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Review: New “Lion King” delivers on story and music, but feels lifeless

  • COURTESY DISNEY

    Zazu, at left, voiced by John Oliver, and young Simba, voiced by JD McCrary, in a scene from “The Lion King.”

“THE LION KING”

**

(PG, 1:58)

Close on the heels of live-action remakes of “Aladdin” and “Dumbo,” comes “The Lion King” is back, Cue Savannah sunrise. Cue “Naaaants ingonyama bagithi baba!”

It’s easy to greet these remakes both cynically and a little eagerly. In the case of “The Lion King,” the songs are still good, the Shakespearean story still solid. Beyonce’s in it.

And yet Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King,” so abundant with realistic simulations of the natural world, is curiously lifeless. The most significant overhaul to an otherwise slavishly similar retread is the digital animation rendering of everything, turning the film’s African grasslands and its animal inhabitants into a photo-realistic menagerie.

It’s an impressive leap in visual effects. Some of the computer-generated makeovers are beautiful. Mufasa, the lion king voiced again by James Earl Jones, is wondrously regal, and his mane might be the most majestic blonde locks since Robert Redford. The grass stalks of the pride lands shimmer in the African sunlight.

But it’s a hollow victory. By turning the elastic, dynamic hand-drawn creations of Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s 1994 original into realistic-looking animals, “The Lion King” has greatly narrowed its spectrum of available expressions. Largely lost are the kinds of characterization that can flow from voice actor to animation. (Think of Tom Hanks and Woody in the “Toy Story” movies.) Here, most of the starry voice actors (including Donald Glover as the grown-up lion prince Simba, Beyonce as the older lioness Nala and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the villainous Scar) feel remote from their characters. And, in many cases, so do we.

It’s worth asking: Just how real do we need our talking animals to be? Do we need Zazu (voiced by John Oliver) to look enough like a red-billed hornbill to win the approval of avid birders? It feels like realism has been substituted for enchantment.

That doesn’t stop an army of top craft professionals and an enviable voice cast from doing their best to inject some vitality into “The Lion King.” The familiar songs by Elton John and Tim Rice are back, along with a new tune by Rice and Beyonce.

Yet the degree to which this “Lion King” mimics the first is disappointing. (Jeff Nathanson gets a solo writing credit but scene-to-scene the film hews extremely close to the original.) There’s a sound case to be made that this tale, on Broadway for more than 20 years, needs revision.

The few deviations taken by the filmmakers make you want more. The role of Nala has rightfully been elevated and toughened. The most rope for riffing has been extended to the new Timon and Pumba: Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. Taking over for Nathan Lane’s meerkat and Ernie Sabella’s warthog, Eichner and Rogen, more than anyone else, give “The Lion King” a breath of fresh air, even as they make plenty of fart jokes.

Yet that’s hardly enough to warrant a bland, unimaginative rehash like this, let alone merit Beyonce’s imperial presence. “The Lion King” is missing something – a purpose, maybe, and a heart. The life expectancy of Disney classics has begun to feel more like a hamster wheel than a circle of life, and it’s getting harder and harder to feel the love.

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