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How Did Disney Get to a Soulless and Creatively Bereft ‘Lion King’?

The Walt Disney Company traditionally rereleased its animated classics to theaters about once every seven years. Even as video cassettes were becoming popular, Disney kept its animated classics “in the vault” and off the shelves. Rereleasing films was profitable because Disney could fill out its movie slate for the year with a film that had no additional production costs. The money from the rereleases was almost pure profit minus the advertising budget.

With pent-up adult demand for something from childhood that they could share with their children and the importance of introducing the characters to a whole new generation that would then want to see those characters in the parks, Disney’s rereleases were more than just profitable. They kept the company in the news, and they made the attractions in the parks more relevant to children who otherwise wouldn’t have seen the movies.

The rereleases, in essence, drove profits at the box office and at the parks, especially during some of the Walt Disney Company’s rougher periods. It wasn’t enough.

When Michael Eisner took over the company, things changed drastically as he followed through on Ron Miller’s (the then defunct CEO) plan. For the first time, Disney classics would be available in their entirety on VHS. The video series reaped immediate cash rewards and provided a much need capital input into the company while possibly sacrificing future profits and relevancy in the process.

Eventually, Disney would return videos “to the vault.” The announcement would increase demand for the videos because they would no longer be available for purchase though they would remain on video rental store shelves until the videotapes wore out. Videos would also be released in different versions and levels, including Masterpiece, Gold Series and Platinum series. This strategy kept the profits flowing while also keeping the films and their characters relevant. It still wasn’t enough.

To drive further interest in its intellectual property and keep the park characters relevant, Disney offered up direct-to-video sequels. Unable to rerelease the classics to movie theaters on a wide scale, (Who would go see “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” on the movie screen when they could stay at home and see the same movie with the family at a much cheaper price?) the new videos were often inferior in quality and storytelling, but they were effective for the price and benefits reaped. On television, other characters made it to Saturday Morning. “Tailspin,” based on the Jungle Book characters, and “Timon and Pumbaa”, based on the Lion King characters, were relatively successful and kept the spirit of the shows (and their related tie-in profits) alive.

Still, Disney needed a way to produce box office profits and buzz with as little risk as possible. Remaking the classics has accomplished that in spades.

In 1994, Disney had a moderate hit ($44 million) with a live action “The Jungle Book” starring Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes and Lena Headley. In 1996, it had a much more successful live action film ($320 million) in the Glenn Close vehicle “101 Dalmatians.”

While some may classify Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” as a remake, it is really a retelling. It has many elements similar to the animated classic but is different enough to rate its own story. Still, it’s $1 billion box office take certainly didn’t deter Disney from the remakes. “Maleficent” ($758 million) is another live action film, based on Disney’s telling of “Sleeping Beauty,” but still different enough to be its own story. Even “Pete’s Dragon” didn’t stick strictly to the script of the original. “Christopher Robin” (not quite $200 million) and “Dumbo” ($352 million on a $170 million budget – whoever authorized that budget didn’t understand why the firs was released) had different storylines compared to the originals and were considered flops as they didn’t score highly with critics or at the box office.

“The Jungle Book” (2016), which almost made $1 billion, featured groundbreaking cinematography and stuck close to the original animated feature. “Beauty and the Beast” was a lot like the original, too, and this may be the beginning of the downfall because it brought in $1.2 billion. Why write a new script if you can just use the old one?

Enter the ultra-busy actor, producer, executive producer, director, chef and whatever else Jon Favreau. Favreau is responsible for directing “Iron Man” and for starring as Happy in several of the Marvel films. He’s taken part in the “Star Wars” movies and shows Disney has/is creating. He is also the producer and director of “The Lion King” and “The Jungle Book” (2016). He made a cooking show in his spare time “The Chef Show” because he missed the time that he spent with the chef that taught him how to cook on his movie “Chef.” Look up his IMDB and be amazed, and then understand the problem.

Favreau’s box office dominance isn’t in question. His ability to be original is. When someone is so busy with as many projects as he is, it’s inevitable that he or she will take the easiest road. Adapting “the Lion King” from the old script and giving it originality, in addition to wrangling the photo-realistic “not” animation, would’ve have been too much if it were the only project on his plate. After all, “The Lion King” made almost $1 billion.

More importantly, it’s beloved by millions of fans the world over. If he had messed it up by taking a risk to make it more original, he would’ve seen his career with Disney take a dive. Favreau had no choice but to fulfill expectations and keep the animals looking live-action rather than animated. Follow the script and no one gets hurt, except those parts that living animals couldn’t literally do – like dress in drag and do the hula or march in fascistic fashion.

