I have just seen the new version of Disney’s “The Lion King,” a film that needs no spoiler warning, because apart from how it has been made this time, it is simply the first film done again. The visuals are breath-taking, and every part of the production is of high standard, from the voice acting to the music. Following “Rocketman,” I have another reminder of how brilliant Elton John is as a composer, and I can draw a line from “Border Song” to “Hakuna Matata.” However, the entire opening sequence of the original film, and the iconic title drop, is copied in this version, and I realised this as soon as I saw the meerkats.
This film invited comparisons with Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho,” whereby its of the original film only served to bring attention to how it was constructed, especially whenever it tried anything different. I am not sure that kind of lesson needed to cost $60 million.
I should also say that the screening I attended of “The Lion King” I attended was at 9.15 am on a Saturday, alongside parents that took their toddler-age children with them, but because the film uses its “PG” rating very effectively, especially towards the end, a number of them left before the end, nostalgic parents realising, through the cries of their children, this was not their version after all.
There are now two versions of “The Lion King,” but that is not why I have decided to write about it. The new version uses photorealistic 3D computer animation, instead of hand-painted animation 2D animation, which is why Disney are marketing it as “live-action,” but that is not why I went to see it. The new version has exactly the same plot as the original, with the same scenes in the same order, but that is why I can’t say if it is better or worse than the original – it is just “The Lion King.”
What made me think, yes, I will have to write about “The Lion King” was nothing to do with my background as a film scholar of some repute. Instead, it was my looking up its Original Negative Cost, or how much it cost to physically make it, minus all the marketing and distribution costs. I knew it would have been an astronomical amount, as the film is essentially one long CGI special effect – the electricity bill for the computer servers would be high enough. The amount I have seen quoted is two hundred and sixty million dollars, or just over a quarter of a billion dollars.
I have never thought of using the word “billion” when describing how much a film cost to make. The only reason I didn’t do this with “Avengers: Endgame,” which cost just over a third of a billion dollars, or $356 million, is because I had no interest in watching it, and so never looked up that figure. Disney, obviously, has no problem spending these amounts, as people have flocked to both, with “Avengers: Endgame” now the highest grossing film at the worldwide box office.
My next thought was spending such an astronomical amount on any film, let alone a remake of “The Lion King,” felt like some perspective had been lost – you’re making a movie, not developing a new car. However, the most famous lion in cinema as “Ars Gratia Artis” written around it – “art for art’s sake,” regardless of the cost. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was always once the most dominant, and most opulent film producers in the Classical Hollywood era, producing “Ben-Hur,” “The Wizard of Oz,” a string of musicals, and “Tom & Jerry”, but it all costs money. Hollywood became the filmmaking centre of the United States over a hundred years ago because companies were escaping license fees on cameras and film set by a group protecting Thomas Edison’s patents, but that saving was soon wiped out by all the advances made since then: animation, special effects, sound, colour, widescreen, computers, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
It shouldn’t have to cost a quarter of a billion dollars to tell a story – a compelling one can be heard for free, so long as you keep an ear out for one, but Hollywood films have high costs associated with bankability: blockbuster franchises, based on established properties, starring big name actors. Disney could spend less: the company itself, made of stories, is the franchise, and its characters are the actors.
As I watched “The Lion King,” knowing that this photorealistic concoction was being described as “live-action,” I thought to myself, give it a further five years, and a reduction in the cost of computing in that time, and Disney won’t need actors anymore. The worlds in which all their film take place will be created exactly as required, meaning no more sets, but no more location shooting either. Star quality will no longer be a thing, as the actors can look as beautiful, ugly, tall, short, thin or fat as they require. The voices can be created in software, eliminating both voice actors and re-takes. Alfred Hitchcock once said he wanted to be able to feed a script into a computer, and have a finished film come out, and it was precisely down to the compromises that he had to make as a filmmaker – that compromise is gone.
However, for this version of “The Lion King,” there has been “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” based on a section of “Fantasia,” and for “Beauty and the Beast,” there has been “Pete’s Dragon.” A key function of blockbuster films is that they are made to be bankable and dependable in order to recoup the losses made by riskier endeavours – for Disney, these have turned out to be films like “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Tomorrowland” and “The Finest Hours,” where they have attempted to tell a different story through film than those they have already done. The Marvel films sell themselves, because the stories have been stacked onto each other, in the same manner as the comics, to get the full story. “Pirates of the Caribbean” has remained Disney’s biggest gamble in recent years, as pirate films had not been attempted in Hollywood for years. They could try something as original again, but what if it doesn’t have the desired effect this time? As the great Hollywood scriptwriter William Goldman said, “in Hollywood, nobody knows anything.”
Gus Van Sant remade “Psycho” because he had never seen anyone do a shot-for-shot remake of a film as an experiment. Disney have, more or less, done the same with “The Lion King” because they knew it would work.