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

 

2016 Oscars – Day After Reactions

Here are my thoughts on last night’s show:

Hosting

Chris Rock did a fine job the last time he hosted the Oscars, but this time he turned in one of the better performances in recent memory.  After several straight years of disappointing hosts, it was great to see someone really nail it with the studio audience and the next-day critics alike.

Award Upsets

Spotlight winning over The Revenant was an upset, but the good kind of upset.  I can’t think of any way in which Spotlight shouldn’t be considered the better film.  I didn’t think it would happen, but I’m glad that it did.

Congrats to Mark Rylance for winning Best Supporting Actor over sentimental favorite Sly Stallone, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hardy, and Christian Bale.  Rylance is by far the least well known of this quintet, and he didn’t have much buzz coming in.  However, he was fantastic in Bridge of Spies, so this award is well-placed.

The other big upset of the night was in the Visual Effects category.  I didn’t think Star Wars was going to win (although I certainly hoped after it won the Visual Effects Society Award), but I was shocked that Mad Max didn’t take home this award, especially after it was winning every production award in sight.  I guess I’ll have to check out Ex Machina now.

Award Non-Upsets

Otherwise, the awards themselves went as predicted for the most part.  Mad Max swept most of the production awards, Inside Out won best animated feature, Alejandro González Iñárritu won Best Director, Brie Larson won Best Actress, and Leo won Best Actor for the fourth or fifth best performance of his career so far.  Even the writing awards tracked the Writers Guild Awards.

The Future

Here’s what I’m worried about.  I’m worried that Denzel Washington, Will Smith, or Jamie Fox will be in something next year, get nominated, and the Academy will think everything is hunky-dory.  We need to continue the conversation about the representation of our increasingly diverse society in popular entertainment.  One or two nominations next year won’t fix this issue.

Aside from being the right thing to do, when people from different backgrounds and experiences make art, there are a wider variety of stories being told.  This is the only way to move the ball forward creatively.  Otherwise we’re going to be stuck in a kind of repeating time loop of comic book movies and historical “prestige” movies about Europeans forever.

There are only so many superheroes and interesting historical Europeans after all.  Which would you rather see?  The 100th adaptation of the story a British person who helped win World War II,  Superman 17: This Time It’ll be Good Again We Promise, or a film adaptation of a certain Lin-Manuel Miranda musical (written by Miranda himself preferably)?  I, for one, want to learn more about Alexander Hamilton.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spolier-Free Review)

Directed by J.J. Abrams, U.S., 2015

First let’s start out: The Force Awakens is good.  What follows is a  completely spoiler-free review.  Fortunately, in a previous post I already laid the groundwork for such a discussion.  However, if you wish to make a completely independent assessment of The Force Awakens, as I did, you should stop now.

Continue reading Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spolier-Free Review)