The summer of 1994 will be remembered in the history of the Disney corporation as a formative moment. In June of that year “The Lion King” was released and rapidly became an international success. Disney was then already in the midst of its best decade ever, beginning with “The Little Mermaid” (1989) and moving from peak to peak, with “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” (both 1991), “Pocahontas” (1995) and “Mulan” (1998). But “The Lion King” marked new heights. It was that year’s biggest film moneymaker, eventually earning close to $1 billion and reaching the number 42 slot on the list of the top-grossing movies of all time. And more than any of those other Disney pictures, “The Lion King” was the best known and most popular of Disney’s films in that decade – possibly due to the immediately recognizable soundtrack. Thanks to that, it also became a musical, and its popular DVD was worn down in the homes of 1990s children.
Fast-forward 25 years, and those 1990s kids who could rattle off dialogue from the movie are now parents themselves. Disney is still a money-hungry powerhouse for which innovative, exciting cinematic technology has created a new income channel: reworking old blockbusters into new movies.
We’ve already had computer-animated live-action versions of “The Jungle Book” (2016), “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) and the recently released “Aladdin.” But here, as Jon Favreau, the director of “The Lion King,” explained this month to CNN, a number of techniques have been integrated: advanced computer animation, video and stills samples, samples taken from performances of the actors who play the characters (facial expressions and body language, in addition to recorded dubbing), virtual reality, augmented reality and more. This lengthy infomation prologue was aimed at preparing the ground for “The Lion King” craze that will roar across this summer.
The buzz could be seen coming from afar, like a buffalo stampede. At some point in 2016, Disney announced plans to remake the movie, and every additional message concerning the production stirred a new wave of expectations. For example, when Favreau, who made the stunning “Jungle Book,” was chosen to direct; and when it was announced that Beyoncé would play Nala (and that the studio would wait until her schedule allowed her to join the project) and that Donald Glover would play Simba. Every teaser raised a ruckus, every poster caused hearts to skip a beat. Thus inevitably leading to the question: Does the new version of “The Lion King,” which cost about $270 million to make, according to various American movie industry sites, live up to expectations?
To begin with, it might be worth considering the expectations. After all, it was noted years ago that the roots of “The Lion King” lie in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” in this case performed by animals of the savannah speaking and singing in clear-throated, articulate English, and with a Hollywood ending. In “Hamlet,” the king, father of the protagonist, has died, and his mother has married Hamlet’s uncle. But the father reveals himself to the son, the lawful successor, tells him he was murdered by the uncle and commands him to take revenge. Hamlet hesitates; disasters ensue.
“The Lion King” opens with the birth of Simba, crown prince of the Pride Lands, son to the good and beneficent King Mufasa and his wife, the lioness Sarabi. But the family’s tranquil life is disrupted when the frustrated Scar, the king’s brother, plots to seize the throne. More precisely, and to put it in terms that will be understood in every Jewish home, Scar doesn’t have it in him to admire his successful brother and his annoying sister-in-law and to hobnob with all the elephants and zebras that have come to leave a gift check at the ceremony in which the heir to the throne is presented, so he stands up the royal couple and gets on the wrong side of both of them.
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Hurt, upset and suffering from a bad-hair day that will be his lot from now on, Scar forges an alliance with the hyenas, the legendary insatiable foes who are waiting for the right moment, lurking in the shadows beyond the kingdom’s borders. An opportunity quickly arises when Simba, an adventurous cub who’s determined to impress his father, gets into trouble. The father rushes to his rescue, and falls into a trap set for him by Scar. Scar then falsely persuades Simba that he is responsible for his father’s death, and instead of succeeding him, the tormented Simba flees and is thought to be dead.
He would have died, indeed, but just before the vultures pounce on him, Timon, a meerkat, and Pumbaa, a warthog, come into his life, and at their inspiration, a moment after they break into song about the events, he adopts the motto “hakuna matata” (“no worries” in Swahili). Simba, leaving his past behind, becomes a hippy nihilist and effectively disavows the responsibility that he bears, forsaking his identity.
Time passes, and Simba evolves before our eyes from a roly-poly cub into an impressive full-grown lion (a matter of about three years in the animal kingdom, according to Wikipedia), as matters in the Pride Lands deteriorate apace. Scar, disdaining ecological considerations, unlike the chain of previous leaders, shows no respect for the rules of the game or responsibility for all the creatures that populate his kingdom, and remains power hungry. He allows his equally insatiable allies to destroy the delicate social balance, and displays a disgraceful attitude toward lionesses. In a particularly disquieting scene, he behaves coarsely to Sarabi and tries to force her to become his partner.
The situation is so bad that Nala, Simba’s childhood friend and his destined mate, flees to get help and to find Simba. Now she will have to persuade him to take part and remind him of his identity, his father and the destiny he has run away from. Well, they fall in love, the mandrill shaman also stirs the pot a little, a terrible battle is fought, and before you know it – the happy ending.
The mane thing
But the plot is not the main course in “The Lion King,” and in any case most viewers will come to it already knowing the story. “The Lion King” has been updated and expanded, though it’s hard to talk about ethnic diversity in a movie that looks like National Geographic. But it’s obviously not by chance that the lions have been given black voices, and no accident that the representation and place of the female characters has been extended (too bad Beyoncé doesn’t get more space). Even so, the screenplay does not surpass the original. The primary element here is the visual experience – and it is unequivocally spectacular.
The savannah and the landscapes, especially in 3D or 4D film (to hell with the migraine, we’ll cope later) are alive and teeming. Every appearance of a cub or a rodent on the screen drew an uncontrollable gasp from the audience. A thought that nagged at me through the whole movie and wouldn’t let go: Is the timing of the release accidental? Is there a deeper, more sophisticated message that’s meant to seep into the audience? And is it just by chance that elements in the picture echo a familiar reality?
After all, a power-hungry ruler who is said to have hooked up with the greatest historical enemy the kingdom has ever known, a distant enemy who will take over everything if given the chance – why does that sound familiar? And hang on, this new and megalomaniac ruler also spurns environmental protection and ecological conservation, he junks the old traditions and conventions about how a ruler is supposed to act, he scorns the need for the necessary preservation of all elements of the society to ensure a healthy balance, and he behaves abominably toward women.
Could it be that none of this is chance? True, the announcement of the remake of “The Lion King” was made in September 2016, two months before Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States. But the adaptation, the writing, the production all happened during the tenure of the person who, oddly, recalls the villain of the story. For heaven’s sake, they both even have problematic hair.
Maybe I fantasized it all amid the dizzying cinematic experience I underwent, I thought as I got off the escalator, rubbing my eyes because of the effect of the 3D glasses. But then, at the stand where the glasses are returned, viewers received a gift: a colorful poster, done with brush strokes, of the proud Simba. Hmm, I mulled, what does this remind me of? Oh, yes. The famous Hope poster of Barack Obama.