• Katie Heyes

My July Journey: Day 17 - "The Circle of Live Action Remakes" - (Mini Film Essay)

There’s no denying that we are now caught in an inescapable slew of Disney Live Action remakes – with the upcoming release “The Lion King” being the current apotheosis of this trend of film. Whilst one can look at this as a celebration of nostalgia bringing some of our most iconic childhood moments back to life in a photorealistic and in some cases as equally stunning realm of visual medium, a lot have argued that we’re currently living in what writer Luke Goodsell described as “a recycled culture.” Being a case of Disney re-hashing their old animated classics for the sake of profit and commercial tie-ins rather than making new films of substantial quality. And with their currently being plans being in place for classics such as “Mulan”, “the Little Mermaid,” alongside sequels to pre-existing live action remakes like “Maleficent 2,” this clearly isn’t a trend that’s going to disappear any time soon. What do I think of it, eh, it can work?

See, the original movie the Lion King is a pretty big deal as far as the Disney company goes. I’d probably argue it’s one of their most influential works. Being one of Disney’s most epic and celebrated works of animation, from its majestic imagery and score, fun and catchy songs, interesting characters challenged with real intense conflict, and taking risks with mature themes, it’s often recognised as one of Disney’s greatest works. But at the same time it was also a product of its time.

The success of the Little Mermaid in 1989 ended up ushering a new era of animation also known as the Disney Renaissance, and as with any era of film comes the onslaught came the clichés, with the main sample of 90s Disney movies being about self-identity, desiring something unobtainable, the protagonists acting as rebellious in some way other yet some of the typical Disney tropes squeeze their way back in such as animal sidekicks, fast-paced romances, some kind of pop cultural references. And whilst those films still carry a strong message and were definitely empowering to many, we’re now in a completely different era of film and often those clichés that were once popular are now parodied in films such as Moana and Frozen. My point being is that just because something worked then, doesn’t necessarily mean having an exact shot for shot remake will work. It has to work to suit current contextual trends and audience desires; something that was once innovative and popular might now be considered overdone and uninteresting. But saying some films can break that mould with their timeless feel – The Lion King I think is one of them.

Now don’t get me wrong, a lot of the 90’s stereotypical elements are still there. Simba certainly fits the free-spirited, rebellious persona adopted by a lot of these 90’s films but what him different from say Ariel or Belle, where their rebellious actions just come from their personal distaste with the world and conventions set out around them, Simba’s character arc involves him coming to terms with his personal demons to stop shirking responsibilities and embracing a traumatic past. This small little touch adds so much more depth and dramatic intrigue to the story and if anything the Lion King is showing just how powerful a film can be once they stop following the company pre-requisites in favour of telling a meaningful and heartfelt story. So Disney remaking that, I have mixed thoughts about? But before we delve into that, let’s go over a bit of history!

How did this come about?

Now, you may be wondering? Why bother? Why tamper with something that’s already renowned as a classic and is a staple of a lot of people’s childhoods? Well, part of it may have been how it opened up a marketing gold mine, reflecting how Disney executives are becoming more and more focused on how to keep their brand fresh and interesting to their audiences.

So with their iconic and beloved characters being deeply rooted in the nostalgic core of almost every generation out there, you can’t fault them for wanting to recreate their beloved works. Not only would it be a massive financial gain for the company with all the commercial tie-ins and merchandise that can be made from it, but it would be an effective way to bring old and younger audiences back to the cinema, united by a cherished classic of their childhoods. Just one single instantly recognisable image whether that be the glass slipper from Cinderella, the genie’s lamp from Aladdin or the wilting Rose from Beauty and the Beast, are powerful enough to transport us back to those initial moments being tucked up on the sofa or eyes rapt on the cinema screen falling in love with that Disney film, and its widespread cultural awareness will instantly make these series of remakes, sequels and reimagining of classic Disney animated films instant hits.

But being a commercial success is one thing, critical acclaim is completely different. And this is something that has been varying drastically for all these Disney remakes. Why is that? Well in order to fully understand that part of it, queue more nerdy Disney history babble!

Firstly, revisiting the old classics isn’t anything new. Michael Eisner former Disney CEO was mindful of the value of brand prestige, showing initial reluctance to releasing their animated classics on VHS tapes because in his eyes it would lower the prestige of the brand. Despite this, upon the successful release of several Disney animated classics to VHS, it was clear that the notion of repackaging Disney classics became a safe lucrative choice for the company which led to the expansion of the Disney Renaissance properties adapted for Broadway like Beauty and the Beast and even the Lion King itself, the latter of which still continues to be a success to this day.

Yet at the same time, this also brought with it, the parodic phase of Direct to DVD Disney sequels, renowned for their cheap quality and immense critical backlash. In some ways, this is exactly what Eisner foresaw when he was talking about “lowering the prestige of the brand” with films like this solely existing for trying to milk as much money off of the brand as possible, whilst simultaneously going against everything that made their original films so distinct and treasured to begin with. Like was anyone really asking for Hunchback of Notre Dame 2? Or Beauty and the Beast 3? Even the Lion King got subjected to the Disney Sequel treatment not once but twice.

So with this in mind, how do the Disney live action remakes differ? Well once again, repackaging Disney properties for live action isn’t something new. Eisner himself tbecame interested in live action remakes of animated classics such as The Jungle Book (1994) and 101 Dalmatians (1996), but whilst the films were successes, the official trend didn’t starts up until the release of Maleficent in 2014 and Cinderella in 2015. Mainly because it’s not enough just to do a rehash of the original beloved classic or just to have your iconic characters up on screen again without being integral to the tone or point of the original property. Nowadays, for a remake to work on a critical level, there has to be something that makes it stand apart from the original, whether that be responding to criticisms of the original film they’re remaking such as Cinderella’s passivism in stark contrast to the feminist appraisal her character got in the remake, or the Jungle Book staying more faithful to Rudyard Kipling’s darker tone rather than just being a happy go-lucky musical. Or in the case of the Lion King seeming to be a… shot for shot remake of the original… heh?

The Cut and Paste Style Remake

Before this film was release, all the criticism lobbied at “The Lion King” thus was that trailers have made it appear like a shot-for-shot remake of the original. This has led to predictions of what many have coined “cut and paste” style of remake where the film is solely there just to exist so that fans of the original can go “oh yeah remember that?”,” ah that was just as funny as I remembered it being.” But on April 18, 2019, Director Jon Favreau refuted this by saying "some shots in the 1994 animated film are so iconic he couldn't possibly change them, but despite what the trailers suggest, this film is not just the same movie over again… it's much longer than the original film. And part of what we're doing here is to (give it more dimension) not just visually but both story wise and emotionally." And in regards to the iconic shots that couldn’t possibly be changed, I think everyone can guess which specific scenes he’s referring to.

The “Circle of Life” opening sequence is widely recognised as being one of the most iconic opening numbers not just in Disney history but in film history in general, with film critic Roger Ebert describing it “an evocative collaboration of music and animation.” And, there’s no denying that this scene embodies that quality! All the stunning backdrops, the symbolic lighting, the eye-popping visuals and setting the tone for the rest of the film whilst being free from any dialogue, it’s a beautiful opening! So tampering with that in any way would practically be considered sacrilege. But that begs the question if it’s that perfect at all why bother remaking it? What more can you possibly bring to the table?

Well, as I mentioned before, some of these Disney remakes respond to criticisms made against the original and whilst reviews are for the most part extremely positive, there were still some persistent nagging criticisms against the film that have grown to be quite controversial over time.

The most controversial element being in the interpretation of Hyenas. Some have criticised the film for its racist elements for representing an anti-immigrant and pro-segregation allegory, with the good lions are being coded as fairly white and the evil hyenas being coded as ethnic. Professor and researcher Manuel Martín Rodríguez claiming “physically they are not only darker, but because [of their] neck, they are always looking down and sideways… It’s represented as inarticulate, unable to speak, and almost plainly stupid. And if you look at the picture of a lion, the lion gives you strength, dignity etc. The hyena does not…so what made the animators choose lions and hyenas? and not lions and gazelles? or lions and elephants? That’s the choice that is not innocent.” And I can see the argument I guess, taking into account physiognomy it can be seen as quite pejorative and degrading, some going on to claim that the film actually advertises a fascist narrative "only the strong and the beautiful triumph, and the powerless survive only by serving the strong” and stretching it so far that Be Prepared is apparently being based off a 1935 Nazi Propaganda Film with dark shadows cast upon the wall, the army of hyenas marching goose step in perfect formation. But with all that being said do you think there’s actually anyone out there would use the Lion King as a defence for segregation? Are kids going to be leaving the cinema with these associations? These arguments might hold weight if they meant anything and if they were particularly egregious but for me personally, I don’t really care, it certainly didn’t leave that impression on me as a child.

However,with all that controversy behind them and with white supremacy and, specifically, neo-Nazi propaganda rising again within the mainstream it’s easy to imagine Disney’s fear of being too pointedly political in the Lion King remake. So Be Prepared, one of the fans’ most popular villain songs, went out the window! Now introducing a more chant like rendition leaving many eager avid fans anticipating the film’s release thinking “well…where’s the rest of it?”

But it’s too early to make any official judgements. With the film’s UK release on Friday and going back to director Jon Favreau’s comments, that “some of the humour and characterizations are being altered to be more consistent with the rest of the film,” I’m intrigued to see how much they alter in response to some of these criticisms, yet also if they still stay faithful to the emotional core and strong moral of the original. If anything these remakes have taught me is that Disney puts high regard on public opinion which is why I’m partially a bit sceptical about this upcoming remake. Take for example the 2017, Beauty and the Beast remake which, in the midst of trying to solve a lot of nit-pickier complaints people had with the original, in the end lost sight of the emotional centre point of the story, introducing some superfluous historical and narrative elements for the sake of padding the film out a bit longer. And I’m just hoping that this film doesn’t fall into the same trap.

The Lion King is recognised as having some of the most emotionally poignant, intense and heart-wrenching scenes not just in Disney films but again in film history. Without giving anything away for anyone who has been living under a rock their whole life (pun very much intended), there are certain dramatic scenes that still make people cry to this day – a feeling that has never left them from that first initial viewing. So recreating that will be quite the challenge! And another emotional experience that I’m not sure I’m prepared for!

But, despite all the worries and convoluted history behind these Disney live-action remakes I can’t help being a bit excited whenever a new one comes out. One of the things that made Lion King so grand and epic for me was its celebration of African culture, with Hans Zimmer’s beautiful orchestrations with African choir accompaniments really does transport you to another visual realm. And despite the criticism of Be Prepared, upon listening to the soundtrack, with the general score and the Circle of Life seeming to incarnate that same feel and celebratory vibe, I’m fairly optimistic. The reviews have been a mixed bag and I can’t help but being overly critical about an upcoming release particularly when the original strikes such a chord with me, but I’m still part of the crew that gets excited upon hearing the first few familiar notes ofthose well- known classic songs and seeing our favourite characters that we’ve all grown up with, live in front of our eyes again! Sure, I might be falling under the Disney curse but no matter what happens whether I like this film or not, you know what I say to that – Hakuna Matata!

- Katie x

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