"While others search for what they can take, a true king searches for what he can give." — Mufasa (James Earl Jones)
1994's The Lion King is the third Disney animated classic to undergo the live-action treatment this year, following Dumbo and Aladdin. And I have to ask — even if rhetorically — why?
We all know the answer. In ages past, Disney sometimes boosted annual box office revenue by re-releasing a classic, but when millions of households have DVD, Blu-ray and virtual copies, that avenue isn't lined with gold like it once was.
As Disney/Pixar and a few others cranked out computer-generated cartoons during the early 2000s, I noted the tendency in my own kids to reject traditionally animated classics like Pinocchio or the original Jungle Book in favor of Toy Story or Shrek. So it seems inevitable that iconic films will be remade. Is it any different than mounting a new stage production with contemporary actors?
Yes, because once a stage production's run is finished, its actors go their separate ways, and it can never be replicated.
Film is different. Barring the end of civilization, film is forever. Robin Williams, as the genie in Aladdin, will sound exactly the same a thousand years from now as he sounded in 1992. There's no aesthetic reason for Disney to remake its classics other than the quick buck they can no longer make from reissues.
That said, I've largely enjoyed the recent live-action remakes. Director Jon Favreau's The Lion King is no different. Favreau and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel's advances in virtual cinematography — the meticulous recreation, in a virtual setting, of traditional camera techniques — is a stunning achievement that could change filmmaking as we know it.
But is a movie in which every frame is 100 percent digitally generated really live action? Despite stunning photo-realism, this Lion King is just as much a cartoon as its 1994 progenitor.
I can't deny that it works. The story retains its familiar charm, visually recreated almost shot for shot. The characters resonate, even replacing Matthew Broderick with Donald Glover as Simba, Moira Kelly with Beyoncé as Nala. Those and most other substitutions neither add nor subtract significantly.
But Chiwetel Ejiofor replacing Jeremy Irons as Scar is a profound departure. Favreau believed that Irons' slimey, over-the-top villainy wouldn't translate as well to "live action." Ejiofor treats Scar as more of a character than an archetype, and casting Seth Rogen as the lovable warthog Pumbaa is genius. However, I'll note that the story's central conflict — the old king's wise management of the Pride Lands’ resources, killing only what is necessary in order to survive, versus Scar's preference to "exploit it all now and share it with your political cronies (aka the hyenas)" — seems more relevant now than it did in 1994.
The only character that remains completely intact from the original is Mufasa, as James Earl Jones returns as the King of Pride Rock. Though Jones' dialogue is virtually unchanged, it's been re-recorded, and it's almost astounding how his easily recognizable bass is just as powerful three decades later. Now, just as then, it's the majesty of Jones' performance that anchors this Lion King.
Since it's essentially a copy of the original, Favreau's The Lion King narrowly misses as a great film, but it's an imminently beautiful and entertaining one.
The more telling question is, assuming I live long enough to experience grandkids, which version will I show them first? The original, of course. Because archetypes are easier for small children to process.