The gorgeous animals in Disney’s new “The Lion King” look like they could be from a nature documentary. (Courtesy Disney)

Exquisite ‘Lion King” remake feels like a cash-grab

Lack of originality sullies live-action version

Disney’s live-action remake of “The Lion King” inspires “oohs” and “aaws” with its astonishing digital effects.

The first images of baby Simba, blinking his eyes and letting out an adorable sneeze, will melt hearts.

The photorealistic creatures’ mouths moving, forming words, is the only thing keeping viewers from believing that these are real animals romping through a nature documentary.

The remake is also funnier than its 1994 animated counterpart, mainly because of Billy Eichner as the meerkat Timon and Seth Rogen as the warthog Pumbaa.

Aside from chanting “Hakuna Matata,” these two run wild with seemingly in-the-moment wisecracks, observations and one-liners that frequently kill.

Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre also coax a few laughs as a pair of evil hyenas, and John Oliver’s voice perfectly fits the chattering worrywart bird Zazu.

These touches make the new “The Lion King” worth a look for the Disney-curious. Yet once that curiosity is slaked, the movie might as well end up on a cultural junkpile as viewers decide the original version is all they need.

Disney may have overdone it by releasing three cash-cow live-action remakes — starting with “Dumbo” in March and “Aladdin” in May — in six months. Smushed together, they have begun to generate an unpleasant odor that might otherwise have dissipated. Regardless of the intent, it feels like these films exist only for profit.

(When Gus Van Sant took on his infamous 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” he likely was excited by the challenge, curious to discover what he could learn from walking in the master’s footsteps. But no one cares about it now; his movie is a blight on the cinematic landscape.)

“The Lion King” director Jon Favreau, who also helmed the successful 2016 “The Jungle Book” remake, is as skilled a craftsman as there is.

His resume is filled with gems and only one misfire (“Cowboys & Aliens”).

And this “Lion King,” more or less a scene-for-scene copy, has nothing technically wrong with it. The screenplay is based on the 1994 story and script by Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton.

It’s unfailingly beautiful and often striking, as in the climactic showdown on the rocks above a blazing forest, rising red flames illuminating the falling darkness.

The new cast is mostly fine, except as the evil Scar, Chiwetel Ejiofor, undeniably a great actor, simply can’t follow the silvery, slicing line readings of Jeremy Irons in the 1994 version.

Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as grown-up lions Simba and Nala have fairly little screen time, but give the song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” a fresh lift.

Magisterial James Earl Jones reprises his role as the mighty king Mufasa, and it’s fun to hear his booming tones saying things like “my son,” even though it’s hard not to think of him offering the chance to rule the galaxy together.

In the end, “The Lion King” mixes a little Disney magic with a lot of Disney business in a way that’s momentarily diverting, but doesn’t last. It’s too easy to see past the gorgeous African beasts and behind the curtain to the men in suits tallying their millions.

The original “The Lion King” enthralled and enchanted largely because it was just that: original.

It’s no crime to tell stories again, but there’s nothing quite like seeing things for the first time.

An onslaught of remakes and sequels only go so far without fresh material to balance them out. There’s more to life, and more to movies, than just the bottom line.

REVIEW

The Lion King (2019)

Three stars

Starring: Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner

Written by: Jeff Nathanson

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Rated: PG

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

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