The Lion King, Star Wars, and Adaptation Fatigue

 

This teaser looks great right? I mean, it’s one of the most viewed movie trailers of all-time, and the film it promotes, this summer’s “live action” remake of The Lion King (1994) is going to make over a billion dollars.  Who wouldn’t be excited for it?

Me, for one.  It looks like a shot for shot remake of a perfectly good, existing film.  Check that, it looks like a shot for shot remake of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, animated films of all-time.  Disney says it isn’t, but they’re awfully cagey about it.

It’s one thing to re-imagine Dumbo (1941) or The Jungle Book (1967)  to better appeal to modern sensibilities.  I’m not 100% on board with that either, but at least there’s some redeeming artistic value in updating those stories.  Other than “Mickey needs money” (he doesn’t, by the way), I’m at a loss for the purpose of re-making a great movie just because there is new technology to play around with.

Yes, yes, perhaps I’m jumping to conclusions, and I shouldn’t be criticizing a movie that I haven’t seen.  Perhaps Jon Favreau has found a valuable new perspective on a classic film, and this summer’s remake will win multiple Oscars and be hailed as the second coming of Citizen Kane (1940).  I wouldn’t hold my breath, but it’s certainly possible.

That said, the problem I’m pointing out isn’t a new one – it’s a feature of all adaptations.  I mean, the Lion King is an adaptation of Hamlet, which itself is mash-up of Scandinavian and Roman legendary histories and perhaps even a lost play known to scholars as “Ur-Hamlet.”  Successful adaptations tell a stories from new perspectives, comment on previous versions, or re-imagine the stories to appeal to modern audiences.

That’s the difference between Maleficent (2014) and Beauty and the Beast (2017).  While Maleficent is not a great film, it at least tells the story of Sleeping Beauty (1959) from a new perspective.  Beauty and the Beast made a ton of money, but at the end of the day it’s little more than an inferior remake of the 1991 animated version.

While less true than it used to be, motion pictures are expensive to make.  Movies, to some extent, remain our most commercial art-form.  There are no university presses, community theater labs, or hobbyists – film studios have to make money in order to create more films.  One can’t blame Disney, therefore, for mining its existing catalogue for old material that can be repackaged using new technology in an ultimately lucrative endeavor.  Disney doesn’t exist to maintain the artistic integrity of the motion picture, it exists to make profit.  Beauty and the Beast (2017) made $1.2 billion, after all.

I’m picking on Disney, but re-boots, remakes, prequels, are way too abundant in modern Hollywood.  The commercial proposition is an easy one to understand – it’s lower risk to take an existing property and do something slightly different with it than it is to make something new popular.  At the same time, pumping out the same material over and over again has to have diminishing returns at some point for the audience.

Maybe this could be a “problem” that solves itself.  Take Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), for example.  Ron Howard may have performed a minor miracle turning a dumpster fire of a production into a fine movie, but a fine movie it remains.  Other than the Clone Wars animated movie and the Ewok movies, it’s also the lowest grossing Star Wars film by a wide margin.  After decades of Extended Universe stories and the Sequel Trilogy, there just wasn’t an appetite for yet another tale about Han Solo, even a competently crafted one.

On the other hand, the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy also serves as the best example of why creating something new from an existing story is playing with fire.  The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017) both made a ton of money and were lauded by critics and fans alike – well, most fans.  There was an extremely vocal group that absolutely hated one film, the other, or both for very different reasons.  The merits of Episodes 7 and 8 (of which there are many, by the way) aside, the Sequel Trilogy’s biggest flaw so far is that it is trying to continue the story from Return of the Jedi (1983) AND tell and entirely new story at the same time, which leaves both stories somewhat watered down.

I’m going all over the place in this article, but my central point remains that certain stories can’t really bear the weight of being adapted in a repetitive or overstretched manner.  What is there to do?  I would recommend telling new stories within the framework of the old stories, rather than overstretching existing plots and characters.  The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy partially succeeds at this so far, but Episode 9 has some heavy lifting to do in order to really stick the landing.

For the Lion King (2019)?  The success of the animated children’s series “The Lion Guard,” shows that there is interest in using the framework of the Lion King to tell new stories, so there are promising directions for Disney to go.  After all, Disney can only do a “live action” shot for shot remake once, right?

(c) 2019 D.G. McCabe

 

Live Action Remakes of Animated Classics – A Discussion

Recently there has been a push by Disney and others to remake classic animated films as live action films.  With the upcoming live action versions of Ghost in the Shell and Beauty and the Beast, now is the perfect time to discuss if this is a good or completely unnecessary thing.  I would posit that it can be good, but is often unnecessary.  Let’s examine a few examples in alphabetical order:

Animal Farm (Animated 1954; Live Action 1999)

The British, animated version of Animal Farm still haunts my nightmares.  The live action, made for TV version does not.   That isn’t to say that the animated version didn’t deserve a live action update, it kind of does, but the version that they came up with just doesn’t work for me.

Verdict: Not a bad idea.

Beauty and the Beast (Animated 1991; Live Action 2017)

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a front-runner for greatest animated film of all time.  It is responsible for the Disney Renaissance of the 1990’s, features great music, and stunning examples of the lost art of hand-drawn animation.

That isn’t to say a live action version is a bad idea.  This spring’s release is highly anticipated, solidly cast, and looks good on the trailers.  I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve actually seen it.

Verdict: Still an open question.

Charlotte’s Web (Animated 1973; Live Action 2006)

Charlotte’s Web is an undisputed classic of children’s literature.  With source material this good, movies were inevitable.  The first attempt was a 1973 Hanna/Barbera production notable for the fact that it is one of the few Hanna/Barbera projects based on a preexisting property.

The animated version remains a classic due to Debbie Reynolds’ voice-over work as Charlotte and a few catchy songs (some better than others).  It’s not a perfect film, but it certainly captures the joy and sadness of E.B. White’s iconic novel.

Meanwhile, the 2006 version has way too many celebrity voices and is kind of creepy.  It’s not a horrible film, just a waste of time given that the original, animated version still exists.

Verdict: Unnecessary.

Cinderella (Animated, 1950; Live Action 2015)

The original Cinderella is a classic of the Disney catalogue, so much so that its reputation at this point is beyond criticism.  Even so, the story of Cinderella isn’t so unique that it can’t do without an update or two.  Arguably, remaking Beauty and the Beast has a higher degree of difficulty because it came out more recently and has a more unique take on a classic tale.

The live action version is pretty good.  It’s not quite as good as the animated version but a solid film that stands on its own merits.

Verdict: There was no reason not to do this, and no reason to do this.

Ghost in the Shell (Animated 1995; Live Action 2017)

I’m tempted to reserve judgment on this one, but I’m not going to do that.  First of all, remaking Ghost in the Shell with an American actress in the lead role is obnoxious.  That should be enough to consider this a problem, but there’s actually another good reason why one shouldn’t remake this particular property.

While Ghost in the Shell is a landmark of anime, the original film suffers from some of the problems of anime – it’s somewhat opaque and has a lot of nudity and violence for the sake of there being nudity and violence.  However, whatever value a live action remake could have has been supplanted by an excellent television series. The Stand Alone Complex television series does a much better job with the characters already without as many anime-related problems.

Verdict: Pointless Hollywood cash-grab.

Lord of the Rings (Animated 1978, 1980; Live Action 2001, 2002, 2003)

Let’s see.  Mediocre animated adaptation versus one of the best films every made.  Hmmmm.

Verdict: An absolutely necessary and brilliant idea.

There’s a few other examples, like 101 Dalmatians, but I’ll stop there.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe