‘Lion King’ ... again? Nostalgia drives Disney’s live-action blitz.

Why We Wrote This

Pop culture is awash in sameness, especially in family films. As Disney announces more live-action remakes, will recycling be rewarded, or will a demand for creativity prevail? 

Disney
Disney’s live-action version of ‘The Lion King,’ due in July, features the voices of John Oliver as Zazu the bird, JD McCrary as the Young Simba, and James Earl Jones as Simba’s father, Mufasa (not pictured). Other remakes on the way include ‘Aladdin’ and ’Lady and the Tramp.’

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As parents of a certain generation can attest, there are limits to how many times one can hear “Hakuna Matata.” But Disney is banking on families not giving up on favorites like “The Lion King” just yet as it unfurls a slate of live-action remakes that will fill theaters for the next few years. Call it the circle of franchise life.

Upcoming releases announced this week include new versions of “Lady and the Tramp” and “Cruella” (as in de Vil, the kidnapper of “101 Dalmatians”). They join “Aladdin,” due this month, followed by “The Lion King” in July. The onslaught highlights the thin line between repurposing beloved properties and diluting their value through overexposure. Can Disney thrive on a business model increasingly geared toward recycling rather than creating new stories?  

“If you don’t keep these older intellectual properties alive, then no one will know what they are,” says Jerry Beck, an animation historian. “Disney, on a business level, is looking at ‘How do we freshen “Dumbo” for today’s audience? When people come to Disneyland they see the “Dumbo” ride. They don’t know what “Dumbo” is. We’re now reintroducing it to them.’”

In the remake of “The Lion King,” a baboon walks to the prow of a rock jutting above an African savanna. Herds of animals look up. The baboon triumphantly holds a lion cub aloft. It’s an iconic shot familiar to anyone who’s seen the classic 1994 animated film. The difference this time is that the animals look as real as those in a nature documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough. That is, until the warthog and meerkat start to sing.

Like “Beauty and the Beast,” “Dumbo,” and this month’s “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” has been remade as a photo-real animation movie. Call it the circle of franchise life. Disney’s slate of upcoming releases announced this week includes live-action remakes of “Lady and the Tramp” and “Cruella” (as in de Vil, the kidnapper of “101 Dalmatians”). But there’s a thin line between repurposing beloved properties and diluting their value through overexposure. Can the company thrive on a business model increasingly geared toward recycling rather than creating new stories?

“If you don’t keep these older intellectual properties alive, then no one will know what they are,” says Jerry Beck, a historian of animated movies and a former studio executive with Disney TV. “Disney, on a business level, is looking at ‘How do we freshen “Dumbo” for today’s audience? When people come to Disneyland they see the “Dumbo” ride. They don’t know what “Dumbo” is. We’re now reintroducing it to them.’”

Disney/AP
Eva Green stars as a trapeze artist in Disney's ‘Dumbo,’ released in March. The film, directed by Tim Burton and featuring actors Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton, underperformed at the box office.

Some stories hardly require reintroduction. “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and most notably Julie Taymor’s puppet version of “The Lion King” have been translated into long-running stage musicals. Numerous animated movies have also been adapted for Disney on Ice (which was rather apt for “Frozen”).

“They’re able to take these stories and put them through all kinds of distribution channels,” says David Bossert, an artist and author who previously worked at The Walt Disney Company for 32 years, “whether it’s doing a television show, doing the live-action version, doing stage productions, doing books, doing games, doing attractions at the parks.”

Millennial driven 

As computer effects technology has improved, the company has channeled its properties into a new iteration: re-creating hand-drawn classics in a photorealistic style, which combines animation techniques and live-action methods. First came “The Jungle Book,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella,” and “Maleficent” (a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” starring Angelina Jolie as Disney’s most high-cheeked villain).

“Beauty and the Beast” (2017) kicked off a new phase of adapting movies originally released when millennials were still children. That generation will now be taking its own kids to see touchstones such as the Will Smith vehicle “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.” Remakes of “Mulan” and “The Little Mermaid” are also in reportedly in production.

“Millennials were the first generation that had children’s media that was of a certain quality that you can revisit it as an adult and be like ‘Oh wow, this is still really good,’” says film critic Lindsay Ellis, who dissects pop culture on her popular YouTube channel. “Millennials are like ‘Yeah, I want to see this movie from my childhood remade with photorealistic lions.’”

Ty Burr, film critic for The Boston Globe, worries that this summer’s “The Lion King” will be a shot-for-shot replica of the original movie. James Earl Jones even reprises the role of Mufasa that he first voiced in the 1994 movie. Offering audiences “the same thing, but ‘better,’” is the enemy of creativity, Mr. Burr says.

“Any cultural artifact you watched when you are young enough to be in footie pajamas, you will never ever have any critical distance on, and you want it to remain the same forever,” he says. “It certainly includes ‘The Lion King.’ I have talked with people, with men in their 30s, who think that is the greatest movie ever made, seriously, because it rocked their world when they were 5, and it can’t change.”

But as many parents can attest, there are limits to how many times one can hear “Hakuna Matata” – the “Let It Go” of its day. It became the theme song to the spinoff “Timon & Pumbaa” TV show. Disney also released two cheaply animated sequels to “The Lion King” that came closer to killing off Simba than Scar ever did. At the time, Disney was cashing in on the home-video craze of the 1990s by releasing low-quality follow-ups to movies such as “Aladdin,” “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “The Little Mermaid.” So much for happily ever after. But by 2005’s “Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch” – whose title is a case of truth in advertising – the poor quality sequels had tarnished the brand of precious Disney assets.

“That was just their way of squeezing the orange for a little more juice,” says Mr. Beck, who teaches animation history at the California Institute for the Arts in Valencia. “When John Lasseter took over Disney Animation, he was quite adamant about ‘no more of that.’ It was one of the first things they stopped doing. Is that better than these live-action remakes? You know, in a way this is the same thing. It’s just done on a much bigger budget and a greater scale.”

Do-over for outdated elements

Mr. Beck sees the potential for both risks and rewards in live-action remakes. You get only one shot doing a live-action remake, he says. If a remake underperforms at the box office, as “Dumbo” has, it risks undermining the value of that property. Then again, he says that live-action remakes could offer an opportunity to improve upon lesser-known box-office failures. For instance, fresh versions of “The Black Cauldron” and “The Sword in the Stone” might be a good fit for today’s fantasy-movie craze. (The latter is reportedly in the works for the Disney+ streaming service with a script by “Game of Thrones” writer Bryan Cogman.) 

The remakes also offer Disney an opportunity for a do-over of outdated or offensive elements from the originals. The princess in “Aladdin” no longer resembles a belly dancer with midriff-baring outfits. “Lady and the Tramp,” which will debut on Disney+, ditched “The Siamese Cat Song” with its Asian stereotypes. “Dumbo” omits the bird with stereotypical African American features who was named Jim Crow. Plus, the baby elephant doesn’t get drunk on champagne as in the earlier iteration.

For now, the Walt Disney Company is focusing on upgrading its best-known properties. Disney may be able to bank on being too big to fail because its generation-spanning characters and library of movies are so deeply embedded in global culture. But analysts say it would be prudent to continue to develop new tales in the hope of discovering the next “Frozen.”

“I do still think that there is room for original stories to be told and new properties to be developed,” says Mr. Bossert, whose visual effects work encompassed films such as “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” and “Fantasia 2000.” “The success of Disney is all about the fact that they tell great stories with endearing characters. There’s a level of quality that goes into that. And you look at the films over the years, and they’re films that will stand the test of time.”

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