Favreau was out in a no-win situation. In order for the “not” animated “Lion King” to have been a better film, he would’ve needed to cut some of the fluff (literally and figuratively) out of the film while concentrating on character and using human expressions to get the animals to show emotion. He would’ve needed to take a risk in the same way that the gorgeous and expensive Broadway show took a risk. He would’ve needed to lead the innovation and story team to bring something new to the screen that would’ve added to the film’s legacy. He didn’t have the time to do what he needed to do to make the film better, so rather than create something new, he took the safe road to profitability. And we’re all creatively the worst for it.

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Are There “Small” Choices? Free will versus Fate in “The Adjustment Bureau” and “The Good Place”

Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers for “The Adjustment Bureau” and “The Good Place” through season 3. If you haven’t seen either of these shows, I suggest you bookmark this page and return to it after watching them. The article is below the trailers.

In “The Adjustment Bureau,” Senate candidate David Norris, played by Matt Damon, finds himself confronted by a shadowy organization of supernatural beings, who answer to the Chairman. The Chairman has set mankind on a path so that it doesn’t destroy itself. Norris’ burgeoning relationship with Elise, played by Emily Blunt, threatens this plan.

Norris is told that humanity has the illusion of free will. He can choose the brand of toothpaste he wants or what beverage to have with lunch, but some choices are made for him with an adjustment by the shadowy organization. It can be as something as small as spilling coffee or missing keys, or it can be something larger like a mind scan. These things affect what people do and thus affect the path they take in their lives. In this scenario, the type of toothpaste or beverage one chooses has no effect on the outcome of his or her life or the way the world will go.

Flip to “The Good Place,” a surprisingly smart sit-com that deserves a better designation. When people die, they are sent either to the good place or to the bad place based on how points they scored while alive. However, no one has gotten into the good place in 521 years because life and its choices are too complicated to sort out. A good deed can have several bad consequences, that though unintended, count against the person doing the good deed. (For example, a boy scout saves an old lady from being hit by a bus, but the old lady is a serial killer; the boy scout would get negative points, even though he had no way of knowing about her and actually believed he was doing the right thing.) In this world, selecting a toothpaste or choosing the wrong drink to have with lunch could have dire enough consequences to send someone to the bad place.

So, which is it? If we have free will, are there small choices? And if we’re constrained by some master plan? Which of our choices would affect our after-life destination and/or how the world would change as we make them? How would we know?

These questions are hard to answer. The only things we can do are treat each other with kindness and make the best decisions available to us with the information we have at the time we have to make those decisions. That still means we have to overcome our defects and work hard to improve ourselves and our decision-making abilities. With the Internet and media literacy, there’s no excuse for being uninformed. But starting with kindness, compassion and empathy towards others will make those decisions much easier.

Get “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories” for ideas on how to improve your creativity for better life and world.

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‘The Lion King’ Be Prepared for Disappointment

When Pamela Travers confronted Walt Disney about changes she wanted to see in “Mary Poppins” after the film premiered, Walt Disney said, “Pamela, that ship has sailed.” It was one of Walt’s frustration with film. Once it was done, he could change it or tinker with it to make it better. It’s part of the reason he created Disneyland; it gave him something he could change and improve. You would think that the company’s live action – or in ‘the Lion King’s” case, CGI animated – films would allow them to improve on the story.

You’d be wrong. Jon Favreau’s self-proclaimed live action “Lion King” does nothing to improve up on the original and eliminates some of the best parts of the 1994 classic. Was there nothing the filmmakers thought they could improve upon?

The elimination of Ed the hyena who communicated through laughter is one large change. It was Ed’s change from bumbling fool to evil, backstabber that was the most frightening change in the original.

The “Be Prepared” sequence lacks the emotional impact that the Jeremy Irons number had. The visuals and message in the original are staggeringly relevant and scary. It may have been the best song in the movie.

Favreau’s animals are limited to the things that animals can do. This necessitated a huge change to the visuals for the “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” number. There’s no Hula dancing meerkat, and staff-wielding Rafiki is only revealed in a lackluster moment of no import. Rafiki pulls the staff out of a hiding place in the tree and says, “My old friend.” There’s no connection to this staff in the film, so this statement doesn’t serve a purpose, except as fulfilling fan expectations. Seriously, you don’t need any fan appreciation because it’s ALL fan appreciation.

I can respect that Favreau wanted to make these animals photo-realistic; it’s something Disney tried to do with Bambi in 1940. But in doing so, Favreau eliminated a lot of what makes the 1994 version a standout film. In fact, this new version doesn’t even do justice to the stage play, which was truly something new and fresh when it debuted – and it’s still a work of art.

The last battle between Scar and Simba has less drama than an episode of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” where the lions’ strength would be on full display. Here, it comes off as “Man, this would be powerful if they were real lions in the wild; instead, it’s artificially enhanced by sound effects.”

