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‘The Lion King’ a dull roar

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Anyone with even the slightest modicum of pop cultural awareness knows just how monolithic the Disney machine has become. With an ever-growing list of acquisitions and developments, Big Mouse is in the driver’s seat with regards to the entertainment we consume.

Perhaps the most cynical of their recent trends is the proliferation of live-action adaptations of beloved animated fare. They’ve been ramping it up over the past couple of years, but 2019 has taken things to a whole new level.

Already this year, we’ve seen adaptations of “Dumbo” (by Tim Burton) and “Aladdin” (by Guy Richie), a pair of tepid films in blockbuster clothing.

But “The Lion King” looked like it might be different. Featuring a stellar voice cast and directed by Jon Favreau, who already had some success in this particular domain with his very good “Jungle Book” adaptation, this one seemed to have potential.

Alas, it is simply more of the same, an almost shot-for-shot remake of the original film whose visual accomplishment simply can’t overcome an overarching feeling of inessentiality. The animated version was exceptional, while this new version doesn’t really have any reason to be.

(Well, one reason: a practically guaranteed massive box office haul – the film took in $185 million opening weekend.)

While there are game efforts on the part of all involved, there are certain fundamental issues that can’t be overcome. The photorealism of the all-animal cast is impressive, yes, but it is also an obstacle; there’s a lack of expressive flexibility that makes much of the dialogue feel flat and removed. And without that interactive dynamism, it doesn’t really matter how good it all looks.

It seems silly to recount the story of “The Lion King” here, but on the off chance that there are people out there who somehow don’t know the story, let’s do a brief synopsis.

Mufasa (James Earl Jones, “Warning Shot”) is the king of the Pridelands, ruler over all that he surveys. He and his queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard, “Saint Judy”) have a son, heir to the throne. Young Simba (J.D. McCrary, “Little”) will be king someday, much to the chagrin of Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “Sherlock Gnomes”), the king’s brother who desires the throne for himself.

Scar enlists the help of the hyenas in an effort to remove both Mufasa and Simba from the picture – a goal he accomplishes thanks to a wildebeest stampede and a tragic accident. A heartbroken Simba flees the Pridelands, horrified by what he believes that he has done.

It’s out in the world that Simba meets Timon (Billy Eichner, TV’s “Friends From College”) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen, “Long Shot”) – a meercat and warthog, respectively – who take the scared cub in and teach him the laid-back laissez faire attitude with which they live their lives.

Of course, Simba’s absence lets Scar assume power, which in turn leads to Simba’s childhood friend Nala (Beyonce) heading out into the wild to seek help. It’s during this journey that she inadvertently stumbles upon the now-grown Simba (Donald Glover, “Solo: A Star Wars Story”). She wants him to return and take up the crown that is rightfully his, but he resists – until it becomes clear that he has no other choice.

And so on and so forth – you know how it goes.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that “The Lion King” is a bad movie. It really isn’t. The visual effects are stunning (though one could argue that calling this film “live-action” is a bit of a misnomer) and the cast is strong. And the songs are still great – “Hakuna Matata” remains my jam, even if Seth Rogen maybe can’t quite hang vocally, while “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is still an all-timer (even if it is inexplicably sung DURING THE DAY).

It really is an all-star ensemble. Everyone already mentioned does good work – Glover is a highlight, as is Ejiofor. Beyonce is Beyonce, which is awesome. Eichner and Rogen are delightful together. Alfre Woodard is a legend and James Earl Jones is back, which is just awesome. There’s more too – John Oliver steals some scenes as bird majordomo Zazu, while Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre are great fun as a pair of goofy-yet-sinister hyenas.

But the detailed visuals, while gorgeous to look at, are a big part of the problem. These are animals designed to look like animals – and animals simply aren’t that expressive facially. That lack of expression causes the otherwise-fine dialogue to ring flat and a little false. Any efforts at emoting are undermined by the physical limitations.

“The Lion King” also suffers from a dearth of originality. There’s nothing new here. Sure, the aesthetic and the voices are different, but for the most part, it’s the same thing we saw nearly 30 years ago. And it’s that lack of change that contributes most to the movie’s vibe of being just generally unnecessary.

Again, this isn’t a bad movie. And it isn’t a bad time. Far from it, actually – there were kids in my screening who straight-up applauded when the credits rolled. It’s certainly a well-made film – Favreau and company are pros who know how to make a movie – but there’s surprisingly little soul to it all. And without soul, well … what’s the point?

Aside from the aforementioned hundreds of millions of dollars, of course.

“The Lion King” is fine, an inoffensive family-friendly cinematic experience. Keep your expectations low and you’ll be satisfied. Just don’t go in looking for anything particularly inspired. It’s the same thing that you’ve seen before. And in the end, that’s probably OK … just nothing more than that.

[3 out of 5]

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