Saturday, October 1, 2016

Yes, You Can Remake an Animated Film

I've been following the development of Disney's live-action adaptations of their animated films for a while now. Nearly all of the old classics were being revisited in one form or another, but I had mentally put aside the films that primarily featured animal characters like "Bambi," "Lady and the Tramp," and "Oliver & Company." I didn't really take the reports of Tim Burton working on a "Dumbo" movie seriously. Well, now comes the news that Jon Favreau will be directing a CGI version of "The Lion King," probably in the same style as his version of "The Jungle Book." It makes sense, as "The Lion King" was Disney's highest grossing film for ages, and we're in the thick of '90s nostalgia.

However, there are some significant differences between "The Jungle Book" and "The Lion King." First, "The Lion King" is an original Disney property, not based on anything else. There's no original book or fairy tale to go back to for additional material. Secondly, unlike all of the other adaptations up to this point, "The Lion King" has no humans, so it's going to be a primarily animated film. The characters might be rendered with photorealistic CGI, and they might use real world locations for settings, but there's not likely to be much live action in this adaptation. "The Jungle Book" was shot entirely on green screen sound stages in Los Angeles. "The Lion King" isn't even going to need a physical set.

I've touched on this topic before, wondering whether "Shrek" would get a reboot since his franchise went on hiatus several years ago. A big barrier to animated films being remade is that they tend to age very well, and kids don't usually care if they're several decades old. I watched many of the same cartoons that my parents and grandparents did. And with a company like Disney, that has heavily depended on the longevity of their animated classics in the past, they understandably want to avoid competing with their own products. The live-action adaptations they've made so far of their animated films have been very distinct from the originals. "The Jungle Book" has an entirely different ending. "Maleficent" only has one scene in common with "Sleeping Beauty." "Cinderella" barely takes anything from the animated film, aside from a few references to the cartoon mice. The change in medium has also been emphasized for some of the films, allowing Disney to use their technological innovations as a selling point.

There were some rumors a few years ago about some the traditionally animated Disney films being remade as CGI animated films, which never happened. I'm sure that they considered it, especially after the "Special Edition" rereleases that we got in 2002 and 2003 for "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" that had partial conversion to 3D for IMAX. My guess is that there simply wasn't enough of a difference between the two styles of animation for Disney's comfort. However, it looks like there is enough of a distinction between hand-drawn animation and the photorealistic mo-capped animation used in "The Jungle Book" for the studio to agree to move forward. Having recently watched both versions of "The Jungle Book," I'm inclined to agree. Thanks to some clever writing and good visuals, at no point during the 2016 "Jungle Book" did I find myself missing the 1967 version, or drawing too many direct comparisons. More than the animation, the tone of the new film was completely different.

So the new "Lion King" is probably going the same route. It will be sold as a visual spectacle first and foremost, with a cast full of celebrities, and aimed slightly older than the original. We'll probably get one or two of the songs reimagined, but the film will be more action-oriented than a musical. That means the filmmakers are going to have to come up with more story to fill in the extra time, which will be a challenge. Despite the rumored influence of "Hamlet" and "Kimba the White Lion," "The Lion King" is a pure Disney creation. Since the original film is still relatively recent, I wondered if some of the original talent might return. It's hard to think of anyone but James Earl Jones voicing Mufasa, for instance. But looking at Bill Condon's upcoming "Beauty and the Beast" adaptation, this seems unlikely. The only familiar name is Alan Menken, who has a music credit.

So, in the end, am I looking forward to the new Jon Favreau "Lion King"? I don't know. I've liked pretty much all of the recent live-action Disney remakes, aside from "Maleficent." I was surprised how well "The Jungle Book" worked, and I'm sure Favreau will do a great job with "The Lion King." However, "The Lion King" wasn't one of my favorites as a kid. I watched it so often because it was my mother's favorite. Maybe that makes me a more receptive potential viewer for the remake, though, because I know that there's definitely room for improvement.

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