“The Lion King” was released June 15, 1994, during an era that later became known as the Disney Renaissance. On its release, the film grossed more than $968 million worldwide, making the debut a massive box office success and the most successful film of the year. In fact, until the release of “Finding Nemo” usurped it in 2003, “The Lion King” remained the highest-grossing animated film in the world.
Still, “The Lion King” is still the highest-grossing traditionally animated film, and as such, many awards and accolades have fallen at its feet, including two Academy Awards, three Golden Globes, several other honors and the prestige of inspiring a stage musical—which also garnered fame of its own. “The Lion King” was even selected as one of the twenty-five movies invited to join the National Film Registry, a collection of films chosen because of their cultural, historic or aesthetic importance. So, what made the film so successful?
Many have noted that “The Lion King” explores philosophical themes that resemble those presented in “Hamlet,” though Disney did manage to keep the mood substantially lighter, turning what was at times a dark tragedy into a musical adventure of forgiveness, love and self-acceptance. The voices of James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Whoopi Goldberg and many others also played a large role in giving the film a sense of soul that other movies have tried to imitate ever since. In addition to the acting and imagery, the musical mastery within the film, led by Sir Elton John, lyricist Tim Rice and composer Hans Zimmer, resulted in a soundtrack that touched the hearts of all who listened.
The story of Simba’s growth from a lion cub into the king of Pride Rock is an endearing tale that many people can relate to, as the young cub struggled with grief and rediscovering who he was, but the dramatic telling of his story was punctuated by great musical numbers that helped keep the number light enough for young audiences. “The Lion King” had children of the ’90s sing-screaming at the top of their lungs about how they just can’t wait to be king, why to be prepared, if they could feel the love tonight and even dressing in drag and doing the hula.
So, how can a live-action remake even begin to compare?
The key to success for the upcoming film, which is slated for release in 2019, is to avoid comparing itself to the original in every aspect, but keep to specific, integral elements of the story. The things that endeared audiences in the ’90s may not endear audiences today. Previous Disney live-action remakes, such as “Alice in Wonderland,” “Maleficent,” “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” took elements from the classics and rearranged them to fit the audience of today. Disney needs to follow the same formula when creating “The Lion King” remake, while still throwing in some surprise twists to fabricate nostalgia.
There are also certain voices associated with certain characters, and Director Jon Favreau obviously considered how outstanding one voice in particular was in association with “The Lion King.” Disney made an excellent choice when recruiting actor James Earl Jones to reprise his speaking role of Mufasa, as already people can hear Jones’ down-in-the-basement tone telling them about the Circle of Life and everything the light touches.
However, James Earl Jones might not be the cause of excitement for newer, younger audience members. Donald Glover, best known as rapper Childish Gambino, plans to tackle the role of Simba. Favreau went as far as to tweet a picture of the actor with the quote, “I just can’t wait to be king. #Simba.” While audiences may be buzzing about the choices, Jones and Glover are not the only stars taking on the remake challenge. Actor, comedian and host of “Billy on the Street,” Billy Eichner will be trying his hand at the role Timon the meerkat, originally voiced by Nathan Lane, which means Eichner has some big shoes to fill. Actor and comedian Seth Rogen has also decided to join the fray and will be voicing Pumbaa. As for Nala, Favreau’s top choice for the character was Beyoncé, but since she recently gave birth to twins, rumor has it that singer-actress Zendaya might be getting the nod.
With the acting cast largely sorted out, many of the largest remaining questions concern the music production. Sir Elton John breathed life into the Circle of Life, but the tunes might have to adjust to feel at home in a live-action movie. While the “Beauty and the Beast” remake pretty much eschewed music entirely, the newest “Jungle Book” included some of its iconic scores, such as when Bill Murray sang “The Bare Necessities” and Christopher Walken crooned “I Wan’na Be Like You,” but in a live-action remake of “The Lion King,” the focus needs to shift. For the music to feel tone-appropriate, they need to cut down on the whimsy. Today’s audience craves the darker elements of a story, so “The Lion King” needs to cater to more melodramatic tastes if the film is going to be successful. As a result, I think they should go with the “Circle of Life,” Scar’s musical number, “Be Prepared,” and the love classic, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”; even then, Disney needs to make sure to arrange them so the songs do not clash with the film.
In an era of remakes, reboots and sequels, the question of whether or not to stay true to the original is paramount. Old classics are being reimagined constantly, and sometimes their success relies solely on how well the new film pays homage to its progenitor. For “The Lion King” to be successful, Disney might want to go even further away from the original than they have for previous remakes. “Hakuna matata” might take on a whole new meaning by the time the project is done.