By Richard Roeper

Chicago Sun-Times

“The Lion King”

118 minutes

Rating: PG for peril/action and some thematic elements

It’s no small feat to deliver entertaining and innovative live-action takes on animated treasures that hold such a special place in the hearts and memories of millions, but Disney has built an impressive adaptation track record and has won over many a skeptic.

Still, putting a live-action spin (Disney calls the process “photo real”) on “The Lion King” some 25 years after the release of the original seemed to be a particularly daunting task, given how much we loved the animated visuals and the amazing voice work and the beautiful music in the original — and oh yeah, isn’t it going to look ridiculous when realistic-looking lions (and hyenas and other creatures) start talking and singing?

Indeed, it takes a scene or two to get comfortable with the incredibly lifelike animals talking and singing — but director Jon Favreau made a wise choice by going with a “less is more” approach to that issue, i.e., not trying to perfectly sync up mouth movements with every syllable of dialogue, and often pulling back for gorgeous, big-picture cover shots during the musical numbers.

And while the musical numbers don’t match the impact of the originals and there’s a bit of a lull in the second act where not all that much seems to be happening, “The Lion King” is on balance a solid and at times stunningly beautiful film.

As for the story: I’ll leave it to you to discover if the plot is a note-for-note cover of the original, but it’s hardly a spoiler alert to say given the filmmakers are not idiots, they have great respect for the source material (which has more than a few echoes of “Hamlet”).

In a timeless African savanna, the great and wise and kind King Mufasa (the legendary James Earl Jones, who of course voiced Mufasa in the 1994 film) is overcome with joy over the birth of the cub Simba (JD McCrary), who will one day succeed him.

Mufasa is just starting to explain the whole “Circle of Life” thing to Simba when tragedy strikes, although the circumstances aren’t as random as they seem to some. Riddled with guilt, poor little Simba runs away while his uncle Scar takes command.

I’m not sure any actor in the known universe could top Jeremy Irons’ voice work as Mufasa’s evil, scheming, villainous younger brother Scar — but Chiwetel Ejiofor acquits himself well in the role. The CGI version of Scar is a work of art. Yes, he’s a monster and he’s mangy and scary and creepy — but there’s something sad and desperate and damaged about him as well.

Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen absolutely kill as Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog, who befriend Simba at his lowest moment and remain loyal to him even when he’s grown up and has put on 400 pounds or so.

Donald Glover voices the grownup Simba and Beyonce Knowles is Nala, and what a shame Disney couldn’t find some insanely talented performers and had to settle for those two, cough-cough.(Clarification for the out-of-context police: I’m kidding. They’re great. Thank you.)

Kudos as well to “The Lion King” 2.0 for not shying away from the spiritual elements of the original story, with all its religious connotations. Nor does it soften the violence in certain pivotal scenes. Even in a musical comedy fantasy world where predator and prey can become friends due to extenuating circumstances, it’s best not to mess with the king.

This “Lion King” rules. And roars.

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