“In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight . . .”
In 1994, Disney released the fourth film in their Renaissance of animation, the Lion King. With the success of their previous three features in this Renaissance, the Lion King had a lot to live up to. But it faced even more headwinds than the pressure to succeed. In addition to living up to its predecessors, they no longer had the late great Howard Ashman to lean on for the lyrical magic. This meant they needed to transform what they had done with their last three features. Disney turned to Elton John and Time Rice to perform their musical magic in the Lion King.
Cut to 25 years later and Disney finds itself on the cusp of a new revolution in feature films. Just as Disney revolutionized the animation industry with a set of cartoon musicals beginning in the late 80s featuring the talents of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, they are similarly focused on a new set of films paying homage to their own history. For the last few years, Disney transformed the animation of our youth into live-action fare. They believe they can recapture the magic of the previous films and transform them into modern masterpieces. The Lion King finds itself once again at the heart of a revolutionary effort.
With features like Cinderella, Dumbo, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Alice in Wonderland, and The Jungle Book, among many others, Disney believes it can recreate the magic of their original fare in a live-action milieu. And with the financial success of these endeavors, who can argue with them? They have made billions transforming these films for a whole new audience.
“It means no worries for the rest of your days
It’s our problem-free philosophy
Despite this success, not all Disney live-action transformations have paid off. Disney’s Dumbo, with a highly successful director of previous live-action remakes in tow (Tim Burton), and bankable stars like Colin Farrell, Eva Green, Michael Keaton, and Danny Devito, tanked. Hence, all of Disney’s recreations are not equal. Simply recreating our childhood does not guarantee success. What makes for success and what turns something into a failure? What will future generations think of all of this live-action fare? Will they believe it to be a craven grab for money or a successful homage to what was. Much depends on how to make a successful remake.
When it comes to film, nothing screamy money grab more than a sequel or a remake. With sequels, the audience has a reserve of goodwill directed toward the picture. The key to success is retaining what made the first film enjoyable while expanding on the story in some essential way. Remakes have to walk an even more fine line. Yes, they have the goodwill built up from the first film. But their freedom to change some essential features of the film is limited.
This problem creates a quandary for those who are making remakes. They could try to make a shot for shot remake of the original and not engender any of the complaints they might receive. But then the question becomes, why make the remake at all? If all you are doing is changing the actors, people don’t really see the point of the new film. The remake of Psycho comes to mind about films which attempted a shot for shot remake. Then, all you can think about is money. People asked why? So change must come. To redo their films they need to change something about the film which adds something significant.
“Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life.”
This brings us to the new rendition of the Lion King and how well the Lion King accomplished what it needed to do in order to be a successful live-action remake of the original. Given its source material comes from something else entirely, The Lion King must straddle the line of new creation and classic story. Does it do it? Does the Lion King live up to or even surpass its original? In its struggle to be the best, can today’s Simba roar?
The Struggle For Belonging – A Review Of The Lion King
***spoiler alert (although if you have watched the original Lion King I’m not spoiling much)***
The Lion King is the story of Simba (Donald Glover) as he is born with responsibility weighing over his head. His purpose? To take over from his father the kingdom surrounding pride rock. Of course, pride cometh before a fall. And Mufasa (James Earl Jones), Simba’s father, has a brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who seems to have designs on the kingdom. From trying to take out Simba, leaving him as the sole heir to Mufasa, to taking out Mufasa himself, Scar does whatever he can to obtain power.
If you take a deeper look into the plots and subplots, you will find The Lion King tells the story of Hamlet. Simba replaces Hamlet, Scar replaces the step-father and uncle Claudius, Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) replacing Gertrude and the odd cast of characters throughout. (I’m just hoping they never thought of Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumba (Seth Rogan) as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but I have a hard time accounting for them as anything other.)
Of course, given the fact this story is also a retelling of the original Lion King, not much different happens in the State of Denmark. In fact, with some rare exceptions, this seems to be a shot for shot remake of the original. The two greatest nods to trying to do something different occur with both Nala (Beyonce Knowles), Simba’s love interest, and his best pals Timon and Pumba. Their lines and interactions account for the greatest difference between this picture and the original Lion King. Nala becomes more empowered to lead and make decisions of her own. And Timon and Pumba still retain their sense of humor and the joie de vivre. These minor difference do not do much to change the thrust of the film, except for this happens to be a live-action remake. Kind of.
***end of spoilers***
Given the film’s lack of differentiation from the original source material, the question becomes, why do this remake of the Lion King at all? At least with Dumbo and The Jungle Book, real human characters existed which could be played by real humans. Yes, they did CGI with the animals of the story, turning them into lifelike cartoons. But the central character was human. With the Lion King, it’s all animals. So once again, we can ask, ‘to what purpose?”
