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

 

2015 Year in Review

Well we’re down to the last few hours of 2015.  It’s been an interesting year in Hollywood. Some movies and TV shows were good, some were the second season of True Detective.  Anyway, let’s get moving with our annual tradition:

2015 Was a Good Year to Be:

1) Amy Schumer

Amy Schumer had a good year.  A really good year.  Her Comedy Central series has been popular for a couple of years, but this year she became a movie star and got an HBO special.  It certainly hasn’t been perfect, but no one on this list had a perfect year.

2) Netflix

Sure Amazon and Hulu have arguably better content.  Sure there have been a few flops among its original programming.  But when Netflix hits on an original show, it changes the conversation on how we consume media.  And 2015 was its best year so far, with strong debuts (Master of None, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Daredevil, Jessica Jones) sitting alongside proven properties (Orange is the New Black, House of Cards).

3) Disney

The Empire of the Mouse is once again on our list.  Three of the top five movies of the year (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Inside Out, and Avengers: Age of Ultron) were made by Disney.  Ant-Man and Cinderella outperformed expectations.  Daredevil and Jessica Jones were well received on Netflix.  Although the ratings on ABC aren’t what they used to be, it still has strong performers in Scandal, Modern Family, and How to Get Away with Murder.  The only negative for Team Mickey?  Tomorrowland was an embarrassing flop.

2015 Was a Bad Year to Be:

1) Adam Sandler

With the box office flop of Pixels and the failure of his Netflix series to do anything except anger people, can Mr. Sandler finally retire to enjoy his giant pile of money and stop bothering us?

2) Josh Trank

He directed the worst comic book adaptation in years (Fantastic Four) and got fired from directing a Star Wars movie before a script was even done.  Full stop.

3) The DC Cinematic Universe

Has anyone seen the Batman v. Superman trailers and said, “Wow, that doesn’t look like hot dumpster fire at all!”?  It’s good that the DC Television Universe is already well received, so maybe Warner Brothers can blow everything up in one of their infamous “Crisis” events and start over.

Best Movies

1) Best Blockbuster – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

2) Best Artistic Movie – Brooklyn

3) Best Animated Movie – Inside Out

Dispatches from the Great Ale House in the Sky

The King is playing for us tonight, as in B.B. King.  His blues guitar sets the mood for our patrons this evening, and what a crowd it is.  In the front row is James Horner, getting ideas for his next great score.  Near the back, Maureen O’Hara and Omar Sharif look around and see a dozen of the other Golden Age leading actors.  Both think on the fact that there aren’t many more coming to join them.

Meanwhile, at the bar Christopher Lee and Wes Craven are comparing notes on how to terrify people.  They consider coming back as actual ghosts to haunt a house or two, but decide against it.  The King’s blues are just too smooth to leave.

At a window booth, Fred Thompson is having a good chat with Ronald Reagan on the pros and cons of leaving Hollywood to become a politician.  In the end, the conversation is a bit silly since there are no politics in the Great Ale House in the Sky.

Conspicuously absent tonight is Leonard Nimoy.  He’s busy exploring the galaxy with chief medical officer DeForest Kelley and chief engineer James Doohan.

Live long and prosper everyone.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

 

Reflections on Fantasia (1940) and Fantasia 2000 (1999)

Fantasia and Fantasia 2000

Fantasia – Produced by Walt Disney, U.S. 1940

Fantasia 2000 – Produced by Roy E. Disney, U.S., 1999

The power of instrumental music comes from its ability to stir the imagination.  What I see in my mind’s eye when listening to Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky or Bach is different from what you see in yours.  Film hasn’t always taken advantage of this – after all, the music is usually set to the images, not the other way around.

Enter Fantasia.  Like its creator, Walt Disney, it was extraordinarily ambitious – setting animation to towering masterworks of instrumental music. The film itself is a masterpiece – highly influential and almost unique in the history of motion pictures.

