The more distance The Lion King stage musical puts between it and the original cartoon feature, the better it proves as theatrical entertainment. It's a kind of miracle that Disney -- hardly a company known for taking liberties with its properties -- would let avant-garde director and puppeteer Julie Taymor bring such flamboyant, multi-national flourishes to the live adaptation of its highest-grossing animated film.
Beginning with the stylized, life-sized elephant and rhino costumes that march through the audience for the opening "Circle of Life" number, Lion King's animal pageant leaves you giddy. Taymor trots out stilt-giraffes, shadow-puppet mice, multi-colored ostriches like Mardi Gras floats, and even a kind of rickshaw that replicates a herd of leaping antelope.
But Lion King doesn't diverge too much from its kid-friendly source, which can make for some let-downs. The puppet/costume combinations for wisecracking Timon (John Plumpis) and odiferous Pumbaa (Blake Hammond) look disappointingly like their cartoony film characters. With word-for-word dialogue drawn from the film during their big introduction, which includes the "Hakuna Matata" number, the sequence feels like something produced for a Lion King ice show. Children will love it, though.
Elton John and Tim Rice provided some new songs for this Lion King, with the ravenous hyena's song "Chow Down" echoing Aida's most grating rock-operatics. The stuffy hornbill Zazu (Jeffrey Binder) sings "The Morning Report," an attempt at a pun-drunk number a la The Little Mermaid's "Under the Sea," but Binder's over-the-top whooping just makes the song an irritant.
Composer Lebo M. goes a long way to redeem Lion King's music by providing stirring, African-influenced chants and choruses, impressively voiced by Fredi Walker Browne as Rafiki. Lebo M. and Taymor may not have been allowed to wander freely over Disney's nature preserve, but their work on The Lion King proves that in Broadway musicals, creativity isn't extinct.
The Lion King plays through March 16 at the Atlanta Civic Center, 395 Piedmont Ave. Tues.-Fri. at 8 p.m., Sat. at 2 and 8 p.m., Sun. 1 and 6:30 p.m. $12-$132. 404-817-8700.