This question jumps out at you when you realize the weakness of the Jungle Book movie. Whether you like how well the child actor did or not, the Jungle Book’s ultimate failure occurs with Bagheera and Baloo. There was no way you could translate them from the cartoons to the CGI and make it work as effectively. It really comes down to this. Disney anthropomorphized the characters in its cartoons. The people at Disney infused life into the animations of the animals by giving them human characteristics and expression. They may have had animal parts, but the expressions were uniquely human. Baloo and Bagheera were weak as characters because you couldn’t anthropomorphize the CGI and make it look natural. So they didn’t. But then you lost the characters uniquely human charm.
It gets down to the way all the animated characters are. I love Donald Duck. He is by far my favorite of the original fab five characters Disney created. I loved Donald not because he was a Duck. I loved his humanity. And I love the fact he had a temper like I did when I was a child. This made me relate to this “human” side of Donald more than his being a fowl ever could. If you tried to CGI the character of Donald and make him look like a real Duck it wouldn’t work. I would lose everything I related to in Donald. And the world would be darker for it.
What does that do with the Lion King? I would argue way more that I would like, and less than I thought after what happened with the Jungle Book. Ironically, what really happens with the Lion King is this animation style destroys the lead characters. As their reactions are more subtle, by turning them into CGI characters we lose some of the humanity we sense within them. We lost our connection to Mufasa, Simba, Nala, and Sarabi. Furthermore, we lose some of the subtle villainy of Scar. As amazing as Jeremy Irons voice is in the original, the animators transform that villainy into something darker and more menacing.
Where the picture doesn’t lose its touch is with Timon, Pumba, and Zazu (played effectively by John Oliver). Those characters’ comic abilities shine through in their characters. And as they are exaggerated characters, the CGI animators can go a little wilder with the animation, giving the creatures unnatural and more human-like expressions. It’s because these characters are over the top, to begin with, we can forgive the lack of subtlety and almost human expressions the animators give them.
“I can see what’s happening.
And they don’t have a clue.
They’ll fall in love and here’s the bottom line
Our trio’s down to two.”
While I worried the weak CGI characters would overwhelm the good which happened, I still found myself there cheering the heroes and attempting to dodge the blows of the cowardly Scar when everything came to an end. I could have chalked it up to the character actors in the piece, but I feel like it was more than that. I think my having strong feelings about the characters nevertheless speaks to the strength of the source material. Hamlet speaks to me as a son, as a father, and as a human as much as any play does. Its message of learning to accept failures, be forgiving, and choosing to live the life we have been given instead of hiding away in the shadows is timeless.
Given I still found myself cheering at the end, I knew I still enjoyed this version of Lion King despite its flaws. Sometimes we like people in spite of our misgivings. I admit, then, I still loved the Lion King, despite my misgivings about the film itself and how the animation effects the characters. As such, I give it a rating of 3 out of 4 stars.
Overall Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Wrapping Things Up
I love Disney movies. I have to admit, I’m a Disney Junkie and I love almost anything from Disney. On the other hand, when my daughter and I saw the new Lion King trailer, we turned to each other and asked why. (We recently did this with Maleficent, Mistress of Evil trailer as well but after a recent trailer drop I believe this title might be a bait and switch. Although I still think Maleficent would have been much stronger if she had died in the original. Moving on.) Whether we got a sufficient reason for the “why”, I leave up for you to decide. Regardless, we will be given a boat-load of live-action remakes of animated classics coming to a theater near you. I admit I’m geeked about Sword in the Stone which I am sure I’ll be doing in another post coming soon.
My only curiosity with these new films is Disney’s insistence in giving more prominence to female characters in male-centric features. I’m not sure whether it made Jasmine’s character stronger or weaker. And it really seemed unnecessary with Nala. Nevertheless, they did it. But even as this piques my curiosity about Disney’s overall direction and makes me question their need to change the source materials in this way, I find myself applauding as Disney has strengthened the prince roles greatly of late. Given the “princess”-centric nature of much of Disney, some of the new princes have been surprisingly well-rounded at their characters fleshed out.
Eugene in Tangled, Naveen in the Princess and the Frog, and even Prince Charming in the updated Cinderella have much stronger male roles than the typical Disney prince. So, upon second thought, I say Bravo to Disney if they keep up the balance they bring to the stories they tell with stronger prince and princess roles. It may not work universally but if you are interested in bringing balance to your storytelling, I am all for that. So bring on Mulan, The Sword and the Stone, and Little Mermaid. I will be as excited to see what you do next as when I was a child staring in horror at the evil witch dying. I may have repeated incessantly, “the lady fell down on the rock.” But I never forgot it. And I kept going to Disney features ever since.
Continue The Conversation
What did you think of the Lion King, if you saw it? Do you think this film needed to be made? Which film in the Disney canon would you like to see being made into a live-action film? Who is your favorite Disney Prince? Favorite Disney Princess?
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Until next time, this is me signing off.
David Elliott, The Single Dad’s Guide to Life