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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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