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Movie review: Harder to feel the love for live-action 'Lion King'

Zazu the hornbill, voiced by John Oliver, and young Simba, voiced by JD McCrary, in a scene from "The Lion King."

DISNEY/AP

By KATIE WALSH | Tribune News Service | Published: July 17, 2019

"The Lion King" is the latest victim in the Disney remake parade, in which director Jon Favreau dons his best Dr. Moreau cosplay and imagines a "Planet Earth" where animals spout Shakespearean soliloquies. The result of this horrific experiment, combining photorealistic animal simulations with celebrity voices, is a bizarre Frankenstein’s monster of a film that is so distressingly unpleasant it somehow manages to even ruin the original, much beloved 1994 hand-drawn cartoon version.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard would chuckle at the spectacle of simulacra on display in the "The Lion King," which combines the hyperreal with high drama, but he wouldn’t be surprised. Disneyland was Baudrillard’s original simulacrum, a place where reality and the simulation of reality bleed into one another indistinguishably. It’s a Disney tradition by now, following Favreau’s 2016 remake of "The Jungle Book." But in that film, there was Mowgli, a human anchor to connect to emotionally, even though it was bizarre to hear Sir Ben Kingsley’s voice come out of a panther.

In "The Lion King," all we have are the animals, and a bunch of big cats just aren’t cut out to carry "Hamlet," as insane as it is to have to state that. There’s a reason animators usually have to add large eyes, eyebrows and toothy smiles to animal characters, as the real thing just can’t express the human emotions required of this tragic tale.

The hyperreality throws every aspect of this fantastical world into stark relief. Even the celebratory opening sequence takes on a morbid tone, as primates and prey gather to celebrate the birth of a new young predator king, the lion cub Simba, who will be hunting them in short order.

This literal animal kingdom is a trip, as Favreau and writer Jeff Nathanson offer up a near line-for-line, note-for-note imitation of the animated film populated with these wildlife holograms. James Earl Jones even returns to offer his famously gravelly pipes to Mufasa again. But every beat and character pales in comparison to the expressive animated film. Even the villains, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his pack of hyenas, are toothless.

The only bright spots in this grotesque pageant of ones and zeroes are the vocal performances of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Simba’s famously laid-back pals Timon and Pumba. They gallop in just in time to pick up the pace of this depressingly draggy display (the new version adds a whopping 32 minutes onto the exact same story), and Eichner’s neurotic meerkat is the true breakout star. Speaking of stars, Beyonc?’s highly anticipated performance as the adult Nala is sensitive and nuanced, but far too scanty. She couldn’t have spent more than a day in the recording booth for the 15 minutes of screen time adult Nala is afforded.

It’s fascinating how this version inadvertently lays bare so many of the shortcomings of our hero Simba. As a kid (JD McCrary), he’s insouciant and impulsive. As the fully grown prodigal son, Donald Glover’s smooth vocal stylings show Simba to be the teen stoner dilettante he is, chowing on grubs all day before Nala’s disdain forces him to step into his royal birthright.

If anything, Favreau’s take on the story draws out its dark, traumatizing elements in new, disturbing ways: scar’s manipulations, the violence of Mufasa’s death, Simba’s cowardice. This new "Lion King" is no triumph, but a real tragedy.

"The Lion King" is rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements. Running time: 118 minutes.

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