A few weeks ago, I was in the Bay Area watching the St. Louis Cardinals take on the San Francisco Giants. Unbeknownst to me, it was “Top Gun day” at the ballpark, meaning I was about to enter a danger zone of celebration concerning everything associated with that movie. Kenny Loggins sang the National Anthem. The film played on Oracle’s giant centerfield screen after the game. And in between innings, there was a parody of Top Gun’s infamous volleyball scene redone with members of the Giants.
I will admit that I found this amusing. Watching baseball players try to act is always funny, but I was also impressed with the care that went into this recreation of the iconic scene. Though hardly a shot-for-shot remake, the video captured the spirit of the original with such fidelity that most everybody around me was laughing in recognition. It was funny because we remembered the thing that this thing was referencing.
The new Lion King, a remake of the 1994 original, is part of Disney’s recent strategy of turning its animated properties into live-action films. (Before we go any further, there’s been some “debate” whether the new Lion King is, technically, live-action or animation since it incorporates photorealistic digital effects. For my purposes, I’m just going to say it’s live-action.) The strategy has been a financial bonanza for the studio. Did you love Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King? Well, Disney had made them again, except without all that annoying animation. You see, now they’re real! But don’t worry: They’re basically the same movies as the originals. Because, really, if you’re going to pay good money to watch a remake, it sure as hell better not be different than the earlier version.
I liked this live-action Lion King enough, but my enthusiasm was muted by the fact that, well, it really is the same movie. The animals are more animal-like, and the landscapes look more like the actual African terrain, but for all intents and purposes, what director Jon Favreau has achieved is to replicate an experience its audience enjoyed previously. Hollywood has long been in the reboot/remake business, serving up fresh installments of beloved characters and enduring properties. But Disney’s new live-action “reimaginings” feel like a dispiriting development in this tendency, which film critic Eric Hynes memorably labeled a few years ago “the era of do-not-fuck-it-up.” It used to be that sequels and adaptations strove to keep us happy by not moving too far afield from the source material. Now, Disney is simply reproducing what came before, congratulating itself for how skillful the copy is. And we play along, dumbly admiring the similarity.
All of us have been conditioned to admire clever facsimiles. The Simpsons, Seinfeld and the entire output of Seth MacFarlane often relied on echoing pop-culture totems, essentially congratulating us for spotting the references. Any film nerd worth his salt loves pointing out every Kubrickian homage in a modern movie. And you probably still have at least one friend who enjoys doing the Borat “my wife” voice in public. We’re all the sum of our influences and favorites — we’re little more than the bits and pieces of everything we’ve absorbed. As a result, pop-culture references aren’t just triggers of past experiences — they spark joy for the positive memories associated with that ephemera.
But the new Lion King, sure to follow in the blockbuster footsteps of the live-action Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, continues those two films’ tradition of being virtual shot-for-shot remakes. Technically, they don’t redo every shot verbatim, but it sure feels like that — after all, it’s what the audience apparently craves. It’s a funny thing, too: A couple of decades ago, art-house auteur Gus Van Sant used his Good Will Hunting clout to direct a pseudo shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, which at the time was lambasted because of how unnecessary it was. The critical attitude back then, quite reasonably, was, “Hey, we’ve already got the Hitchcock classic — why do we need another version?” How times have changed: Now, the accomplishment is being able to masterfully mimic. The new Lion King “succeeds” because we knew it as an animated movie — just imagine how much work it must have taken to do all that again, but as live-action!?!? The assumed strenuousness of the effort is what’s being lauded.
It’s both self-evident and boring to note that we’re an endlessly nostalgic culture. Everything from Stranger Things to some of Broadway’s biggest hits play on our fondness for past properties. Nor is that phenomenon new. Star Trek was like a Western in space. Raiders of the Lost Ark paid tribute to the serials of yesteryear. The 2019 Lion King feels different, though, because it represents a cynicism that preys on our passivity in insidious new ways.
Some have described these Disney live-action remakes as “covers” of the originals, but I’d actually use another musical analogy. They’re like when the labels tried to cash in on the CD boom, repackaging indelible albums with more songs and fancy digital sound. Sure, maybe the music sounded marginally better/fresher/crisper/louder, but CDs were largely a way to resell music to consumers who’d already bought it once, partly so they could compare the new version to the old one. This is, undoubtedly, the allure for lots of moviegoers who will check out the new Lion King: “Let’s see how close this is to the one I know.” And like with those CDs, you don’t want it to be significantly different than what you remember — you just want some vague assurance that it’s “better” (or, at the very least, not worse) than the original. But mostly, you just want it to be the same.
That artistic ambition to achieve “sameness” is what’s so chilling about the new Lion King and films of its ilk. We’ve taken do-not-fuck-it-up culture to its inevitable end point. Forget remakes — maybe we’ll just have recreations from now on. Just every 10 years, do the exact same movie — except this time in 3D. Or maybe with an all-female cast. Or animated. We won’t judge your creativity or personal artistic expression — we’ll just look to see how close you get to perfectly imitating the original. It’s a depressing future that assumes audiences simply want the same stories over and over again — not the same types of stories, but the actual same stories.
