Tuesday, July 16, 2019

As Pretty As It Is, The New "Lion King" Leaves Little To The Imagination

Quick Q&A before we start:
Q:   Is "The Lion King" a fairy tale?
A:   No.
Q:   Then why is it on OUABlog? 
A:   Since Julie Taymor brought her culturally-aware adaptation to the Broadway stage, it's been retold using aspects of tradition, folklore and folktale.
Q:   How?
A:   The theatrical adaptation connects us to (South) African folklore, culture and storytelling, echoing traditional folktales, in a way the original film never did.
Q:   OK but isn't the subject here the new CG/live-action film, not the stage musical?
A:   Yes - and because cultural representation is a big aspect of this remake, we're doing our due diligence to make sure we don't overlook a new folktale-based connection.

So let's get into it:
When Things Get Real
The first wave of reviews are in for Disney's live-action Lion King and they are... not great. It's opening week (the film opens in regular theaters on Thursday July 18th) and the film has already made a mint, of course, but will it be the billion-dollar baby Disney is expecting? The trailer was one of THE most viewed trailers ever online, so it's clear that curiosity is high and people are very motivated to see it (aka spend their money). But the "such-good-CG-animation-it's-hard-to-tell-what's real-and-not" appears to be both its strength and its curse.

While it does look a lot like real animals (there will be generations of misinformation for National Geographic and Animal Planet to undo!) it's not quite real enough to find the sweet spot between realistic animal expressions and anthropomorphization. (Note: The Disneynature film, Born In China, is a perfect example of how careful filmmaking with live animal footage can be both emotive and unforgettable.) With just days before the general public gets to see what all the fuss is about, a lot of 'sneak peeks' have been released, trying to "hit them in the nostalgia" and entice folks toward the box office this weekend. But no matter how you frame it, the scenes look... well, lifeless. The leaked scenes look downright flat in comparison to the animated classic. What hand-drawn animation did so very well - brought a sense of humanity and impossible expressions and sentiments to wild animals, a sense that not only told an exciting story but sparked the imagination of children and adults everywhere, it would seem that this hyper-real CG approach cannot.

Disney Represents
"But that's OK", an enthusiastic group people are saying. "Look at what it has done!"

So what has it done?

Perhaps it has pushed the technical possibilities of CG animation further but not in a way audiences are really caring deeply about. (It's unlikely it will hold the same special place in young ones' hearts as Paddington 1 and 2 has managed to do.) What people are usually referring to, however, is the casting. It is a mostly black cast - African American people creating African characters - and that is wonderful to see. Even the musicians for the updated score show a much larger diversity in their number this time around. It seems most agree it's overdue and very important.

But it's not new.
Not by a long stretch - not for The Lion King.

Julie Taymor's vision for The Lion King on Broadway completely reworked the aesthetic of the animated film, and updated aspects of the story too. Instead of trying to replicate what the film did so well, it took the characters, revealed the real - and authentically cast - actors behind them and showed us who was telling the story. It was all about storytelling and the suspension of disbelief. Suddenly it didn't matter that there was a male lion in charge of the pride, because it became a human story, told through animals, just like a folktale. And boy did it resonate!

Beautifully conceived, staged, designed, acted, puppeteered and sung, and more, it was, is -over twenty years on stage and counting- live storytelling at it's best. It's outlasted all other Broadway shows and for good reasons. The experience is unlike any other - something people will often describe as "spiritual".
The first few minutes of that theatrical titan? Holy cats. Unforgettable. Giraffes, created by humans on stilts, strolling down the aisles. A rotating “gazelle wheel,” poetry in motion. An actress manipulating a wondrous rod-puppet cheetah creation, moving so that a feline licking its paw becomes a moment vividly recalled decades later. It was the stuff of dreams, and the highest sort of commercial art. 
(Michael Phillips for Chicago Tribune)
The Human Connection in The Lion King
The human heritage of ancient storytelling is echoed in the animals speaking, personalities overlaying the actors who wear animal masks almost as headpieces. As the audience watches the animals and the humans begin to blend together in their minds' eye, they become part of that storytelling.
Image result for lion king broadway
Taymor's vision and direction for the theatrical adaptation of The Lion King retold the same story as the film, yes, but she both adapted it for the medium in which it was told (the stage) and, very importantly, updated it (see below for the story and character modifications which have made a lasting a positive impact on the story) . The result was that it's a joyful celebration of life that stands on its own, not needing the original inspiration to validate it. It is its own, unique and separate experience and it's unforgettable.

Julie Taymor on the lasting legacy of The Lion King (emphasis in bold is ours):
Julie Taymor
“The characters in the animated film are so expressive and human,” she says, citing Jeremy Irons’s voicing of Scar, Simba’s villainous uncle. “I thought, ‘I’ll create this animal’s head to show the essence of who Scar is, but let his personality come through in the actor below the mask.’”

