Well this week was a very slow news week indeed, at least as far as this space is concerned. Even YouTube hasn’t done anything particularly dumb since last Saturday (well, nothing new at least); and so, with only a few hours to go until I’m supposed to upload this article I’m still struggling to decide what it should be about, let alone what the most interesting angle to come at it would be. I very nearly decided to write about the ADL declaring Pepe the Frog a racist hate symbol, but even I have limits for how grumpy I can stomach being when writing these things. While we’re here, my only comment on the matter is this: If you know what Pepe the Frog is, and if you know why he has become seen as a symbol of hate, please do something better with your time. Get a job (if you have one, then get a better one); go to the gym; ask that girl (or guy) who serves you coffee out on a date; marry them and start a family; or go and conquer distant lands in the name of the Empire.
Please, do literally anything else, apart from asking me to comment on it, because I’m honestly ready to freewheel the rest of 2016 by now. I’ve had about as much as I can take.
So, something lighter this week, to cleanse the palette? Oh hey! Jon Favreau, fresh off his directorial success remaking The Jungle Book, has just announced he’ll be giving the same treatment to The Lion King. That’s… actually fairly exciting, and the first time I’ve ever decided without needing to hear any more that I’ll be going to see one of these live-action Disney remakes. Although, does that term really apply here? Mowgli was the only character in The Jungle Book who wasn’t CGI, and I’m guessing The Lion King will push that up to 100%.
Previous attempts by Disney to re-sell ‘alternative’ versions of its classic and 90’s renaissance animated films, such as Maleficent, Cinderella and Tarzan, received mixed receptions; however The Jungle Book was widely lauded, and became the highest grossing movie of the summer in the UK, and I’d be surprised if Favreau can’t beat his own record with The Lion King. We all have our favourites of course, but Lion King is probably the movie of its era for Disney, so this is going to be huge, especially if Favreau goes for an accurate-as-possible retelling of the original, with maybe just a little bit of padding for act two. Simba doesn’t need to grow up entirely in the space of one musical montage in this one, but otherwise, as little extraneous elements as possible (Jungle Book needed them, Lion King doesn’t). Do keep the musical numbers though. Absolutely.
While there’s no concrete release date yet, The Lion King will presumably follow on from Beauty of the Beast, Disney’s next effort starring Emma Watson as Belle. Now, I can’t say at this point if it will be a good film, but I can say, considering the public image Watson has cultivated since Harry Potter concluded, that it is perhaps the most perfect casting decision in the history of cinema. So yes, while I wasn’t convinced at first that Disney’s new line of live-action remakes would live up to their pedigree, it seems right now that they’re on something of a role.
It does give me cause to wonder though… do I, along with everyone else my age, give Disney preferential treatment? Entire generations of children have been practically raised by them after all, and regardless of whether or not you think that’s fine, do we now give a corporation a free pass for cashing in on our nostalgia, where we malign the rest of Hollywood, with its remakes; reboots; endless sequels and genre homogenisation, for lacking imagination? It’s no mystery why big studios want to remake every dormant licence they can get their hands on. We keep going to see them and making them profitable, and yet almost every time we do we complain. We complain that The Magnificent Seven is derivative and clichéd, with no aspiration beyond going through the same motions as its predecessor with today’s stars and production effects. However, when a remake dares to actually try and reinvent its source material, like Ghostbusters did, then it’s a betrayal of everything we loved about the franchise. Why the dissonance, one way or the other? What makes Disney so special?
Now, I’m not one to object to capitalists taking my money so long as I’m enjoying myself while they do it. That’s how fair exchange works after all. So long as Disney can hold my attention for an hour and a half or more, then they’ve earned the price of my ticket; and as soulless and corporate as the monolithic Disney conglomerate is at heart, they haven’t managed to build and maintain their quintessentially magical image in spite of that fact without really knowing what they’re doing. As much as any production company that has ever existed in Hollywood, the Disney brand is and remains synonymous with quality, which is all they really owe any of us. That reputation may be in part built on buying out the achievements of others, such as Disney have done when they brought Pixar, Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm into the fold, however where other parent companies might have chewed up and spit out all of these names, under Disney’s wing they’ve continued to make good work.
Is that the end of the discussion then? Well, not yet, because I don’t think the odd remake is enough to mar Disney’s reputation for creativity, as well as quality. After all, it’s not like Disney has stopped making films for the current generation of kids, in favour of catering entirely to my generation’s nostalgia and disposable income. In fact, I’d go as far as to say the last five years or so have heralded a new Disney renaissance. Frozen revived and expertly subverted the princess genre; Wreck-It Ralph did the same for the Herculean Disney ‘hero’ all while being the closest thing we computer game nerds have ever had to a good game-movie adaptation; Big Hero 6 tackles grief, depression and acceptance, as well as showing children a vision of diversity and science as positive forces for a better world. Finally, Zootopia (it’s called Zootropolis here but for once I prefer the US naming conventions) turns talking animals into metaphors for racial profiling and affirmative action and never once lacks the confidence to pull it off. These films are creative, funny, bombastic, visually striking and important, both for children and adults, without ever forgetting that their target audience is very much the former. Yes, in many ways Disney is the last word in faceless, overbearing corporate entities, but in my opinion there really is no getting around the fact that they became the biggest by being the best, and they still are.
Even within the remakes, there are signs that Disney isn’t content to just leech of its past successes. Maleficent, for example, retells the story of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of its once one-dimensional villain, and can even be said to have been an allegory for rape survival. Whether or not this was a move that sat well with all audiences is beside the point and the reason why rage at remakes often confuses me. Yes, it can be frustrating at times to see Hollywood apparently so strapped of original ideas, but as I’ve said before that’s our fault as audiences for putting so much stock in brand recognition. If they didn’t make money, they wouldn’t get made. Regardless, if a remake is good, it’s good, and if it isn’t good, then so what? A remake never erases its source material from existence. The original will always still be out there for you to enjoy, so what does it matter if someone else’s attempt doesn’t measure up?
I could be wrong about all of this, but in any case, if there were ever a film studio in history that had earned the right to rest on its laurels, it would be Disney.