Disney's smash hit "The Lion King" has prowled back into San Francisco. Since the holidays are almost upon us, which is peak family theatergoing season, this critic journeyed to Pride Rock for the fourth (or is it fifth?) time to see how the feline extravaganza is faring 15 years after its Broadway debut.

For the record, this is still the jewel in the Disney theatrical crown. There's a reason "Lion King" recently surpassed "The Phantom of the Opera" for the title of Broadway's highest grossing show ever. Julie Taymor's visual fantasia, a whimsical collage of puppetry, dance and masks, is as mesmerizing as ever. The Tony-winning musical's famous opening tableau, when a parade of animals stomps through the aisles onto the stage, is the first in a series of showstopping feats of stagecraft.

That said, this national touring production is also showing a little wear and tear. The timing can be sloppy, some of the dialogue is muffled, and too many of the punch lines lack snap. Such quibbles seemed lost on the blockbuster's target demographic, however.

My problem-free philosophy has usually been to take a tyke to the show to get the kid perspective, but this time out my godsons are too big, my daughter too small -- the circle of life, as it were. Happily, that left me with more time to note the responses of the legions of pint-size theatergoers in my midst, all of whom seemed smitten by the spectacle from start to finish.

While the cast lacks some of the nuance of previous incarnations, "Lion King" is buoyed by its dazzling use of puppetry, which ranges from Japanese Bunraku puppets to Indonesian shadow puppets.

Certainly there have been plays that have explored the parameters of the art with more depth, such as "War Horse" and "The Wild Bride," but no one has thrust puppetry more successfully into mainstream musical theater than Taymor. From the wildebeest stampede to the lioness ballet, the musical takes pains to personify the natural world so that each animal seems like a wondrous creation.

Devotees of the 1994 animated film doubtless know the plot by heart. The villainous lion Scar (Derek Smith) murders his noble brother, king Mufasa (Dionne Randolph), and plots to steal the kingdom out from the true heir, lion cub Simba (Zavion J. Hill and Adante Power share the part).

Simba flees his home, the Pridelands, and his lifelong chum Nala (Kailah McFadden and Sade Phillip-Demorcy share the role) for the wilds of the jungle, where he befriends smart-aleck meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and flatulent warthog Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz).

Amid the chaos of the savanna, Simba comes of age (Jelani Remy plays Simba as a young man). Emboldened by the now-formidable huntress Nala (Syndee Winters), he resolves to right the wrongs committed by his uncle, who has destroyed the balance of nature in this fragile ecosystem. Under the watchful eye of the shaman baboon Rafiki (Buyi Zama), Simba fights for his rightful place in the pride.

If the narrative arc seems a little thin, the African chants and rhythms are irresistible (they definitely upstage the Elton John and Tim Rice numbers), Garth Fagan's choreography infectious and the story suitably heartwarming. Certainly, the show's environmental messages are nicely woven together with its meditation on the cycle of life so that even the littlest audience member can follow the themes.

Of course, some may be so dazzled by the show's eye candy that little else matters. The dancing anthills, the swaying grassland headdresses, the stilt-walking giraffes and the 13-foot-long elephant are endlessly enchanting as they cavort up and down the aisles.

One caveat: While I am a huge believer in introducing children to the magic of the theater, toddlers might be too young. Short attention spans may well melt down before the final curtain, so 6 and older is a safer bet.

Also, make sure to get to the theater early, as lines for the restroom are long. Packing a snack will save you from having to choose between the potty and the concessions at intermission. And be to pick up one of the booster cushions the theater offers so that your little theater-goer can drink in the lavish visuals as well as any grown-up.

That way, you can all feel the love tonight.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her stories at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, follow her at Twitter.com/KarenDSouza4, and like her at Facebook.com/Dsouzatheaterpage.

'The Lion King'

Directed by Julie Taymor

Through: Jan. 13
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $35-$199 (subject to change), 888-746-1799. www.shnsf.com

theater review