between the lions and the hyenas, she points out that the war between hyenas and lions have been raging for centuries. But if Simba dying would hurt Mufasa? She's all in on it.
This makes Shenzi one of the most threatening figures in Lion King. When Mufasa confronts her, he addresses her plainly. He doesn't speak to the hyena as a whole, he talks to her. She is the one who controls the hyena, more so than even Scar later in the film. She's dangerous and powerful in a way the original version of the character could never dream of. She demands respect and speaks with an authority that none of the hyena had before.
It's really interesting and positions her as a counterpoint to the ruling lions. It's a shame she doesn't get more time to be more fully explored, especially in relation to her surprising rival.
The film actually makes Shenzi a strong part of Nala's character arc. When Nala was a cub, she ventured into the elephant graveyard alongside Simba. There, she was almost murdered by the hyenas. That memory plays no part in the original Nala's journey, but it's an explicit piece of the new Nala's character. She speaks of the confrontation, with Shenzi likewise seeming to have very clear memories from that day. An air of unfinished business hangs over both characters.
This builds to a head in the climactic battle between the lions and the hyenas. While the rest of the cast is dueling in sheer chaos, Nala and Shenzi stare one another down across the battlefield. They rush each other, both claiming they've been waiting for this. Their battle has more weight than any of the other nameless fights that happen in the frenzy.
It even ends on a climactic note, as Nala is able to get a good hold of Shenzi and throws her off the side of Pride Rock. If the film leaned into a little bit more, it could be an even bigger moment for Nala. But as it stands, it creates a fun dynamic between the two supporting characters, the kind of interesting wrinkle to the narrative that Lion King needed more of.
Opening Friday nationwide, director Jon Favreau's The Lion King features the voices of Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Florence Kasumba, Eric André, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and James Earl Jones.