The throng of Disney live-action remakes has set a proverbial battlefront between nostalgia and innovation. While the CG pushes the boundaries of what the human eye considers "live-action," The Lion King struggles to tangibly differentiate itself from its hand-drawn predecessor.
The primary objective of any major film studio is to find a reliable tentpole and bleed it dry. For every successful franchise, there are dozens of failures that barely make it through a sequel. And even the successful models eventually end when the creative well they are based on dries up. Disney seemingly never has this problem because so many of their films leave the audience clamoring for more.
Disney has such massive fanbases centered around a number of their properties: the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, and countless animated franchises. And while Marvel and Star Wars have potential only limited by stagnating the story or jading the fanbase, the animation conglomerate is another beast entirely.
In Disney’s early days, its animated films relied heavily on original content. Theatrical runs of sequels were sparse, with live-action remakes themselves not entering the scene until the mid-90s with The Jungle Book (1994) and 101 Dalmatians (1996). Those early attempts haven’t stood the test of time like their animated predecessors, but apparently, Disney simply didn’t throw enough money and CG at the problem.
2019 has seen a slew of Disney live-action remakes with Dumbo, Aladdin, and now, The Lion King. The order is almost representative of the improvement in the craft. Dumbo left a lot to be desired in the script despite its vibrant visuals. The Robin Williams-less Aladdin lacked the natural charm and magic of the original, especially considering its once-stunning moments evanesce within a current market oversaturated with CG-heavy action sequences. And then came The Lion King, which brought a life-like approach to talking animals that offered a unique tone to the oft-goofy concept.
The Lion King continued the trend of the remakes except it pushed the boundaries of what "live-action" actually means. Rather than try and recreate the animated feature with African animals, which would be a nightmare in scale and animal cruelty regulations alone, the choice was made to apply high-end CG. And to that end, The Lion King succeeds. The computer-generated animals are a wonder, with every breath and tense ligament manifested effortlessly like we’re witnessing the animals of the Serengeti on the Discovery Channel. From the watery eyes of a small mouse to the imperfections in mange-riddled hyenas, the visuals are truly something to behold.
But the package is sometimes more beautiful than the present inside.
Much like Aladdin, there is a magic missing within the confines of the script. Nothing can replace the organic banter of Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa, not even the off-kilter deliveries of Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. Donald Glover, Beyoncé, John Oliver, and Chiwetel Ejiofor all hold their own, but there's only so much they can do to differentiate themselves with dialogue and scenes that have the presence of a color-by-numbers mentality.
The lack of creativity in producing fresh concepts to the preexisting plot left the film in an awkward limbo between achieving nostalgia for older audiences and connecting with a new generation. The inside jokes don’t quite hit and the over-commitment to the original story structure leaves a familiar audience merely predicting scene from scene. The film is intended to perform this way, but it makes for a rather tight niche of movie patron to fully appreciate the finished product.
As is the case with all of these live-action entries, the sense of sentimentality they produce means to only fuel a desire to watch the animated original rather than conjure a newfound appreciation for money-wielding production values.
The question inevitably remains … is there a place for the modernizing of Disney classics? The answer is a hesitant yes at the moment, but such a commitment is as fleeting as a lion’s reign on the pride lands.
Have you seen the remake of The Lion King yet? If so, how does it compare to the original? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.