There was a time when the release of a new Disney film was an event. Beginning with “The Little Mermaid” in 1989, the studio would release a new hand-animated classic about once a year, and audiences would pack theaters to watch the adventures of Belle and the Beast, Aladdin and the Genie, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan and more.
Counted among those films was the beloved “Lion King,” the first Disney animated feature to be based on an original story rather than an existing work. The studio captured lightning in a bottle with the 1994 release, which was wholly brilliant.
Who could forget the antics of Timon and Pumbaa? Or resist singing along to “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” and “Hakuna Matata?” I bet your humming the songs now, having read the titles.
The original “Lion King” was full of energy and spirit, and the film delivered a simple, inspiring message about stepping into your destiny to boot.
How times have changed. Although “Frozen” proved to be popular in 2013, by and large, Disney has shifted from making new animated classics to remaking old ones.
In recent years, the studio has given time-treasured stories like “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Jungle Book” live-action makeovers. Audiences, eager to see their favorite Disney stories retold using modern technology, have eaten these up.
This only encouraged the House of the Mouse to make more. So far this year, Disney has released three remakes, ensuring a constant presence in theaters.
“Aladdin” was problematic but fun, thanks to a spirited performance by Will Smith as the Genie, and wound up grossing over $1 billion worldwide. “Dumbo” came next but failed to find an audience.
Now we have “Lion King,” a fully-animated remake of the original feature. (There is one live action shot, but director Jon Favreau inserted it as a joke to prove audiences wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.)
Given the back-to-back-to-back releases of three remakes in seven months, it’s apparent Disney is more concerned about padding its pocketbook than giving viewers fresh, original stories. Instead of mining new territory, the studio is merely cashing in on its brands, which might be making its stockholders happy but is leaving audiences disenchanted.
The new “Lion King” certainly has a gorgeous coat. Using photorealistic computer animation, Favreau and company have come closer than anyone else to mimicking the appearance and movements of real animals.
Perfectly proportioned muscle and bone cause an antelope’s skin to stretch and shrink with its movements, ancient ravines are lined with loose pebbles that crumble at the slightest touch and wind coursing through a lion’s mane creates a stirring image of majesty. In the distance, the setting sun bathes the African wilderness in yellow and orange.
It’s like watching one of Disney’s visually stunning nature documentaries. Based on its visuals alone, “Lion King” is a masterpiece that sets a new standard for animated films.
All this magic, magnificently displayed in the opening scene as herds of wild animals gather together to pay their respects to the newborn king, dissipates the moment an animal opens its mouth and speaks.
Like Genie slipping back into his lamp, all the wonder and awe goes *poof* whenever a lion, meerkat, warthog or some other animal attempts to convince us it can talk.
Disney’s choice here is mystifying. Why not animate the animals in a more cartoonish manner, like Rocket Raccoon from “Guardians of the Galaxy?” The combination of photorealism and expressiveness has worked well to bring that character to life and give it personality. The animals in the “Lion King” update, however, lack character.
Worse, the story disappoints. Yes, the same narrative worked wonderfully the first time, but that’s the problem – it’s the exact same narrative. Disney has remade entire scenes, nearly shot for shot, and moments that were once big and dramatic have as much emotional impact as watching an old VHS tape of the original at home for the umpteenth time.
Maybe a sequel or spinoff would have worked better. Any continuation of the original story would have been more interesting than watching a rote retelling of the same narrative.
Disney has more live action remakes in the works. The studio has already released a trailer for “Mulan” and “The Little Mermaid” will follow close behind.
I love the original “Mulan,” but after seeing how tepid the “Lion King” remake turned out, I can’t say I’m excited about the redo. It should keep the company’s shareholders happy, though.