Jon Favreau is remaking The Lion King

I’m back! That’s right, after taking an unintentional hiatus for the last couple of months, I’ve returned! Hello? Anybody there? I’m sorry for the absence. It had become increasingly difficult for me to find the time and the energy to work on the blog, but hopefully I’m back for good. I’ve got some plans to make it easier for me to just sit down and write, even if it might change the tone/style of things here a little bit. I’ve been meaning to get back to writing for a while now, and thankfully today we got some big Disney news that inspired me to return to the keyboard. But rest assured (or be afraid) that I’m not done with, nor have I run out of things to say. I hope to tackle my backlog of missed reviews, as well as get into a habit of updating more frequently by perhaps posting shorter articles. I might even make some videos, who knows? But for now let’s tackle the news at hand.

So, to no one’s surprise, Disney has announced another remake of an animated classic. This time, Jon Favreau is following up his The Jungle Book success by “reimagining” The Lion King. Now, unlike many other hardcore Disney fans, I’ve largely been a supporter of their recent trend of live-action remakes of their animated catalogue. I’ve enjoyed all of them (Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon), though some more than others, and as a whole I see both the artistic and commercial appeal of this sort of filmmaking. I think many Disney animated films are ripe for remakes, either because the original is dated or because a filmmaker has a new or creative interpretation of the original. I may strongly disagree that animation is “just for kids” or that it is somehow a lesser form of storytelling, but there’s no denying that these remakes have reached a new and vastly different audience. And, in the end, Disney has a right to do whatever they want with their films. These new movies aren’t destroying the classics (or our childhoods), and they may in the end inspire new fans to watch the old masterpieces. I do understand the frustration and even the hatred some fans may have towards particular remakes, and the feeling that this is a frustrating trend, but I do think some of the backlash has been a little overblown.

Having said all of that, I certainly don’t think every Disney story could benefit from a remake. Some films seem like obvious fits, when an update or a reinterpretation could bring new life to an old story. But I just don’t see what a new version of The Lion King has to offer. Jon Favreau did a good job with The Jungle Book, particularly when it came to wrangling its stunning visual effects, but just because the two films are about talking animals does not make them at all similar. I find myself with many questions about just what form this “reimagining” will take, because the path forward is considerably less clear than it was with The Jungle Book. For starters, The Lion King began with the 1994 film, and despite having echoes of Hamlet it is an original story, not based on an existing book or play. The Jungle Book remake was a solid melding of the original stories and the animated film, borrowing the tone of Kipling’s writings while filling the movie with characterizations from and callbacks to the 1967 Disney film. (Also, The Jungle Book, in all its forms, has always been fairly episodic, a fact that lends itself to changes and interpretation). The Lion King only has two versions, and the stage version is a direct expansion of the film. In short, there’s not a wide breadth of material to pull from for this new Lion King, leaving Favreau to either make a direct adaptation of the original film or the stage version or to add original ideas to the story which seems unnecessary.

Perhaps the biggest question of all, however, is music. The Jungle Book, featured two songs from the original which attempted to feel less like musical numbers than simply characters breaking into song. The jury’s out on whether it was a success. I personally appreciated their inclusion in the film and the nods to the original’s legacy, but think they felt a little forced. I wish they’d either been pared down a bit more or that the filmmakers had found the courage to make the movie an all-out musical (a scary prospect these days, apparently). Still, there’s a huge difference between the music of The Jungle Book and that of The Lion King. The original animated Jungle Book was more a series of vignettes, and while the songs were all integral to each scene they were more about atmosphere and entertainment than they were about storytelling. On the other hand, the songs of The Lion King are crucial to the story and are intimately connected to it. Simba’s story has never existed without the music of Elton John, and to take that away or reduce in any significant way would be to detract from the story. Now, we don’t know whether this new version will be a full-on musical or not, but we can take some clues from the press release. Disney claims that The Lion King “will include songs from the animated film,” which would initially have me worried that we’re in for a similar situation to The Jungle Book, with songs as mere callbacks to the original rather than integral parts of the story. However, Disney adds that this will be “like Beauty and the Beast”, its other upcoming remake that is an actual, honest-to-goodness musical. They could have easily have said “like The Jungle Book”, but the fact that they chose to compare it to Beauty and the Beast gives me hope.

In addition, I’m confused by the reasoning behind doing a “live action” remake of The Lion King. The Jungle Book was the story of a human boy, and Neel Sethi’s performance and his presence carry the film. There are no humans in The Lion King, so all we’ll end up with is a fully computer-animated version of The Lion King. I’m sure it will have stunning visuals, but I don’t see how a computer animated Simba is easier to form an emotional connection to than a hand-drawn Simba, no matter how realistic Simba looks or the level of performance capture involved. Generally, I feel that live-action humans are more emotional and expressive (from an audience empathy standpoint) than their animated counterparts, but animated animals are more emotional and expressive then even the best, most photorealistic CG can provide. It’s probably easier for people to accept a talking animal that looks animated than it is to accept one that looks real, particularly if that animal has to carry the emotional weight of the story. Not to mention the fact that I can’t imagine how some sequences from The Lion King would possibly work in a visual style resembling The Jungle Book. So really, all that is happening is a change from hand-drawn animation to computer animation, which doesn’t seem to gain us anything beyond some undoubtedly stunning visuals.

