This teaser looks great right? I mean, it’s one of the most viewed movie trailers of all-time, and the film it promotes, this summer’s “live action” remake of The Lion King (1994) is going to make over a billion dollars. Who wouldn’t be excited for it?
Me, for one. It looks like a shot for shot remake of a perfectly good, existing film. Check that, it looks like a shot for shot remake of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, animated films of all-time. Disney says it isn’t, but they’re awfully cagey about it.
It’s one thing to re-imagine Dumbo (1941) or The Jungle Book (1967) to better appeal to modern sensibilities. I’m not 100% on board with that either, but at least there’s some redeeming artistic value in updating those stories. Other than “Mickey needs money” (he doesn’t, by the way), I’m at a loss for the purpose of re-making a great movie just because there is new technology to play around with.
Yes, yes, perhaps I’m jumping to conclusions, and I shouldn’t be criticizing a movie that I haven’t seen. Perhaps Jon Favreau has found a valuable new perspective on a classic film, and this summer’s remake will win multiple Oscars and be hailed as the second coming of Citizen Kane (1940). I wouldn’t hold my breath, but it’s certainly possible.
That said, the problem I’m pointing out isn’t a new one – it’s a feature of all adaptations. I mean, the Lion King is an adaptation of Hamlet, which itself is mash-up of Scandinavian and Roman legendary histories and perhaps even a lost play known to scholars as “Ur-Hamlet.” Successful adaptations tell a stories from new perspectives, comment on previous versions, or re-imagine the stories to appeal to modern audiences.
That’s the difference between Maleficent (2014) and Beauty and the Beast (2017). While Maleficent is not a great film, it at least tells the story of Sleeping Beauty (1959) from a new perspective. Beauty and the Beast made a ton of money, but at the end of the day it’s little more than an inferior remake of the 1991 animated version.
While less true than it used to be, motion pictures are expensive to make. Movies, to some extent, remain our most commercial art-form. There are no university presses, community theater labs, or hobbyists – film studios have to make money in order to create more films. One can’t blame Disney, therefore, for mining its existing catalogue for old material that can be repackaged using new technology in an ultimately lucrative endeavor. Disney doesn’t exist to maintain the artistic integrity of the motion picture, it exists to make profit. Beauty and the Beast (2017) made $1.2 billion, after all.
I’m picking on Disney, but re-boots, remakes, prequels, are way too abundant in modern Hollywood. The commercial proposition is an easy one to understand – it’s lower risk to take an existing property and do something slightly different with it than it is to make something new popular. At the same time, pumping out the same material over and over again has to have diminishing returns at some point for the audience.
Maybe this could be a “problem” that solves itself. Take Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), for example. Ron Howard may have performed a minor miracle turning a dumpster fire of a production into a fine movie, but a fine movie it remains. Other than the Clone Wars animated movie and the Ewok movies, it’s also the lowest grossing Star Wars film by a wide margin. After decades of Extended Universe stories and the Sequel Trilogy, there just wasn’t an appetite for yet another tale about Han Solo, even a competently crafted one.
On the other hand, the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy also serves as the best example of why creating something new from an existing story is playing with fire. The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017) both made a ton of money and were lauded by critics and fans alike – well, most fans. There was an extremely vocal group that absolutely hated one film, the other, or both for very different reasons. The merits of Episodes 7 and 8 (of which there are many, by the way) aside, the Sequel Trilogy’s biggest flaw so far is that it is trying to continue the story from Return of the Jedi (1983) AND tell and entirely new story at the same time, which leaves both stories somewhat watered down.
I’m going all over the place in this article, but my central point remains that certain stories can’t really bear the weight of being adapted in a repetitive or overstretched manner. What is there to do? I would recommend telling new stories within the framework of the old stories, rather than overstretching existing plots and characters. The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy partially succeeds at this so far, but Episode 9 has some heavy lifting to do in order to really stick the landing.
For the Lion King (2019)? The success of the animated children’s series “The Lion Guard,” shows that there is interest in using the framework of the Lion King to tell new stories, so there are promising directions for Disney to go. After all, Disney can only do a “live action” shot for shot remake once, right?
(c) 2019 D.G. McCabe