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‘The Lion King’ is a stunning achievement in animation let down by some dissenting voices

“The Lion King” (Rated A)

Cast: Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, James Earl Jones, John Oliver, Beyoncé

Genre: Animated Adventure

Dwight’s rating:

Maybe I was a little too old. But the original “The Lion King” never really did anything for me.

Yes, I know, to many of you, that’s heresy!

But I was already a teenager and driving and in college by the time that came out in 1994. And it just seemed like it was something for babies, what with all its talking animals and such.

I didn’t dislike it. But I just wasn’t as enamored of it as were people five to 10 years younger than I – those babies!

Plus, for me, “Bambi” is still Disney’s greatest animated talking animal masterpiece. And with the films from the Disney animation renaissance of the 1990s, “Beauty and the Beast” – even with its talking silverware – will always be the high-water mark of that era. Again, at least for me.

But one can’t ignore or deny the impact of “The Lion King”, arguably Disney’s most famous traditionally animated film property of all time.

And that’s why there’s been so much concern, criticism and condemnation about the company’s live-action remakes of these classics.

The skepticism is understandable, and the results have been mixed. But at least the live-action “Aladdin” from a few months back was fun and enjoyable. “Beauty and the Beast” from 2017 in some ways improved on its animated counterpart. And there was “The Jungle Book”, which was simply fantastic, and far superior to its forebear, and one of the best pictures of 2016.

So what if you were to pair that latter film’s director, Jon Favreau, with “The Lion King”, what could go wrong?

Well, first of all, all the live-action remakes so far have featured actual human cast members. This is a completely animated Disney remake of a Disney animated movie. Other than Disney’s desperate need to completely dominate the 2019 movie box office, the new “The Lion King” has only one raison d’être: to be the most stunning achievement in animation in a lifetime.

I imagine there must be a few schools of thought when it comes to deciding which direction animators determined to stand out (not with crudely drawn cartoons, etc.) will take with their designs.

You can go with something that is clearly and obviously animated, but so beautifully drawn that it’s stunning – think Pixar and this year’s “Toy Story 4”. Or something that is clearly animation, but you swear that sometimes you look up and think, “That must have been live-action, right? That couldn’t have been drawn?” – like last year’s Oscar-winner “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”.

And then there’s this year’s “The Lion King”!

There will be people who will think this can’t be animation. There will be people who will not know that it is animation. There will be people who will say, “How did they get the lions to do that, and at that exact moment?” They’ll think that someone has dubbed voices over real animals in the African wilderness; there’s no way artists could design something so lifelike.

Based solely on the animation, this is a 3.5, if not 4-star movie. As a human race, we should be proud there are those among us with the knowledge and capability of designing something so spellbinding. This is an achievement to be celebrated by mankind like the moon landing 50 years ago.

Otherwise, there really isn’t much to talk about. The story certainly doesn’t stray far from the beloved original: Simba idolizes his father, King Mufasa, and takes to heart his own royal destiny on the plains of Africa. But not everyone in the kingdom celebrates the new cub’s arrival. Scar, Mufasa’s brother – and former heir to the throne – has plans of his own. The battle for Pride Rock is soon ravaged with betrayal, tragedy and drama, ultimately resulting in Simba’s exile. Now, with help from a curious pair of newfound friends, Simba must figure out how to grow up and take back what is rightfully his.

Especially with the first half of the picture, when the film is a near mirror image (except for being exceptionally more beautiful) of the original, my mind did a lot wandering. Like how the world has come to such a place where we are remaking classics for dubious purposes.

And then there came the fear about the future of the film industry and the world. All while baby Simba and Nala are playing amongst the zebras, I’m thinking, “My God, with animation looking like this, all movies in a couple decades will be animated.”

Directors will never have to worry about an actor’s height, weight, age or drug addiction or pregnancy, bad attitudes or whether they are actually even alive. We might have new movies starring Marlon Brando and Meryl Streep together! And we’ll just call in Meryl, and some guy who sounds like Brando, to record their voices in a studio (or edit clips together from all their movies for the needed dialogue)!

Speaking of voices, after the animation, it’s the voice work that will get all the attention with “The Lion King”. Not all of it is positive, but at least it overshadows how out of place the songs feel here.

There is some good work here. Perhaps the greatest voice-over performer of all time, James Earl Jones, reprises his role as Musafa – and they didn’t even go the easy route and just use the old audio. Jones is joined by Oscar-nominated British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years A Slave”) as the evil Scar, and comedian John Oliver (HBO’s “Last Week Tonight”) as the hornbill bird, Zazu.

For at least the first third to half of the film, these three are the most interesting voices we hear. No matter how cute little baby Simba is, and how beautiful and lifelike the scenery, the first hour or so is like the stereotypical supermodel – getting by on mainly its stunning looks.

And like a pubescent child about to get hit real hard by puberty, it comes to a realization that it can’t get by on its looks alone. As such, in much the same way they brought a different kind of (much-needed) energy to the original, Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog arrive to liven things up, voiced enthusiastically and excellently by comedian Billy Eichner (“Billy on the Street”) and funnyman Seth Rogen. Some of the actors voicing the hyenas are also pretty decent.

However, when we are introduced to the older Simba and Nala, something just doesn’t feel quite right. And yes, this will seem like nitpicking, but Donald Glover – one of the most talented people in the world today – and superstar Beyoncé have very distracting voices.

Were they given cues to be more natural and laid back in their delivery? Were they told to sound like themselves? We didn’t need the over-the-top voice work of a “Masters of the Universe” or “Transformers” cartoon series from the 1980s, but this “Donald and Beyoncé”, as opposed to Simba and Nala, felt out of sync with what we were getting from the other actors. And thus, we are served an amazing lack of gravitas unbecoming of a future king and queen of the kingdom.

Additionally, knowing the nature of things in a pride of lions, once again, the issue of Simba and Nala probably being brother and sister goes unaddressed. When will you get to that part, Disney?

So, “The Lion King” is worth seeing, because it literally is worth seeing. Your eyes will thank you. But just like the original, it might be a bit more impressive to babies.

• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.

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Dwight Strachan

Dwight is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff.

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