I hope I’m wrong. Presumably, audiences will eventually grow tired of these live-action remakes — or more likely, Disney will run out of viable properties to redo. (Don’t hold your breath on that latter possibility, however.) But what’s more likely is that Disney will inspire other studios to follow suit. Favreau can insist that the new film is about 30 minutes longer than the original, containing new scenes and songs. But, really, the new Lion King is a multimillion-dollar operation designed to do exactly the same thing as that goofy Giants parody of the Top Gun volleyball scene. And unfortunately, we’ll probably play our part, looking up at the screen and grinning: Oh, right, I know what this is — I recognize it.
We get it — and because we no longer expect more from movies, we’re getting exactly what we deserve.
Here are three other takeaways from The Lion King…
#1. Is Simba a vegetarian now?
As in the original, the new Lion King is about a cub named Simba whose dad is murdered. Simba flees the kingdom and befriends some wacky scamps named Timon and Pumbaa — this time voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, respectively. Simba grows up — he’s voiced by Donald Glover — and eventually goes home to seek vengeance on Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) for killing his papa. Before that, though, Simba learns to eat like Timon and Pumbaa. As a cub, he got to enjoy antelope and the like — lions are on top of the food chain, after all — but his new pals explain to him that he can’t just eat whatever animal he wants. As a result, Simba develops a taste for grubs and other insects.
In both movies, Simba takes down Scar and restores peace and prosperity to the kingdom. All’s well, etc. But while watching this new Lion King, my wife brought up a point: Since the movie spends so much time on Simba getting used to not eating animals, does he continue those habits as the new king? Is Simba a vegetarian?
That’s left unanswered at the end of the remake, but it’s something that the internet has been pondering in the run-up to The Lion King’s release. Specifically, people are worried that Simba couldn’t have possibly defeated Scar if he’s gone vegetarian…
Putting aside some hilarious typos — by the way, the T. Rex was my favorite dinosaur carnival — I was very amused that my look into the Simba vegetarian question sent me down a rabbit hole of individuals assuming that not eating meat makes you physically weaker, a claim that’s been sufficiently discredited. As for Simba, well, if he were an actual lion, he’d have to eat meat. Favreau can brag all he wants about how photorealistic his Lion King is, but that element of the story has always been pretty phony.
#2. Let’s remember Jon Favreau’s directorial debut.
For a generation of moviegoers, Jon Favreau will always be the sensitive, slightly shy guy from Swingers, the 1996 hangout comedy that he starred in and wrote about the L.A. dating scene. Launching pal Vince Vaughn’s career, as well as his own, Swingers is an artifact of its era — it’s a movie from a time before cell phones when the swing revival was a big deal — and for a while after, Favreau was typecast onscreen as a nice, nerdy guy.
But Favreau didn’t just want to be an actor — he had filmmaking aspirations. Cut to 2019, and it’s hard to remember that mild-mannered kid from Swingers. Since then, he’s been responsible for Will Ferrell’s biggest live-action hit (Elf); he kick-started the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Iron Man); and he’s helmed two big Disney remakes (The Jungle Book, The Lion King). He’s a major Hollywood director.
Things didn’t look that promising after his first filmmaking effort, though. In 2001, he released Made, a low-key tale of two nobodies trying to make something of themselves who get mixed up with an aging mobster (Peter Falk) and a scrappy crime lord (Sean “Puffy” Combs). It’s a decent little comedy whose modesty couldn’t possibly prepare audiences for the blockbusters Favreau would later craft.
In the movie, which Favreau also wrote, he plays Bobby, a negligible boxer who has a best friend (Vaughn) that keeps getting him into trouble. Like Swingers, it’s the contrast in the two men’s style that makes for good comedy, with Favreau once again playing a put-upon good guy struggling to reach his potential. But the stakes are higher this time around — mobsters tend not to have a great sense of humor — and so, Favreau has to juggle comedy, drama and suspense.
Made helped establish that Favreau could direct a picture — it’s shot by master cinematographer Christopher Doyle — and it features up-and-comers like Sam Rockwell, who would later join Favreau on Iron Man 2. It’s a solid first effort that, at the time, mostly felt like a continuation of the bro-tastic comedy of Swingers. Yet from such humble origins has emerged one of the industry’s most unlikely mega-success stories.
#3. Mufasa/Darth Vader mash-ups are funny.
I spent the entirety of the first half of this piece decrying our thoughtless, blind allegiance to parodies, homages and faithful reproductions. And now I’m going to show you what a hypocrite I am — that I am, without a doubt, part of the problem — by pointing you in the direction of this clever video that switches out James Earl Jones’ Darth Vader dialogue from Return of the Jedi and replaces it with his Mufasa dialogue from The Lion King:
I know, I know, I know. But, c’mon, it’s funny. And there are others…
Jones just has a knack for voicing complicated father figures, I guess.