The recent arrival of the trailer for Jon Favreau’s The Lion King was warmly received by fans across the world, evoking nostalgic feelings through the recreation of the infamous Pride Rock scene.
Yes, the same scene we know and love, but now with photo-realistic CGI fur. Great.
The film is the latest in Disney’s attempt to update its beloved back cartoon catalogue with (sort of) live action versions; fleshy re-imaginings so far have included Cinderella (2015), Alice In Wonderland (2010), Beauty and The Beast (2017), and Favreau’s own The Jungle Book (2016). The formula has been a huge success, with Alice In Wonderland making $1billion at the box office – meaning yet more remakes such as Dumbo and Aladdin on the horizon.
But while the mouse counts up the cash, it’s worth asking: do we really need these movies?
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This is not a dig against the original Disney films. They’re great. While not all of them are originals in the purest sense – some, like Beauty in the Beast, had already been made into films prior to the iconic animated version – Disney’s cartoon versions set the standard. And they were original. And in fact, they’re classic films from a golden age of animated cinema… and that’s exactly the problem.
It’s not especially about whether these remakes are good or bad, because these aren’t traditional remakes. We’re not talking about an original film and a new interpretation telling its own story. These are updated versions of the same film with often scene-for-scene recreations. Disney are leaning on our affection for the original films to sell cinema tickets. More than being sold a film, we are being sold the memory; the chance to be children once again, watching the original for the first time.
The problem is that you can’t sell a moment in time. Adults heading to the cinema with memories of the original film aren’t the same people they were years ago, and a remake can only ever be an imitation of what came before. It’s a kind of cinematic photocopy – it looks and feels like the original, but just a little less authentic.
The weight of nostalgia also sets an impossible standard for those stepping onto the screen. A company like Disney is very careful with its legacy, and so there have been no real duds in terms of casting, but are there many performances you can think of that topped those that came before?
As fearsome as Idris Elba’s Shere Khan was, for instance, it’s hard to imagine he will live as long in the memory as George Sanders’ terrifying voice turn in the 1967 cartoon. Maybe it’s unfair to compare the two, but it’s impossible not to when we are watching the same scenes and same songs recreated.
Even Will Smith, arguably one of the biggest stars in the world, admitted to Entertainment Tonight recently that he was “terrified” to follow in Robin Williams’ footsteps as the Genie in Guy Ritchie’s upcoming live action Aladdin. He’s right to worry – it’s a complete performance that seems unmatchable. Of course, it’s not without precedent (many said no-one but Jack Nicholson could play The Joker before Heath Ledger came along in Christopher Nolan’s noirish Batman reboot The Dark Knight in 2008). That kind of innovation only comes with the freedom to experiment, however, and that doesn’t fit into Disney’s approach of recreating the past.
With billions in box office receipts and giant budgets, it’s likely that curiosity alone will make Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King huge hits. Cinema audiences love familiarity, and there’s nothing more warm and familiar than the classic Disney legacy.
However, the balancing act that these homages have to perform may mean they are nothing more than a footnote in that legacy; a quick, flashy nostalgia trip, before we all sit down and watch the original we really love. And their creation stops the creation of new properties; things for a new generation to own. Cinema is eating itself, and we’re sitting at the table.