 Taymor was also keen to increase the presence and potency of female roles in The Lion King. She expanded the role of Rafiki, the shamanistic mandrill voiced by Robert Guillaume in the movie, making it a woman’s part and “the spiritual guide to the whole show.” She also buffed and toughened up the lioness Nala: “When you talk about lions, the females do all of it, including the hunt. So I threw out a lot of the soft stuff in the film and made Nala very strong. She’s got one of the best songs in the show, ‘Shadowland,’ which is about being a refugee, a subject that’s very topical right now.”
Indeed, for Taymor, a lifelong world traveler who has always integrated aspects of different cultures into her work, “The Lion King has lasted so long because it’s socially minded, and it has a sense of spirituality that connects with people all over. Everywhere I’ve been, there’s always something in the show that becomes distinctly political there.” 
At home, race is a particularly key factor. “You have to remember that 20 years ago, black people were mostly seen on television and movies as inner-city gangstas,” says Taymor. “And here we were, bringing Africa to the stage in this positive and powerful and beautiful way.” When tapped for The Lion King, Taymor says, she “told Tom and Peter I wasn’t going to cast white people in most of these roles. … This was way before Hamilton, before Obama. Lion King has given more presence to nonwhite performers than any show — as we now know, because many of them are now performing in Hamilton and in other shows.” (Source: Julie Taymor on The Lasting Legacy of The Lion King - Broadway Direct, Nov 2017)
The result is that the experience closes the distance between story and audience and makes the common humanity of the tale much more evident.  The actors bring the story, the audience brings their imagination - together it's a magic sweet spot.

Three Versions, Three Artforms? 
When the animated Lion King debuted, it wowed audiences with its stunning visuals, heart-stirring songs, and an epically presented setting. The impossibly-human expressions of the animals stirred hearts and made people care about the story. It was a new experience (at the time) to see animals in such an epic story (though animals as main characters in Disney films were common, a story on this scale with them was not), and audiences happily journeyed with them then relived the laughs and gasps on repeat when it entered their homes. It was animation as Art, telling a story in a way no other medium could. A live-action remake that does its best to replicate the original, without changing its form to accommodate a different medium (hyper-real CGI as opposed to hand-drawn) cannot hope to approach how unique the experience of the original was at the time.
On a conceptual level, (the 'live-action') “The Lion King” betrays the power of the hand-drawn artwork that once put the wonder into Disney animation from its earliest features. Favreau’s movie fails to grapple with how the unreality of the studio’s lush 2D artwork unlocked kids’ imagination and made it so much fun to suspend disbelief; the digital wizardry denies our minds the permission they need to dream. Julie Taymor’s award-winning Broadway adaptation is so transportive because it celebrates its artifice, not in spite of it. Favreau has likened the process of making this film to restoring an architectural landmark, but at the end of the day, he’s merely gentrified it. (David Ehrlich for Indiewire - emphasis in bold is ours)
The Power Of Nostalgia vs Imagination
But perhaps that's what the hype about the 'sound' is about. If you can, in fact, see the movie in a theater equipped to playback the full range of dolby+ surround-sound, then the vocal performances and songs might reach people in a new way, otherwise, they're relying on nostalgia being the driving force behind having people connect to - and like - the movie. It's certainly what the team keep talking about in their interviews - as if they know the visuals alone are not quite to par.
Nostalgia is not to be underestimated, of course, but the new film brings nothing fresh of lasting consequence to a now-tired story - one that was told better originally and also has a thrilling live experience as an option. In contrast, repeat visits to see The Lion King on stage make for a subtly-unique experience every time. With nothing new to say, creating a new and permanent place in people's hearts for the long term is less than likely. Perhaps listening to the soundtrack with an amazing sound system, with these new and powerful voices will create a much-needed new perspective on the story - which would be wonderful (we hope it does just that) - but then why have a whole new film? As Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune wrote:
"The new “Lion King” has every reason to exist in fiscal terms. It has no reason to exist as a movie we might take with us into our futures."
What Might Have Been
Tweet posted by @joamettegil
Once you hear the rumor that Julie Taymor approached Disney to direct the live-action (but turned down) one begins to wonder just what that film might have looked like. Perhaps, instead of a hyper-realistic CG film, it might have been a VR film, based on the idea behind the stage adaptation, with perhaps some blending of live-filmed performance with hyper-real CGI to echo the animalistic ancestral spirits invited to a traditional storyteller's fire.

Perhaps it might have been truly live-action with CG animation of the animals overlaid and intertwined as part of the story-telling, like @Joamettegil on Twitter suggested. (See pic on right.)

Either of these ideas has the potential to be breathtaking. Apart from avoiding the criticisms of hyper-real versus cartoon visuals, all the problems that come with trying to be 'too real' (and giving scientists and National Geographic a headache) are completely sidestepped, because it's clear it's not a lion story but a people story; one that you - the audience - can relate to. That could have been an AMAZING thing to see/experience! Thanks to a viewers' limited autonomy in VR, a slightly different experience for each viewer and viewing, would work to make the experience even more personal. In an era in which relevancy, representation, and authentic experiences that engage the imagination and connect with the viewer are very specific challenges, such an approach would have hit all those notes, and expanded story and legacy, still further.
Sure doing something unexpected would also have been a huge risk.

It may have been just what today's audience, stuck in the tug-of-war of "play-it-again-Disney-BUT-not-too-different-and-not-too-much-the-same" really need. 

Unfortunately, now we will never know.

Disney's "live-action" The Lion King comes to US theaters on July 18, 2019.



  • Let's Fact Check the Lion King by Naturalish - fun and light article, comparing some of the aspects of The Lion King to science (biology, ecology & species distribution - cool maps for the latter!) - great to share with kids, but with regard to the elephant graveyard myth, include this info from the University of Sussex: Research Shows Elephants "Remember" the Dead
  • New article published July 16, 2019, just as this article went live on OUABlog (not used for reference). This article acknowledges the stunning visuals created but also discusses how such an approach has brought a new set of unexpected problems. ‘The Lion King’ Review: Disney’s Circle of Lifelessness by Joe Morgenstern for The Wall Street Journal
Fanmade poster of the new Lion King 2019 by aliciamartin851 on deviantArt

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