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New ‘Lion King’ returns but it’s harder to feel the love

This image released by Disney shows characters (from left), Mufasa, voiced by James Earl Jones, and young Simba, voiced by JD McCrary, in a scene from ‘The Lion King’. (AP)

Impressive leap in visual effects

Life moves in a circle, “The Lion King” tells us, and,
increasingly, so does studio moviemaking.

Close on the heels of
“live-action” remakes of “Aladdin” and “Dumbo” and on the precipice of a reborn
“The Little Mermaid”, “The Lion King” is back, too. Round and round we go. Cue
Savannah sunrise. Cue “Naaaants ingonyama bagithi baba!”

The remakes have themselves been
a mixed bag offering some combination of modern visual effects, fresh casting
and narrative tweaks to catch up more dated material to the times. Don’t count
on a new “Song of the South”, but much of the Disney library will soon have
been outfitted with digital clothes for the Internet era.

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. And, well, 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. The Disney worlds of cartoon and nature documentary have finally
merged.

It’s an impressive leap in visual
effects, which included Favreau, cinematographer Caleb Descehanel and VFX chief
Rob Legato making use of virtual-reality environments. 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. And the grass stalks of the pride lands shimmer in
the African sunlight.

Dynamic

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 how closely fused Tom Hanks is with 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? Do we need the feathered majordomo Zazu (voiced
by John Oliver) to look enough like a red-billed hornbill to win the approval
of avid birders? “The Lion King” may well be a pivotal stepping stone toward
CGI splendors to come, but for now, 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, though this time, the
score by Hans Zimmer, with Lebo M., feels more airy and buoyant.

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 hues extremely close to the original.)
There’s a sound case to be made that the tale, which has been running on
Broadway for more than 20 years, needs little revision.

But 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 make their own shtick
together and they, more than anyone else, give “The Lion King” a breath of
fresh air, even as they make plenty of jokes.

Yet
that’s hardly enough to warrant a bland, unimaginative rehash like this, let
alone merit Beyonce’s imperial presence. Instead, “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. (AP)

“The Lion King”, a Walt Disney Co
release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for sequences
of violence and peril, and some thematic elements. Running time: 118 minutes.
Two stars out of four. (AP)

By Jake Coyle

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