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‘The Lion King’ is a huge hit. It might also be Disney’s most dispiriting remake yet

The Lion King
Zazu (voiced by John Oliver) and young Simba (voiced by JD McCrary) in Disney’s remake of “The Lion King.”
(Disney)

There’s a wonderful moment in “The Lion King” — by which I mean Disney’s 1994 animated original, not the glorified nature documentary that roared into theaters last weekend — in which Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog get the unenviable task of distracting a few hungry hyenas. Their solution is as foolhardy as it is entertaining: Timon dons a grass skirt and does a hilariously impromptu song and dance — part vaudeville, part luau — openly inviting their predators to chow down on his friend (“Are you achin’ / for some bacon?”).

The new “Lion King,” a technically audacious, dramatically timid remake directed by Jon Favreau, has its own variation on the gag, though it may elicit as many eye-rolls as chuckles. Timon and Pumbaa (voiced here by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, respectively ) still offer themselves up to the hyenas as live bait, only this time Timon sings the opening lines of “Be Our Guest” from “Beauty and the Beast,” another beloved Disney animation recently shoved through the studio’s remake pipeline.

Sorry, should I have prefaced that information with a spoiler warning? In a movie so lacking in narrative novelty, so painstakingly faithful to its source material, it’s depressing to think that this is what counts as a surprise: a shout-out to another entity in the wonderful world of Disney corporate synergy. That synergy is nothing new, of course (even the original “Lion King” featured a musical reference to “It’s a Small World”). But the crassness of the gag is especially revealing in a movie that, in its imaginative poverty and emotional inertia, feels less like an adaptation of its predecessor than a betrayal.

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It’s worth recalling that long before it became the highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time, the original “Lion King,” directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, was one of Disney’s biggest gambles. Here was an animated feature that would center entirely on wild animals (and no human characters), that would undergo any number of drastic story mutations during its lengthy production, and that would integrate computer animation and hand-drawn animation in daring, unprecedented ways.

No one would expect a remake to shoulder a comparable level of risk. Even still, playing it completely safe is an odd way to honor, much less duplicate, the spirit of the original enterprise. You can tell when you’re watching a movie that has clawed its way into its intended form, step by painful, necessary step, as opposed to one that’s merely going through the motions.

‘The Lion King’ (1994)
A scene from Disney's 1994 movie "The Lion King."
(Walt Disney Co.)

And sure enough, this new “Lion King” turns out to be a dead-eyed Stepford safari of a movie from which all personality and cinematic vitality appear to have been drained away, until only its cold technological ambition remains. Photo-realism, it should come as no surprise, isn’t the most accommodating aesthetic when it comes to hula-dancing meerkats. But neither does it seem to have much use for camp, theatricality or surrealism of any kind, all qualities that the original “Lion King” — and for that matter, its hugely popular Broadway incarnation — had in spades.

Elton John and Tim Rice’s songs are still largely intact, and the voice actors, who include Donald Glover, Beyoncé, John Oliver and Chiwetel Ejiofor, can scarcely be faulted. But at every turn the exacting digital realism clashes with and cancels out the anthropomorphism, the glorious and unapologetic cartoonishness, that is crucial to this story’s success. Preoccupied with their virtual-reality effects and their ultra-detailed renderings of fur and fangs, the filmmakers seem utterly at a loss for how to stage a dynamic musical number or make their four-legged characters not just talk but connect to each other on-screen.

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Over the l ast several years we’ve seen enough indifferent live-action remakes of beloved Disney animated classics to last a lifetime of moviegoing, though I don’t think we’ve seen one that misunderstands its own story quite as fundamentally as “The Lion King.” A screenwriter with a proper understanding of the material would have reworked it significantly, adapting to the demands of its groundbreaking new aesthetic rather than merely transplanting it wholesale. Finding a way for the animals to communicate through means other than spoken dialogue would have been an excitingly radical place to start.

By fusing animation and live-action techniques, Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ remake essentially creates a new medium that’s both and neither.

Disney, of course, isn’t interested in radicalism in anything but the technological sense, and these days it seems less interested in eliciting an audience’s excitement than in pandering to their nostalgia. In this it is no different and perhaps no more deserving of castigation than any of the other major studios, all of which have recycled their greatest hits in the name of commerce and sometimes art. Bloated mediocrities like “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” may take up valuable space in the pop-cultural consciousness, but their existence hardly erases or diminishes the pleasures of the animated originals, which if anything wind up looking even better by comparison.

Disney, for its part, has been in the remake business since at least 1931, the year it released the animated short “Mickey’s Orphans,” a loose update of its 1927 cartoon “Empty Socks.” In the many decades since the studio has given us “Flubber” (a redux of “The Absent-Minded Professor”), a second “Parent Trap,” multiple versions of “Freaky Friday” and “The Shaggy Dog,” and a couple of return visits to Witch Mountain. Even the present wave of animation-to-live-action remakes had an early precedent with the Glenn Close-starring “101 Dalmatians ” (1996).