In the past Disney released their animated films in the theater every seven years so new children could become acquainted with them. That worked for the new “Aladdin.” There were enough changes that it was clear the movie was released for the next generation. “The Lion King” just seems like it was developed because the original made a billion dollars. For those who love the originals, the 2019 version plays like “Phantom Menace” without a new plot line.

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Kindness takes a trip on “The Kindness Diaries” Season 2, Episode 1

In “The Kindness Diaries,” Leon Logothetis is traveling from Alaska to Argentina relying on the kindness of strangers to feed him and give him lodging. He’s driving a Volkswagen Beetle without a heater in the winter over the Al-Can through Canada.

We were just into the first part of the show, before he made it to Canada, when my wife asked me if people in Alaska were really that kind. I got teary-eyed remembering my time there because yes, they are.

Alaska is a harsh and lonely country. I once traveled on a highway for three hours, and no other car passed me. If you get in trouble, you need the very next person who passes by to stop and assist you. Alaskans, in general, are more than happy to do so because they know what they would want if they were in trouble.

Most of the kindnesses I received while in Alaska were from friends. My first camping trip with a couple of people I barely knew set the stage for the next six years. I received freshly caught salmon on more than one occasion. Even a couple of my rooming situations sprang up because I had a friend who needed a renter, and he was willing to rent to me (at a price I could afford even when I was a student).

I don’t know if I paid back all the kindnesses. I gave my fair share of unexpected gifts. I stopped at traffic accidents in town (because of my Red Cross training and that same friend who rented me a room on more than one occasion).

One time we stopped to see what the vehicle at the top of a hill just outside of Valdez was doing – maybe he was parked, maybe he was taking a break. The truck was broken. My friend and I didn’t know how to fix his vehicle, so we drove back toward Valdez to a phone that the guy could use. (Cell phones were out of range at the time.) When he made the call, we drove him back to the truck though we would have driven him into Valdez if he needed. He gave us fresh caught prawns. I would have refused, but again, my friend was there to accept the gift, and we turned it into one of the best meals I had in Alaska.

Alaskans aren’t friendly because of guns or out of fear. They’re friendly because they know the value of life. They know the value of kindness. They know how hard it is to survive on the frontier. As much as many of them move to get away from people, I always felt like I could count on them to help me out before I experienced any real trouble.

We need more kindness in our lives. Alaska taught me that, and this program has brought back memories.

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Disneyland Doubles Down on Star Wars

The opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was either handled correctly or greatly misfired depending on who you talk to. With limits placed on annual passholders, a complicated reservation system that required many guests to stay at the Disneyland Resort hotels, and fears of overcrowding keeping other guests away, Disneyland’s first half of June was light on crowds in the park as a whole. Wait times for HyperSpace Mountain rarely rose above an hour. Other favorites had manageable wait times from 35 to 45 minutes, and many Fantasyland attractions had walk-on wait times of 5 minutes.

For those fans interested in the theming of the world’s first “theme” park, Galaxy’s Edge signaled the return of Tomorrowland to its original concept: exploring the world of tomorrow. Instead, Disney has kept its Star Wars Tomorrowland attractions open and is using them to hype Galaxy’s Edge. Instead of offering 51 different variations, Star Tours ends in Batuu, the setting for Galaxy’s Edge. As mentioned above, Space Mountain is in its Star Wars garb. Star Wars Launch Bay features meet and greets with the Star Wars characters.

All of this would be fine if there were an indication that Disneyland would move it to Galaxy’s Edge when the Star Wars Land is completed. However, the Disney Company and its development of Epcot attractions is showing that it no longer cares about the educational parts of its parks or the exploration of the future. Instead, it will rely on its pop culture aspects to draw in the crowds for entertainment. It makes sense for the company to want to use its acquired billion-dollar IP, even if it doesn’t pay respect to the educational and innovative history of the business.

Fans of the Tomorrowland concept may have to go back to their memories, old YouTube videos and TV Specials and Yesterland to experience a version of Tomorrowland that made sense within its dated context. Unless we all start a gofundme campaign and build our own Tomorrowland project. Leave a comment about what you would like to see in Tomorrowland.

For more Disney Company analysis, get “Penguinate! The Disney Company.” For more on Disneyland’s history and how it relates to creativity principles, get “Disneyland Is Creativity.” For a tour of the Haunted Mansion, its history and how it relates to creativity principles get “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity” (also available at the Candy Cane Inn in Anaheim).

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Check out my Interview at the Sweep Spot!

Haunted Mansion Is Creativity cover

I was interviewed by Ken Pellman and Lynn Barron from The Sweep Spot for “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity!” My newest book uses the history and structure of the Haunted Mansion, just in time for its 50th anniversary, to illustrate creativity principles.