Disney’s original concept for Fantasia was a traveling expedition that would be revisited every so often.  The poor cinematic showing of Fantasia’s first release, World War II, and Disney’s other projects (see Land, Disney) shelved revisiting the Fantasia concept.  While the original Fantasia became more popular with every re-release, re-edit, and re-issue, it would be sixty years before the studio got around to making another one.

The original Fantasia doesn’t really have any misfires.  Night on Bald Mountain is terrifying and a personal favorite.  The Dance of the Hours and Pastoral Symphony are great fun and beautiful examples of the capabilities of 1930’s animation (although early versions of the latter had some problems, since edited out).  The Nutcracker Suite and Rite of Spring are complete re-imaginations of these pieces that have little to do with the accompanying ballets.

Fantasia 2000 is inferior to the original, but not by much.    The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Mickey Mouse’s tour de force – appears in both versions, but otherwise the selections are different.  The Beethoven’s 5th segment is well animated, but doesn’t measure up to its score.  The Steadfast Tin Soldier is a bit strange as well.  None of the other segments are problematic.  Pines of Rome and the Firebird Suite are majestic celebrations of the natural world.  Pomp and Circumstance provides Donald Duck with his Fantasia moment as Noah’s first mate.  The Carnival of the Animals is almost as much fun as the dancing hippos.  Finally, Rhapsody in Blue is showcased as a love letter to New York City which could have come straight the imagination of Gershwin himself.

I hope Disney considers revisiting the Fantasia project in the coming years.  After all, there is a lot of ground to cover in the world of instrumental music.  It should be pointed out that while both Fantasias are “in the vault,” a live version is being played this summer by symphonies around the country.  I recently saw the National Symphony Orchestra’s rendition at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts outside of Washington, DC and it was well worth the price of admission to say the least.  I would highly recommend checking out a performance is one is available to you.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Frozen (2013)

Frozen

Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, 2013, U.S.

The other of day’s two back-reviews is Frozen (2013).  Let’s consider this my first Oscar preview article, since Frozen is the lead candidate for Best Animated Film.  In fact, in my opinion it could have been nominated for Best Picture in general, joining Beauty and Beast (1991), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010) as the only animated films nominated for Best Picture.

How good is Frozen?  It’s certainly up there with Disney’s best animated films, and is an unexpected callback to what is now called “The Disney Renaissance.”  The Disney Renaissance generally refers to Disney’s winning streak between The Little Mermaid (1989) and Tarzan (1999), or more specifically before the main Disney animation studio handed the baton to Pixar as the main focus of Disney’s animation efforts.

Frozen’s success comes from its ability to challenge well established Disney conventions, but flawlessly execute some of those conventions when it needs to.  Like many classic Disney fare, it is loosely based on a classic story, in this case Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” The dark, heavily religious story is completely transformed.  What sets this apart other Disney films that “Disneyfy” dark fairy tales is that the changes don’t feel forced.

This is mainly due to the film’s focus on the relationship between Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) and Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) as sisters rather than it being a romantic love story in the conventional sense.  There is a romantic subplot, but it stays as a subplot instead of overtaking the entire film.  The focus of the film, and its ending, change what could have been a standard, someday-my-prince-will-come, Disney-phoning-it-in, story into something that deeply connects with its target audience.

As noted above, Frozen’s other strength is that it doesn’t throw the mouse out with the bathwater.  Like the classic or renaissance Disney films, the music is fantastic.  There is also the obligatory fantasy creature for comic relief, and what could easily have been a cheesy or juvenile element hits on all cylinders.  Olaf, the talking snowman (Josh Gad), is one of the funniest characters in this or any film.

Frozen is the unlikeliest of films, in that it takes a well worn shoe and makes it new again.  Or in this case, two large, yellow well worn shoes.

You might like Frozen if: You ever liked any classic or renaissance Disney film, you have kids, you like animation, or you like comedies.

You might not like Frozen if: The only films you want to see about Scandinavia are bleak and existential.  In this case I would recommend “Let the Right One In” (2004), where the real vampire is the vampire within.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe