You remember the opening. Of course you do. For a generation of kids who grew up watching the film in theaters or on DVD, it’s damn near iconic. The sun rises above the African savanna. The chant begins: “Naaaaa-nts ingonyama bagithi Baba.” Antelopes look up from their munching; meerkats spring to attention. From far and wide, animals fly and gallop and lumber and march, each of them drawn toward something. Everything becomes a blur until we swoop above the fray and — “the cirrrrrcle/of liiiiiife!” A majestic lion stands atop a ridge. A wise old mandrill approaches him, and then walks toward the jungle cat’s mate. He marks their newborn cub’s forehead and, in a series of quick cuts, holds the cub aloft for all to see. The crowd roars (literally). Long live the future king!
No matter how many times you see this sequence, it never fails to make the hair on your arms stand up. And no matter how many times you return to it, it’s highly likely that the following thought has never, ever occurred to you: This would be so much better if it was more like a National Geographic documentary.
By now, most people have heard that Disney’s live-action adaptation — they prefer the term “photorealistic,” given that everything from the furry manes to the funny farting warthogs are digitally rendered — of their 1994 animated classic The Lion King is, technically speaking, astounding. It has some killer A-list voice talent: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, John Oliver, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Alfre Woodard, Chance the Rapper. (Or, as the cast is alternately referred to: “BEYONCÉ and, um, some other folks.”) Glover and Beyoncé turn the chorus of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” into a steamy duet; as anyone who read the early reviews that hit the web last week can tell you, that song is also curiously staged in broad daylight. It’s slated to make roughly a gajillion dollars by the end of its opening weekend.
And yet even those who worship the original, who will show up to Lion King ’19 in Pumbaa and/or Timon cosplay singing every glorious word to “Hakuna Matata,” may find themselves wondering: Why did Disney do this? The longer the new movie goes on, the easier it is to tell what’s been left behind — a lot of charm, a good deal of imagination, a creative spark, your patience, most of the characters’ emoting, and a sense of life that seems, for lack of a better word, animated. But what, if anything, is being gained by diligently recreating shots and turning them into outtakes from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom? Other than making money off an existing intellectual property, what’s really the point here?
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The Lion King‘s uncanny-valley karaoke comes on the heels of the company’s fresh redo of Aladdin, which only has a few pixelated animals yet has a whole lot of CGI Will Smith. The dancing, singing, rapping half of the former Men in Black duo had become the Jolly Blue Giant Genie of the 1992 toon, a role best known as the purest manifestation of Robin Williams’ untamed id. No one could top the comedian’s light-speed performance, and thankfully Smith doesn’t even try. Instead, he attempts a sort of manic version of his music video persona circa Willennium, fueled by flop-sweat desperation and protein shakes. Actors of Middle Eastern descent are cast as characters of Middle Eastern descent (add 100 points). A new song about female empowerment, “Speechless,” is slightly undone by the fact that you can hear the sound of a checklist being ticked off in the background (deduct 50 points).
And moviegoers may remember that roughly an eternity ago — i.e., March of this year — Disney also gave us a brand new Dumbo, blessed with 95% less racist caricatures and 100% more Evil Michael Keaton. Because it’s Tim Burton calling the shots here, there’s a singular weirdness embedded into the proceedings. Because it’s a corporate product, there’s also an attempt to make things more anodyne at the exact same time. Unlike Burton’s absinthe-binge take on Alice in Wonderland, the movie was considered less than a smash hit upon its release.
There’s more of these from-drawing-board-to-sound-stage remakes on the way, too: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, the sequel to the company’s 2014 revisionist spin on Sleeping Beauty — what if the villainess was the real hero of the story, and also she had Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones? — hits theaters in October; a new Mulan will come out in March of 2020; and production is starting on half-human-cast, half-CG version of The Little Mermaid, which has already stirred up controversy thanks to its casting choices. We’re assuming that announcements about upcoming live-action updates of The Princess Frog, Moana, Bambi, The Fox and the Hound, Frozen and Tangled are going to hit our Inboxes any day now. Disney still has a deep bench to pull from for these types of “event” movies. Even with Lucasfilm and Marvel and Pixar and Fox as part of their ever-growing Entertainment Industrial Complex portfolio, the House of Mouse knows that its mother brand has a massive global recognition factor and reach.
But as this raiding of their back catalog for new cash-cow blockbusters continues to turn into a multiplex subgenre, moviegoers have to ask themselves: What do we want out of these things? Do we want to feel like we’ve stepped into one of these magical-kingdom worlds made “real,” as if we’ve just entered a theme park’s immersive ride? Do we want the movies to use the original as a jumping off point for something unique or, in Maleficent‘s case, an alternate perspective on stories we know and love? Do we want an incredibly faithful recreation of the animated movie, down to last warbling sidekick song and fiery showdown, just with new celebrity voices? Or do we just want two hours in the cocoon of our own nostalgia, trying to recapture that giddy rush we had the first time we heard “Be Our Guest” or “Be Prepared”?
The new Lion King forces you to think about those last two questions, given that it bends over backwards to replicate the original’s most memorable moments with the same amount of fidelity it employs to make every digital strand of fur feel real. Yet seeing that opening sequence, or the young-to-grown Simba marching in line with Pumbaa and Timon, redone with faux-live animals doesn’t give channel that glowing-ember feeling in your heart the way it should. It isn’t just that you’re distracted by the technological feat of Disney’s professional pixel jockeys — there are moments when you think Sir David Attenborough will start narrating facts about the lions’ mating habits over the images, given how real they look. It’s that you can tell how much has been lost in the translation. The human touch has been leached out of these 1s-and-0s beasties. You pray that the Broadway show’s puppets will make a last-minute appearance to save the day (Julie Taymor, the brains behind the play, is a producer here). The voice talent keeps things going, with Ejiofor matching Jeremy Iron’s menace purr for purr, and who knew Eichner had such a grand singing voice? But overall, you’re watching a cover version slowly being autotuned to death.
What’s such a pity is that the director behind this, Jon Favreau, is the same filmmaker responsible for the second best Disney live-action adaptation to date: The Jungle Book. Taking as much from Rudyard Kipling’s collection of boys’ adventure tales as it does from the 1967 animated movie, his 2016 hit also features a digital menagerie, famous folks providing the hisses and growls and well-known musical numbers in “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You.” It also has a compelling child actor, Neel Sethi, playing Mowgli and providing an emotional, reactive counterpart to the less expressive “animals” sharing the screen with him. There’s a lot of room for rapport among the cast, especially between its Baloo, Bill Murray, and Sir Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera, Murray and Favreau’s pygmy hog — Murray and anybody, really. There’s a looseness to everything, even when things get heavy and/or intense. And there’s space for weirdness in the form of Christopher Walken’s giant orangutan that channels Louis Prima’s original singing monkey king, Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now and his own True Romance gangster all at once. It works as something honors its source material(s) and still feels like its own living, breathing thing.
This is one way to do it right; the other way is to emphasize the cartoonishness of it all and give you the sensation that you’re watching a sort of Broadway musical with benefits. Bill Condon’s 2017 Beauty and the Beast is a perfect example of splitting the difference between paying homage and building upon a beloved text; it’s Belles-and-whistles treatment on the story of a young woman, a prince, a curse, and some very vibrant household items feels like a unique take on something indelibly familiar. There’s imagination to spare here, along with three new numbers from Alan Menken and Tim Rice, and some showstopping numbers — “Be Our Guest” of course, but also Luke Evans and Josh Gad’s dynamic comic rendition of “Gaston” — that don’t feel like simple redux renditions. The chemistry between Dan Stevens and Emma Watson comes through, even when the former is forced to work behind a furry CG mask. The sense that you have been transported to a tale as old as time, even if “time” simply means the Bush I era, is complete. But so is the notion that, like a great theatrical revival, the people behind the endeavor have found things to call their own.
If this is the lead that Disney wants to take for its Mulan and Little Mermaid remakes — and judging from the first one’s recent wuxia-heavy teaser, this seems to be the case — then we’re all for it. Maybe The Lion King is a singular case, an example of great storytelling best left alone, or at least sans lifelike leonine stoicness. Maybe we’ll all eventually tire of the toon-to-A-list cycle, and then, in the spirit of fair play, Disney will start making animated versions of its old ’60s and ’70s live-action stable. (A hand-drawn, Don Bluth-style The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes — where should we send the blank check?) Or maybe the corporate powers that be will figure that what we all really want from these mash-ups is a sense that our childhood entertainment is not being weaponized against us in the name of a cheap thrill and a box-office bonanza. What we really want is to be entertained, to be wowed. We don’t need a note-perfect “Circle of Life” over hollow-eyed facsimiles. We just want to come full circle without having our cherished memories cheapened in the process.