Stockholm Syndrome has given way to mandatory software updates in the Disney marketing department.
Moviegoers old enough to have seen the original Lion King in theaters will remember Disney’s strategy for squeezing a few extra dollars from their existing IP: They’d take the VHS tapes of their classic animated films off shelves for years at a time, then rerelease them as a special “limited edition.”
Essentially, every few years Disney would send ransom notes to its fans. “Pony up now if you ever want to see the Little Mermaid and Dumbo again.” The semi-Orwellian term for this double-plus devious marketing concept was “The Disney Vault,” and the artificial scarcity helped inflate the value of shit they’d had lying around the Magic Kingdom for years.
That won’t fly in the era of streaming and illegal downloading, when soon the new Disney+ service will render the entire library instantly accessible for a monthly fee. Now the Mouse House is taking a page from the Apple playbook: keep retrofitting the same tech so the last incarnation looks obsolete. Starting with 2016’s The Jungle Book, Disney began updating (or “updating”) classics with some combination of state-of-the-art digital animation and live-action. Beauty and the Beast returned in 2017, next year will bring Mulan, and this summer alone has featured two 2.0s—last month’s Will Smith-fronted Aladdin and now The Lion King.
Director Jon Favreau applies his Jungle Book technique to one of Disney’s all-time great original works. He hews closely to the familiar story of Simba, the cocky lion cub who loses his princeling status when nefarious uncle Scar collaborates with some hyenas to kill Simba’s father. With the help of new friends, a long journey, and a few peppy Elton John numbers, Simba learns to understand the responsibility bestowed upon him by his father and reclaim his rightful reign of the pride.
Moments in the movie feel fresh. A plot about an egomaniacal leader who colludes with a hostile foreign power to seize control, decimating the environment and projecting all his sins on his political opponents is... let’s call it evergreen. And the voice casting is sensational, smartly bringing back James Earl Jones for his iconic performance as Mufasa alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Donald Glover, and Keegan-Michael Key. It’s a big step up from the days when the African savannah was colonized by the likes of Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Strangely, bereft of her powerful physical presence, Beyoncé manages to fade into the background in the role of lioness Nala—even with a brand-new tune. Still, an overall improvement.
And the animation is gorgeous, an incredible technical feat. But is the problem with the original that it doesn’t look realistic? The art of cartooning is not a steady progression toward photorealism. Why not also update Van Gough’s Starry Night with a shot taken by the Hubble telescope? The computer effects here perfectly capture beads of rainwater glistening in Simba’s mane, but that realism fails to capture the emotional expressiveness of the hand-drawn original and becomes discordant when he later breaks into song.
The only real value added here is to Disney’s bottom line. Not even John Dillinger could so thoroughly ransack a vault.
The Lion King
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Donald Glover, Beyoncé, Seth Rogen
Theater: Area theaters, now showing