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‘Lion King’ remake is flawed, but gets the emotional stuff right

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I’m as tired as anyone of Disney’s continual strip mining of its past successes without putting the effort into these films to make them any more than shadowy substandard imitations of great cinematic art. But every once in a while, the Mouse House gives a remake that rises to the level of being better than a passable, but unimpressive way to kill time. “The Lion King,” the latest live-action Disney remake, rises above the others, thanks to how well director Jon Favreau and his filmmaking team handle the emotional beats in the film.

You probably know the story, but in case you don’t, here we go. Simba (Donald Glover) was born to take the place of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), as ruler and protector of The Pride Lands. But with an assist from his uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his lying mouth, Simba runs away from home, eventually joining up with meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogan) on a journey to a care-free Hakuna Matata lifestyle.

This carefree life is wrecked when Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter) shows up and begs him to come home and put the smackdown on Scar. Simba must confront his identity and his past before he can rush home to save the day.

This “King” has significant issues, starting with the facial animation of characters, or lack thereof. It’s extremely disconcerting to hear a character unleashing torrents of highly emotional dialogue with a calm, expressionless face. It makes the whole film feel somewhat lifeless.

This especially hurts the character of Scar. While Ejiofor’s performance oozes with sinister malevolence, his lack of facial expressions kneecap how threatening the character can be. It really weakens this movie’s main villain and makes him less menacing.

Another issue is that the film doesn’t do a lot to differentiate itself from its 1994 predecessor. No new themes explored. No twists or new plot lines that take the story to new, memorable places. On top of that, this “King” is so much less vibrant and colorful than its animated counterpart. It’s like someone turned the levels during the color grading of the film.

Also, on a personal note, I resent the fact that listening to Rogan try to sing made me long for someone to put his vocal tracks through pitch correction software and I hate pitch correction.

So the film has problems, but where it counts, “Lion King” gets it mostly right. The scene where Simba discovers his father’s lifeless body tears your heart out. “The Circle of Life,” the opening musical number, is still powerful.

The cast acquits itself pretty well. Jones is magnificent as Mufasa. John Oliver shines as Zazu, as does Rogan as Pumbaa. At least as long as he’s not singing.

While it’s not as colorful as the animated “King,” there are some really beautiful images here. Young Simba and Nala frolicking through a kaleidoscope of butterflies immediately springs to mind. The animals look jaw-droppingly real, even though they don’t emote in a way that makes them relatable.

Bringing it all together is director Favreau, who ably handles the action beats as well as the more emotional scenes. This movie likely benefitted from Favreau’s experience directing the live-action “Jungle Book” remake, where he also had to work with computer-generated animal characters. As a result, “The Lion King” hits the right emotional beats and has just the right amount of humor and musical magic to be worth sitting through once.

3 ½ Indy Fedoras out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG

Thanks to Fat Cats in Rexburg for providing screenings for movie reviews on EastIdahoNews.com.

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