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The Lion King (2019)::rating::2.5::rating::2.5

[su_dropcap size=”5″]T[/su_dropcap]his Lion King looks and feels so shamelessly similar to its animated forebear that it’s much easier to pick out the differences than the similarities between the two.  It begs the question:  Is this a nostalgia-soaked homage, a high-end reimagining, or a cool, clinical cash grab?  In Disney’s recent wave of rehashed films (Dumbo, Aladdin, etc.), the end result felt like a murky blend of all three motives.  This version seems so visually stunning, cleverly marketed, and yet creatively hollow that this answer seems clear.  We’re watching a two-hour product, meant to rake in money and nothing more.

If you haven’t seen the original Lion King, which I assume means you’ve been recently thawed from a glacier, you’re in for ten tons of luck:  Jon Favreau’s incarnation pretty much carbon-copies it, in some cases all the way down to dialogue beats and shot selections.  All is well in the African Pride Lands, where King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and his lion pride preside over an idyllic sprawl of grasslands.  A Hamlet-style tempest brews, however, when Mufasa’s ratchet bro Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) schemes to seize the throne for himself.  He conspires with a snickering hyena pack (the lead trio is voiced by Keegan-Michael Key, Eric Andre, and Florence Kasumba) to lure Simba and Nala (JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph), Mufasa’s heir and future daughter-in-law, into a trap.  When that fails, the team aims directly for the king.  Tragedy strikes, and Simba flees the kingdom in embarrassment and terror.

He soon links up with a carefree warthog and meerkat comedy duo (Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner), who give Simba a sanctuary from his Shakespearean destiny.  As the saying goes, Simba may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with him, and as the prince gets older (now voiced by Donald Glover), he and Nala (Beyonce) must reunite and take back the pride.  Again, I’m assuming you’re familiar with all this, and I’m just typing to improve my words-per-minute.

Actually, “familiar” understates the feel of this movie.  I sat with a packed theater, and every scene was so on-the-nose identical that people quoted just about every line before it hit the speakers.  Every joke lands with the same timing.  You’ll know every song (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, “Circle of Life”, and–yes, even “Hakuna Matata).   I guess there’s one measly new song in there somewhere, but that’s kinda like bragging that my new iPhone camera is 3% better than the old one.  And, it was only $1200!

I will say the CGI work is jaw-dropping.  The African plains, the roaring waterfalls, and gassy warthogs all get rendered with meticulous brilliance.  All the voice actors (Ejiofor is a standout) turn in fine work.  Some of the animated film’s magic seeps into this version’s final act.  None of this Lion King is bad, but none of it is particularly inspired, either.  As I’ve said before, there’s something unknowably amazing about hand-drawn animation that gets lost in the translation to live action.  (And that’s with the caveat that this is “live action,” but basically just animation of a different type.)  This version copies the melody but misses the passion and unhinged imagination that made the original an instant classic.

118 min.  PG.  (And it’s half an hour longer than the original??  Yeesh.)

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