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'The Lion King' review: Visually stunning, technically innovative

Featuring the voices of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala

Featuring the voices of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as Nala and Donald Glover as Simba, Disney's "The Lion King" is directed by Jon Favreau. Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

PLOT In distant Africa, a young lion must prove himself king of the jungle.

CAST Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Seth Rogen

RATED PG (some violence)


BOTTOM LINE A visually dazzling new version of the Disney classic. Opens in theaters on July 19.

Cutting-edge technology tells a story of primal power in Disney's new version of "The Lion King." It's the studio's third reworking of an animated classic this year, following an overstuffed "Aladdin" and a weighed-down "Dumbo," but get ready: "The Lion King" is a whole different animal. It may not capture hearts like the 1994 original, or even the still-running Broadway play, but this extraordinary movie is so visually stunning and technically innovative that it could mark another "Avatar"-level event.

Using computer animation and virtual-reality techniques rather than ink and paint, "The Lion King" creates an African savanna of breathtaking photorealism. It isn't just the gorgeous backdrops that trick the eye but the wildlife, from lions with rippling ribs to rhinoceros beetles with whirring wings. Some mental readjustment is required when the animals, as regal and impassive as anything in a National Geographic documentary, start talking. 

The unseen voice actors do almost as much heavy lifting as the effects team, though with less consistent results. Simba, the young lion exiled from his kingdom, is played as a cub by an excellent JD McCrary, but as an adult by a somewhat too-casual Donald Glover. His betrothed, Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), still has only a few lines, despite a slightly expanded role. Comic relief comes from Billy Eichner as the sassy meerkat Timon and Seth Rogen as his warthog sidekick, Pumbaa; you'll hear Keegan-Michael Key and John Oliver, too. 

The realism of the animals' faces, though, make them inexpressive. Even the best actors — including James Earl Jones, returning as Simba's father, Mufasa — can sound merely overlaid onto the footage. Only the booming voice of Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the sinister lion Scar, seems to come straight from the character's throat. Scar is also one of the film's best visual creations, a bony-shouldered villain with a ratty gray coat. 

Director Jon Favreau (whose 2016 remake of "The Jungle Book" now looks like a trial run) follows the original film nearly shot for shot, taking little liberties where needed. The Elton John-Tim Rice musical numbers still sparkle, particularly the fan favorite "Hakuna Matata"; an OK new song,  "Never Too Late," accompanies the closing credits. What consistently dazzles are the effects, from the smallest twitch of an ear to the awesome sight of stampeding wildebeest. Caleb Deschanel's cinematography, computer-generated though it may be, is positively majestic. 

It might have been more impressive to see all this effort go into a new, original story rather than a remake. Still, it's hard to blame Disney for recycling a beloved classic into the kind of family-friendly, eye-popping spectacle that's missing from theaters right now. Audiences are likely to eat it up. And that's the circle of life.

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