What’s the Point of a Live-Action ‘Lion King?’

Now, I’m about as easy of a sell for these kinds of movies as they come.  My formative years as a film buff coincided with the fabled Disney Renaissance, and movies like The Lion King (1994), Aladdin (1992), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Little Mermaid (1989) were on regular rotation in my house as a kid.  I am also not reflexively against the very idea of remakes out of hat like many of my more critical colleagues.  Remakes provide fertile ground for exploring, reinterpreting and switching up the familiar narratives of the past with modern technology, sensibilities and filmic techniques.  Furthermore, many of the most widely acclaimed “greatest movies” of all time were remakes, or did you somehow think that The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), A Fistful of Dollars (1964), The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986), Ocean’s 11 (2001), The Departed (2006), True Grit (2010), It (2017) and A Star Is Born (2018) were the first passes that the film industry made at these movies?  That’s not even count reworkings of and homages to earlier movies that aren’t technically direct remakes, like Star Wars (1977), The Hunger Games (2012) and Get Out (2017).

No, I’m fully on-board “Team Disney Remake” here.  Maleficent (2013) as a twisted, dark and utterly fascinating reimagining of Sleeping Beauty (1959) as some kind of pseudo-rape/revenge grindhouse flick.  Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016) vastly improved on their respective originals and brought a quite a bit extra to projects that never quite landed for me the first time around.  Hell, I didn’t even hate Beauty and the Beast (2017) like a lot of other critics did, and I was prepared to hate that movie based purely off of how the original movie was so absolutely resplendent that literally anything other than that animated feature would have seemed like a colossal step backwards.  Taken on balance, this cycle of Disney-branded remakes, reboots, reimaginings and spiritual sequels to its animated classics have actually been pretty great and have landed far more often than they have crashed.

And yet, despite all this, I can’t help but ask the question of what even the point is of making a live-action remake of something so intrinsically suited for animation as The Lion King.  I mean, it’s not like there are many, or any, Human characters for Disney’s team to animate around.  It’s not like there are live-action environments for them to inert the digitally-rendered animals into (by all accounts, the setting proper was rendered using VR technology).  It’s not like there’s something that could innately be improved by the swap in medium and it’s not even like they appear to be doing anything particularly interesting to the story or characters this time around outside of racially appropriately casting and the impressive legwork of rendering all those animals and trees and things in computer animation.

I am genuinely curious what there actually is to be gained here, other than money, that is *and rest assured, there’ll be a lot of that, not the least of which will come from myself).  The released bits of animation, when compared side-by-side with the original, leave a great deal to be desired: clearly lacking the colorfulness, magical realism and inspired choreography of the original.  It’s not like Hollywood hasn’t done this same effect before with actual animals (not to mention to great critical acclaim and commercial success).  It’s not like this is even all that great of a leap from the technology used to render the animals in The Jungle Book, of which this is merely the next-most iteration of that particular subset of filmic technology.

All this movie seems to have by way of justifying its own existence is a superior cast, its impressive (yet hollow) photo-realistic CGI technology and the reputation of the original as an all-time childhood classic the word over.  That’s certainly something, to be sure, but shouldn’t Disney at least aspire to something greater?  Maleficent at least had a radical, revisionist, feminist take on the material and came with a Hell of a lot to say about the current state of gender, sexuality and the patriarchy in 21st century America.  Cinderella and The Jungle Book at least had flawed narratives to work with that greatly benefited from an extra pass with modern eyes toward narrative, characterization and directorial flourish.  Beauty and the Beast at least had a well-meaning (if ultimately ineffectual) progressive take on the retrograde 90’s storyline.  And Dumbo (2019) at least had all that Tim Burton Weirdness going on that made it feel at least distinct from the first go-around (same for those Alice in Wonderland movies).

But The Lion King?  I can’t think of anything it has going on that wasn’t already done (and, at least at a cursory glance, done better) the first time around. I can’t think of anything about this particular movie that I haven’t already seen as a 5-year-old when this movie came out, or later as an adult during its 3D rerelease.  Really, I can’t quite justify to myself – for perhaps the first time – why I wouldn’t just want to pop in the animated original next weekend instead and enjoy that version for being so unabashedly exactly the kind of movie that it always wanted to be.

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