Ken and Lynn are former cast members from Disneyland. The Sweep Spot is a podcast that talks about all things Disney, including current events. The two hosts have written “Cleaning the Kingdom” and will be releasing their second book “Cleaning the Kingdom: Night, Day Past and Present” on July 17. Visit their website and check out their books, t-shirts and Patreon.

During Podcast 263, I am at about the 30-minute mark for stories about the Haunted Mansion, Journey Into Imagination and creativity. After my interview is Alastair Dallas, author of “Inventing Disneyland.” Check out the podcast and get some books!

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Endgame Spoilers: ‘Black Widow’ Doesn’t Have to Be a Prequel

There are few things more annoying than a prequel. Even if it’s a character that I care about, prequels lack the necessary tension and drama. Instead of being worried whether or not a character will be able to survive his or her trial, the outcome is already certain. There’s no reason to be worried that the character will die or face other drastic consequences. Black Widow and Scarlett Johansson deserve better than that. Unfortunately, all signs point to the Black Widow movie as being a prequel. After all, Black Widow is dead. She traded her soul for the soul stone and that trade was “an everlasting exchange.”

Why and how would a stone require a soul? In order for the information on the deal to be transferred to the Red Skull and enforced by the stone, the stone itself must have a consciousness. It must be a living entity. Unless Vormir, the stone’s home, is the living entity that guards the stone.

If the stone is a living entity, it is clearly evil. It desires a living sacrifice in order for others to access its power. That soul for a soul exchange and the disposition of the stone could be the subject of the Black Widow movie.

The stone could just require the soul to power it up. However, other versions of the soul stone have included a soul stone universe where all the souls that were sacrificed reside. Black Widow could realize she’s trapped in an alternate universe and work to find and fight her way out, possibly with the help of Gamora.

It would be an interesting story line to explore and with obstacles that Black Widow would be more than capable of overcoming. Imagine Marvel’s next villain being the Soul Stone Irregularity. Of course, the Black Widow movie doesn’t have to take place in the current MCU at all; the multi-verse and alternate timelines open up so many story telling possibilities.

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Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ Could- and Should’ve Had a Bollywood Cut

One of my friends say that he was waiting for the Bollywood version of Disney’s Live Action “Aladdin,” and it’s a brilliant idea. After all, isn’t that where movies in the cinema should be headed? By filming different versions of the film with the same actors and changing parts of the film to elicit greater responses in different cultures, movie companies could reap millions of more dollars. And the Disney Company has already set the precedent with Captain America: Winter Soldier.

Steve Rogers has a list of things he needs to learn about, and it was different depending on where the film was viewed. Of course, it didn’t remain a secret, and fans posted the lists online, which garnered more free publicity for the film. Did it lead to more views? Who knows, but it certainly showed that film companies could alter movies based on different audience expectations.

So, a Bollywood Disney’s “Aladdin” doesn’t have to be a cheap imitation. The film already showed that its actors could dance, and it had random musical numbers inserted into it. All that would’ve had to happen is for the script to be adapted to Bollywood styles, and Disney has the assets in India to do that. Sure, Disney missed out on pioneering in the movie world this time. Maybe, they’ll do better next time.

For more on the Disney company including “Frozen 2” plots that Disney probably never considered, get “Penguinate! The Disney Company.”

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The Genius of the New York Knicks Free Agency 2019

The New York Knicks are three steps ahead of everyone in the NBA, and no one has realized it. While everyone is laughing about the Knicks free agent acquisitions during the first day of free agent negotiations in the NBA, the Knicks will ultimately be the ones to have the last laugh.

The Knicks announced their free agents Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis and Julius Randle as they missed out on top tier talent like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Fans booed. The rest of the NBA made thousands of jokes at the Knicks expense. These three players play the same position: power forward, and its one that has also been filled by current Knicks player Luke Kornet. Here’s why the Knicks are at the next level.

Teams had success with “the Twin Towers” concept of playing two centers like Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon or David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Two centers led to better defense and better shooting percentages.  Teams had success with small ball like Don Nelson’s Warriors. Playing three guards provides more ball-handling and more speed.

But no team has played three power forwards on the floor at the same time. Basketball is a game of innovation. The time for the next evolution of basketball has arrived, and the New York Knicks are just a little quicker at getting there than everyone else.

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Don’t Let Lilac City Comicon 2019 End

It’s been about a month since Lilac City Comicon 2019. The end of a good comic convention is always bittersweet. A lot of memories were made and laughter was plentiful, but real life has to catch up with con-goers at some point. Fortunately, you don’t have to totally let go of Lilac City Comicon 2019. If you’ve already read all the books and comics you bought and you’ve already put up all the posters and prints, here are some tips to keeping that comicon feeling alive.

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