This post is many things rolled into one: A review, a lament, and, finally, a suggestion to Disney and other writers/artists.
When Disney’s live action trend started in earnest, I had little problem with it. It had started a quite a few years before with The Jungle Book (1994) and 101 Dalmatians (1996), and they were all so different from the original animated films that they made satisfactory entertainment.
By now, these films have become the veritable mid-life crisis of a massive film company. Of the more recent ones, my favourite is Maleficent; not because it was good (it was… okay), but because it was something new, something fresh.
I’ve watched the photorealistic The Lion King, a remake of the traditionally animated 1994 film. Yes, it got me to laugh. Yes, it got me to sing along with some of its nostalgic songs. But it was, in my humble opinion, a waste. A waste of the skill, time, and technology that went into creating these realistic animals and scenes; a waste of the talents of the voice actors; a waste of hours of my life.
There were interesting, even good, things in it, of course. The fact that Shenzi is the leader of the hyenas is a cool reference to spotted hyena social structure. The songs were enjoyable, if only for the nostalgia factor. The animals and scenes do look very real; kudos to the animators for that.
But it fails in so many ways:
The photorealism not only makes it hard to tell the lions apart, but for the audience to truly see the characters’ emotions. In animation especially, the acting is done not only by the voice actors but by the visual artists, too. Lions don’t emote the way that we humans do, and we humans are not that exposed to lions that we would be able to understand their nonverbal communication.
Many scenes and lines add little to the final product. For example, there is an exchange between Shenzi and Nala in the final battle that’s a callback to the time when Shenzi tried to eat Nala. There is no build-up to this scene, so it feels pointless. Then there’s the time Rafiki pulls out his staff (which he doesn’t carry around with him throughout the movie as in the 1994 film). Rafiki calls it his “old friend”; which is clearly a reference to the original film, but adds no value because we have no idea what this means for his character in this film. And then there’s a scene when an antelope acts skittish around the carnivorous Simba in Timon and Pumbaa’s oasis. However, this is just a throwaway line not resolved at all in the film.
The Lion King (2019) lacks what Maleficent (2014) has: originality. For the most part, it is a scene-for-scene remake of the 1994 film. It starts with the same opening scene, has the same songs (ha, the “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” scene takes place in full daylight!)… That, along with the aforementioned issues, makes it terribly lacklustre.
As a fan of the original, this remake saddens me. This live action trend itself saddens me. I have nothing against the idea of remakes themselves, but for a film like the original The Lion King, which remains a timeless classic, this new film was essentially pointless from an artistic perspective. It’s like watching the original, but… without the soul.
I think that if Disney wants to create quality remakes, it needs to take a step back. Do a lot more than scene-for-scene remakes. Marvel and DC have done a good job of this; the Superman my father grew up with is not the same one that I grew up with.
Disney has traditionally done well with retellings of public domain properties. The Little Mermaid (1989), Tangled, and even Mary Poppins are all good retellings of older works. Both the 1994 and 2016 versions of The Jungle Book are retellings as well; new spins on the story, rather than simply remaking (regurgitating the plot, lines, etc. of) the 1967 film. However, Disney seems to have fallen down when it comes to their newer remakes. With this new adaptation of The Lion King, they had the opportunity to do something new and interesting with their property:
oh no no no, Lion King should have been the thing that got remade with humans wearing the (amazing) costumes from the stage musical, and Cats should have been the one remade with CG photoreal animals, I’m not even joking
In response, I tweeted:
Yes! A fantasy story with a (fictional, maybe) African people who use lion iconography in their clothing, architecture, and art, or something.
This is just a suggestion, but think about how much depth that would add to the story: Audiences would get to see a new civilisation. How would they writers choose to have Scar kill Mufasa? Would he still use a stampede? If so, would Mufasa and Simba being human change how the stampede scene plays out? How would the non-royal characters relate to the royals since it isn’t a predator-prey relationship in this version? Why does this people use lion iconography? Is there a lion god in the stars, perhaps, where the late King Mufasa dwells with his ancestors?
As writers, I think we should take this approach to retellings. We could easily rewrite old and classical stories that fall within public domain, or even remakes of our old properties, but why not stretch our artistic muscles?
Like Tin Man, a 2007 miniseries that re-imagines The Wizard of Oz in a fantasy steampunk setting; or Black Sands: The Seven Kingdoms, a comic series that re-imagines ancient Egyptian gods as fantasy warriors (and even as children). We as writers could benefit from asking how our favourite old stories would be impacted by different settings, and different situations. That way, our readers, our audience, will find something new and (hopefully) interesting in our stories, even if they are familiar with the originals.