Then there’s the key aspect of casting. Since The Lion King has only really existed in one form, people have only one performance and interpretation in their mind for each character. Add in the fact that all of the voice cast for The Lion King is still alive (it’s only been 22 years), it seems like the only logical conclusion is to bring almost everyone back. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, and James Earl Jones in their respective roles, and the obvious choice would be to bring them all back, though that seems unlikely for some reason. I’m less attached to Matthew Broderick and Moira Kelly as Simba and Nala, whose roles were not the flashy sort that are instantly tied to the actors, but I would hope Favreau would cast actors of color in the lead roles this decidedly African story.

I think the best plan of action would be for Favreau to attempt to adapt the stage version of The Lion King to the screen. It takes everything we know and love about the animated film, while adding some truly stellar songs to the mix which explore new emotional depths in Simba and Nala, and which would bring a richness and maturity of storytelling to the story that is expected (rightly or wrongly) from live action films with extra running time. The stage version also feels more authentically African in its music and design, something Favreau would be smart to imitate. He also wouldn’t go wrong bringing Hans Zimmer back to expand on his original score from the animated film, or at least Mark Mancina, who worked with Zimmer on The Lion King and is an excellent film composer in his own right. Zimmer’s score is as integral to the story as are Elton John’s songs, and the wildebeest stampede just wouldn’t be the same with different music.

I don’t have any outright objection to Disney and Jon Favreau remaking The Lion King. I’m always intrigued by the possibilities inherent in a new interpretation of something familiar, and while I know I’m in the minority Disney hasn’t let me down yet in their newest trend. And I have no doubt that it will be a success. It’s one of Disney’s most beloved animated films (seriously, my high school band and choir toured through China over 15 years ago and played a medley from it that got huge cheers everywhere we went), and the stage version continues to delight audiences around the world. But I can’t say I’m excited for it either, certainly not in the way I’m excited for Beauty and the Beast. Generally with remakes I appreciate the attempt to breathe new life into an old classic, or the chance for a new take on something I know and love, but I just can’t find that angle for The Lion King. The original is one of the least dated of all Disney animated films (even taking into account its relative youth), and I don’t feel that the promise of Jungle Book-esque visuals is enough reason for an update. Melding the animated film with its stage spinoff might do it for me, particularly if some of the original cast reprise their voice roles, but it’s far too early right now to assume that either of those will happen. Still, just as a rule I’m an optimist, and I have faith in Disney, so I’m going to keep an open mind until I get to see it for myself. If nothing else, we should get a breathtaking “Circle of Life” opening sequence when it finally does come.

What do you think? Are you excited for this new version of The Lion King? Nervous? Furious? Is this just a further sign that Disney has run out of creativity, or simply good business that helps support more original works? (If everyone had seen Tomorrowland as many times as I did, perhaps we’d get more original movies!) How does your opinion of today’s news compare with your thoughts on the upcoming Beauty and the Beast remake? Does your opinion of The Jungle Book influence your thoughts on this latest development? Should Favreau reunite the original cast, start from scratch, or do a bit of both? Is there any way for The Lion King to work without being a full-on musical? What’s your favorite song from the movie/stage show? Were the songs in The Jungle Book the best or worst part of the film? Should I have just stayed away or are you glad I’m back? Is there anything you want me to write about in the future? Let me know in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Jon Favreau is remaking The Lion King

  1. That’s actually a good way to summarize my feelings. I guess it usually depends on what I think about at the moment. When I think about the CGI style in The Jungle Book, I’m excited to think about what they would do with the setting and animals in the movie. When I think about the story itself, I get a little worried. I think it depends on, like you said, a human aspect. I definitely believe Disney can pull off the look of the film, but pulling off human emotions without a single human character can be hard.

    I can honestly say that The Lion King is probably closer to the bottom of the list that needs to be remade. I can’t say that’s ever stopped me, but it is a good reason to be less sure of how it will turn out. Other news about it, such as who else is attached or what they may change about it, could change that opinion, but that’s still the starting point.

    Then there’s comparing it to the Beauty and the Beast remake which we do know more about, which has human characters, and which at least have an idea of what it will look like. With that in mind, I suppose it’s not too fair to compare them just yet. I think I’ll have a better idea of The Lion King being a musical after that movie comes out, but for now I don’t see it as an argument. It’s nice that Disney feels optimistic about how Beauty and the Beast incorporated its music, but, once again, it will still be hard to project it on a film like The Lion King. I think that just mostly goes down to the fact that Beauty and the Beast is still, at its core, a fairy tale. Incorporating music and magic is easier to comprehend. With a live-action Lion King, I’m not sure how far that reasonable doubt can go for singing characters.

    Still, I’m excited at the prospect of seeing things like the wildebeest chase in live-action CGI, and I am curious as to what they would do with the musical sequences. I haven’t been having a problem with these live-action remakes since at the very least they seem to be good. It’s one thing to just tale the story and put it with live actors. It’s another to take time and effort to make sure the movie is good as itself. With that knowledge, they could do well.

    It’s good to have you back!


  2. I have no interest in this remake. Seeing realistic lions has no appeal to me. But it could be good but skeptical. I’m 50/50 on these remakes


  3. Pingback: Mulan: Another live-action Disney Remake! | The Love Pirate

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