Still, it wasn’t until this decade that the studio really seized upon that idea and kicked it into overdrive. Let’s leave aside 2010’s garish “Alice in Wonderland,” which was more of a sequel than a straight remake, and 2014’s “Maleficent,” a pleasurably revisionist riff on “Sleeping Beauty.” In the l ast several years we’ve seen Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” (2015), Bill Condon’s “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) and Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” (2016), whose enormous success more or less ensured that he would be the studio’s go-to director for “The Lion King.” (The CGI critters in “The Jungle Book” feel in retrospect like a beta test for Simba 2.0 and friends.)

This year alone has also brought us not only “The Lion King” but also Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” and Guy Ritchie’s “Aladdin,” and it will soon bring us a Charlie Bean-directed “Lady and the Tramp.” And the conveyor belt is showing no signs of slowing down, as a trailer for the forthcoming “Mulan” and an ongoing stream of casting announcements for “The Little Mermaid” have recently reminded us. The media coverage that has greeted these latter two pictures suggests some shrewd strategizing on Disney’s part: Regardless of how they turn out, the studio is clearly banking on their cultural and political currency, positioning them as milestones in an industry pushing for more inclusive storytelling.

Dumbo
A scene from Tim Burton's remake of "Dumbo."
(Walt Disney Studios)

All of which is to say that these movies, however unnecessary they may seem, cannot be dismissed as pointless. Everything Disney does has a point, even if that point is preceded by a dollar sign and a string of digits. “The Lion King” is already a summer box-office colossus, which will come as welcome news to a beleaguered movie industry that fears losing ground to streaming services and other entertainment alternatives. It will also further cement Disney’s standing as an unrivaled Hollywood beast, a studio so enormous that it recently devoured another (Fox) and the distributor of four of the year’s other top-grossing pictures: “Avengers: Endgame,” “Captain Marvel,” “Toy Story 4” and “Aladdin.” (It will surely have more at year’s end, when “Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker” is released.)

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The industry, being the industry, stands to learn precisely the wrong creative lessons from “The Lion King’s” success, namely that technology can be a suitable replacement for emotion and that beloved stories should be revisited but not retooled. And that’s a shame, insofar as the best of the Disney remakes — Branagh’s genuinely enchanting “Cinderella” and Favreau’s own wittily adapted “Jungle Book” — are solid examples of family-friendly classical filmmaking that trust their material enough to depart from it. Even the very mixed bags that are “Dumbo” and “Aladdin,” both of which will soon be commercially eclipsed by “The Lion King” if they haven’t been already, feel like models of narrative risk and ingenuity by comparison.

“Dumbo,” in particular, has been widely perceived as a commercial disappointment and thus, in warped Hollywood logic, an artistic failure. But the best thing about the movie is how delightfully ill- behaved it is; it’s a fascinating misfire that can’t help but command your slack-jawed admiration. With its eerie, gaudy Burtonian visual touches and a story that all but sets fire to the original text, it’s a messy, sometimes thrilling demonstration of how an auteur’s sensibility can upstage and even subvert a well-known story. There’s also the fact that the second act centers on a Disneyland-style amusement park that devours and exploits smaller entertainment outfits, run by a monomaniacal impresario clearly modeled on (among others) Disney himself, in an ingenious self-satirizing flourish.

Snow White
A scene from Disney's 1937 movie "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
(Disney)

Uncle Walt himself might not have liked that personal dig, which is not to say he wouldn’t have admired the picture’s anarchic spirit. He might even have recognized the same impulse that, once upon a time, led him to persevere and make “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” defying long-standing industry assumptions that no moviegoers would ever flock to see a full-length animated feature.

More than 80 years later, “Snow White” remains one of the crown jewels in the Disney canon and one of the cinema’s great technological leaps, a movie whose every cel and image is shot through with genius. And in putting its own spin on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale that inspired it, the picture set the template for Disney’s free-handed approach to long-codified source material, its willingness to embellish works by Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen in ways that have come to be seen as definitive.

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” itself has already been slated for remake, as have “The Sword in the Stone,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Pinocchio.” How these pictures will fare is anyone’s guess, and as both “Dumbo” and “The Lion King” have shown us, the most interesting creative decisions rarely make for the best business. And what will happen when the remake well runs dry, as it eventually will? At a certain point Disney, like those ravenous hyenas, will face slim pickings of its own.

Hunger has always been a driving theme of “The Lion King,” a story that is about, among other things, restoring balance and harmony to an endangered ecosystem. As such, it’s also a useful governing metaphor for an industry predicated on fierce competition and increasingly scarce resources. Disney presently finds itself at the top of a food chain that has never seemed more precarious, and it will doubtless reign there for a while. But inevitably it will have to find something fresh to feed on, by which I mean something other than its own estimable legacy.


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