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With: Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones, Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, Eric Andre, Shahadi Wright Joseph, JD McCrary
Written by: Jeff Nathanson, based on a story by Brenda Chapman, and on a screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton
Directed by: Jon Favreau
MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements
Running Time: 118
Date: 07/18/2019

The Lion King (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Hakuna Mo' Moola

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Disney's live-action The Lion King remake inspires its fair share of "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 most hearts.

If not for the photorealistic creatures' mouths moving and forming words, one could surely believe that these were actual animals, romping through a nature documentary.

This 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.

Those touches make the new The Lion King worth a look for the Disney-curious. But once that curiosity is slaked, the new movie may end up on a cultural junkpile as viewers decide that the original version is all they really need.

Disney may have overdone it by releasing three of these cash-cow live-action remakes — starting with Dumbo in March and Aladdin in May — in the space of six months. Smushed together, the movies have begun to generate an unpleasant odor that might otherwise have dissipated.

Regardless of the original intent, it ultimately feels like these films exist only for profit.

For example, when Gus Van Sant took on that infamous 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, he was probably excited by the challenge of it, curious to discover what he could learn from walking in the master's footsteps. But no one cares about that now. His finished 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 polished, glittering gems, and only one misfire (Cowboys & Aliens). To be sure, The Lion King — a more or less scene-for-scene copy — has nothing technically wrong with it. He seems to have done his best.

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

Even the new cast is mostly fine, except that, in the role of the evil Scar, Chiwetel Ejiofor, undeniably a great actor, simply can't follow up the silvery, slicing line readings of Jeremy Irons in the 1994 version.

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

But the 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 is 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 so many people, 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 endless onslaught of remakes and sequels will only go so far without any fresh material to balance them out. There's more to life, and more to movies, than just the bottom line.

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