In Disney’s everlasting quest to remake every single one of their beloved animated classics into live-action, they’ve finally landed on the most infeasible (and unnecessary) to adapt for live-action, yet arguably the most popular and acclaimed film in their filmography. Remaking The Lion King for live-action is conceptually flawed on two accounts: aside from the original being one of the most seminal animated films in history which will leave little to no room for improvement from a remake, a live-action adaptation of a story comprising entirely of animals, with no human counterparts or on-set location shooting, essentially renders the “live-action” selling point as completely moot, seeing how all of the characters and backgrounds will be created with CGI. It’s basically just another animated movie, but with more photo-realistic animation.
With feature films in their catalog dating back to the 1930s, some of these older Disney movies, such as Dumbo and The Jungle Book, have much less structured plots and defined characters that lend themselves to be expanded upon in a modern remake, with varying degrees of success. The problem with remaking Disney’s Renaissance films is that because they are still so recent within Disney’s illustrious lifespan, these films are still relatively modern in their approaches to storytelling and plot structure, and there’s no real way to update them for a modern movie-going audience. Because they are so tightly plotted and structured, they leave almost no room to expand upon the story since all of the necessary ground was covered in the original, making any additional subplots or characters, such as in the remakes of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, feel like wasted time on areas that didn’t need to be explored.
What makes The Lion King stand out among Disney’s output during their 90’s Renaissance films, is that it remains one of the only few to not be (directly) adapted from either fairy tales, literature, folklore, history, or myth. Its striking story similarities to other works such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and most controversially, the Japanese anime series Kimba the White Lion, have become well known over the years, throwing a wrench in the claim that The Lion King is a wholly original story for Disney. It speaks to the strength of The Lion King that these comparisons are unable to hinder its reputation, rather it illustrates that even among the numerous references to its overt influences and inspirations, it is still able to exude so much creativity and originality in its presentation that it manages to stand on its own as a worthy work of art.
If there’s any Disney movie that it bears the most resemblance with, it isn’t one of their contemporary 90’s movies of the time, but one from close to five decades prior, 1942’s Bambi. Both stories are comprised entirely of animals, in which a young cub/faun who is destined to be the king of the jungle/forest must take on the responsibilities of leadership that have been bestowed upon him, they witness the traumatizing death of a parental figure, and return home in their adulthood to reclaim the birthright of their land. Harkening back to this style of classic Disney story helps it to separate itself from the classic Disney formula of princesses and fairy tales which a majority of the rest of the Disney Renaissance had been working with.
The story of young Simba as he learns to navigate his surroundings, understand the importance of the role that he has been given, and follow his father’s legacy as a true leader is a story that allows for more philosophically profound morals than the average Disney movie, where the morals usually amount to boilerplate cliches like “Follow your dreams” or “True love conquers all”. We see Simba’s worldview and morals being shaped throughout different stages of his life based on the characters that he associates with at that time. In his early upbringing, he follows in the literal footsteps of his father, Mufasa, the noble king of Pride Rock as he prepares Simba for his responsibilities as the eventual successor to the throne, to respect all living creatures and understand the importance that they all play in the circle of life. After the traumatic death of his father in one of the most jaw-droppingly incredible sequences of animation history, Simba is told by his devious uncle Scar that he is directly responsible and must flee the Pridelands, where he meets two fun-loving, amoral outcasts, Timon and Pumbaa, who give him a new outlook on life.
The motto that they live by, “Hakuna Matata” which means “No Worries”, allows them to shirk any and all responsibilities and leave the past behind them. After years of living the “Hakuna Matata” lifestyle into his adulthood, Simba has all but forgotten his duties and his family, until he is found by his childhood friend Nala and wise mentor Rafiki and reminded of who he is meant to be, and who his father wanted him to be. “The past can hurt…you can either run from it, or learn from it”, Rafiki teaches Simba in order to help him reconcile his past and take up the mantle as the king he was meant to be.
This arc of personal reflection and self-discovery that Simba undergoes is one of the stronger character arcs within Disney’s catalog, and one with a more universal significance to the average viewer who may still be struggling to find themselves. This all culminates in the final moments of the climax after Scar has been defeated, as the first rainfall in ages quenches the land after the long-lasting drought, Simba triumphantly and gracefully ascends the top of Pride Rock and lets out a mighty roar to the heavens, claiming his rightful place as the heir to his father’s kingdom. The film’s ending mirrors the legendary opening, with the birth of a new lion cub and future king, the circle of life continues on as intended.
Speaking of the opening, while it has become overly referenced and parodied, from the opening shot of the sun rising over the horizon to Rafiki holding out the newborn Simba cub, it still remains possibly one of the strongest sequences of animation that Disney has ever produced. The regal elegance and overwhelming power of Hans Zimmer and Elton John’s musical collaboration that introduces us to the vast majestic reach of the Pridelands. Every member of the animal kingdom is shown in their natural habitat gracefully portrayed through the beautifully artistic animation that manages to both capture the realism of these animals’ behaviors, but also infuse them with identifiably cartoonish personalities that keep them endearing.
Therein lies the frustrations with the direction of the remake. By recreating each character, setting, and moment to be “live-action”, the realism of the effects, while technologically impressive, is nowhere near as visually arresting or vibrantly full of life as the original. If anything, the frequent shot-by-shot comparison videos between the two films only highlight the intense level of beauty and artistry that was put into the 2D animated film when compared to the drab b-roll footage from Animal Planet that this new version looks like. This realization may be one of the few saving graces in this current landscape of live-action remakes. Advanced technology and more modern sensibilities are not enough to replace beauty, heart, and imagination of the originals, which still remain iconic and classic for a reason. Long live the King!