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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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‘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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Disney Fox Merger Sounds Death Knell for Creatives

Book cover for Penguinate! The Disney Company

The official merger of Disney and Fox has sounded the death knell for creativity. While scooping up Fox’s assets is the right business decision for Disney, it is one that writers, movie makers, ad executives and other creatives should fear.

With Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, Fox, and its own studio, Disney will own an estimated 40% of the box office. The merger allows Disney to exercise economies of scale and negotiating power not seen this side of Wal-Mart.

Writers already face enormous competition to get their stories read. Every indie writer out there who wants to see their stories on the big screen has just had their chances reduced by one major player. Making a living as a writer is difficult enough without having Fox’s ability to seek out new storylines withdrawn from the market.

Looking at Disney’s upcoming movie slate, Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King are remakes of animated films. Dumbo will have to lose the crows. Will Smith will have to do his own genie thing because it would be ridiculous to copy Robin Williams. Other than that, these three films look to be Xerox photo copies of their animated counterparts. We’ve already seen them and we’re going to see them again.

The sequels list is longer. With Avengers: Endgame, Toy Story 4, Spider-Man: Far from Home (though not as far as you might think), Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Frozen II and Star Wars Episode IX on the slate, there is hardly any room for an original idea. While sequels can bring something new to franchise, they don’t require as much risk taking or creativity to make.

Which leaves Disney with Artemis Fowl and with DisneyNature’s Penguins as its only non-sequel, non-remake movies coming out in 2019. With 11 films left on the slate, Disney has one new story that will probably flop and a documentary to offer. Take a moment to ponder that.

Even if Disney remains true to form and let’s Fox operate the way Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm have, Fox was depending on its Avatar sequels and X-Men films to keep it in the black. Films Disney was already on board with.

Creativity will have to come from film makers with smaller budgets who, despite lacking marketing savvy and budgets for said marketing, have a film hit big. Like writers, these smaller film makers will have to find a way to cut through the noise of modern media and its giants to harness the power of going viral, and they’re going to need you to help. It’s going to be an uphill battle for creative people to get out there, but it always has been.

(Full disclosure: I own Disney Stock ad will go see all the Disney/Marvel/Pixar branded movies they make.)

For more thoughts on the Disney company, preorder “Penguinate! The Disney Company.” For more on creativity, buy “Disneyland Is Creativity.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”

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‘The Lion King’ proves emotions and cash rule Disney’s box office decisions

On a visceral level, the new “Lion King” trailer strikes all the right notes. The sunrise, the building crescendo, James Earl Jones, the beginning of the stampede scene as James Earl Jones talks about his demise, and the African Call that is the original movie’s signature. It inspires goosebumps and causes the heart to speed up. Remember! Let’s face it. People are going to see this remake, and they are going to love it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with the idea of it.

Same Old Stories

Disney has gone into their film vault, dragging their beloved animated classics into the light and exposing them to live-action remake status. Some may point to 1996’s “101 Dalmatians” with Glenn Close as the first successful live action remake. It was successful enough, and possibly sold enough toys, to inspire a sequel.  However, 2014’s “Maleficent,” with Angelina Jolie who was born for the role, started the current era of live action adaptations. It was followed by “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and Christopher Robin.” With one movie released every year. “Dumbo,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “Lady and the Tramp” are on the docket for 2019.

That’s four live action adaptations in a single year. Those aren’t new stories; they are recycled stories that required less creativity to make and provided more stability for the financial side of the ledger. People may say they want new stories; they don’t. They want properties they know they are going to enjoy, especially when they are spending $15 a ticket. If people wanted new stories, “Kubo and the Two Strings” would’ve been a box office hit. And from the looks of it, “The Lion King” is going to give the audience what it wants. The trailer shots are ripped straight from the animated film. This isn’t a remake or remodeling; it’s a straight up rerelease.

Sequels and Remakes

The Disney, Marvel, and Star Wars film factories are releasing, or distributing, 12 films next year, including “Glass,” a sequel to “Unbreakable,” and “Split.” Of those 12, only “Artemis Fowl,” the DisneyNature release “Penguins” and, possibly, the Marvel production “Captain Marvel” are not sequels or remakes. Giving “Captain Marvel” the benefit of the doubt, the same universe doesn’t necessarily make a sequel or prequel in this case, only 25 percent of Disney’s 2019 releases are new stories. That’s bad for writers and people who are creating new ideas. And let’s face it, “Penguins” is more like a public service, which I’m totally going to go see because, uh, PENGUINS! (Shameless plug: Come on, my website is “penguinate”and my wife makes stuffed penguins, which you should buy!)

Not Live Action

“The Lion King” is being lumped in with Disney’s live action remakes of animated films, but it isn’t live action. No matter how beautifully rendered, the characters are computer animated. At least in “The Jungle Book,” Mowgli was a real actor on screen. (Props to Neel Sethi who had to act against the green screen.) “The Lion King” is computer generated images that, at least as far as the trailer is concerned, will match the animated classic in every way. Fire up the computer and redo every Disney Classic that way; maybe, it will allow Disney to extend the copyright, again, of “Steamboat Willie” before it expires in 2024.

Disneyland and Mary Poppins

There’s a story that at the end of the premier of the original “Mary Poppins,” P.L. Travers had some suggestions for making the film better. Walt looked at her and said something to the effect of “Pamela, that ship has sailed.”

One of the many reasons that Disneyland exists is because Walt wanted something he could change. Once the movie was done, there wasn’t any going back and redoing it to make it better. That ship has sailed, except now, The Walt Disney Company is remaking the films. They just aren’t making them necessarily better.

Where’s the Creativity?

The original “Lion King” made just under $1 billion dollars worldwide in 1997. It was the highest grossing animated film of all time (not adjusted for inflation) and remained at the top of the list until “Toy Story 3.” The new “Lion King” might not live up to the original, even if Disney gets it right – whatever that may mean. Maybe only die-hard fans will see it a second time, but judging by the Twitterverse… God, Disney’s going to make some cash, and that’s bad for creativity. (See Pixar.) Why take a risk when you can take a known commodity, change its medium slightly, and make a boatload of money?

Want More Creativity?

If you want more creativity in the world, I urge you to find several independent authors and artists and support them. Give up one movie this year and use that money to pledge $1 a month to someone on Patreon. Go to a comic convention and find an artist in Artist Alley; buy something from them. I’d love for it to be me. Mostly, I’d love for us to get more original stories out there. We all have a story to tell, but they need to be supported financially in order to get heard.