Are Disney remakes part of the circle of life?

As Disney releases its reimagining of ‘The Lion King’, James Mottram ponders how long can the studio continue to rehash the same old stories

'The Lion King' remake was a shot-by-shot photorealistic reconstruction of Disney's 1994 animation. Disney
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The Renaissance has returned. No, not that moment in European history characterised by a flourishing of art, literature and learning. The other one, when the Walt Disney Animation Studios rediscovered their mojo after years in the doldrums, producing misfire cartoons such as The Black Cauldron (1985) and The Great Mouse Detective (1986). Then came 1989's The Little Mermaid and the beginning of a 10-year glory run that included such instant classics as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.

Aladdin. Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures
Disney's 'Aladdin' (1992). Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

A return to the acclaim enjoyed by the company in its heyday, this Disney Renaissance was a golden period, the last hurrah for hand-drawn animation before the advent of powerful computers changed the discipline for ever.

Box office returns were sizeable, while nine of the 10 films produced by Disney during this era were nominated for Oscars; in the case of Beauty and the Beast, it was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture, when it was shortlisted for the 1992 award.

Now it seems the executives at Disney are determined to see this enaissance revived, plundering its animations for live-action remakes. Today marks the release of Jon Favreau's CG-rendered Photorealistic take on 1994's The Lion King (see our review on page 25), featuring a suitably glamorous A-list voice cast, including Donald Glover as Simba, the young lion who flees after his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), is murdered by Simba's scheming uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The cast also includes Beyonce as Nala and Seth Rogen voicing Pumbaa.


It's hardly a new ploy. Ever since Tim Burton took on Alice in Wonderland in 2010, casting Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, Disney has been reworking its back catalogue into live-action. Burton's zany effort, a spin on the 1951 animation that came from Lewis Carroll's fantasy tale, took more than $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) at the box office. udiences were more than willing to return to classic stories, if the right actors and director were involved.

The task was made easier with increasingly impressive visual effects; when Favreau made The Jungle Book in 2016, he won over critics with his take on Rudyard Kipling's story of the "man cub" Mowgli and his animal friends. Without doubt, characters such as Bagheera the panther and Shere Khan the tiger were among the most remarkably lifelike CG creatures created for film. Audiences didn't even seem to mind that the humour and songs that made the 1967 Disney cartoon so beloved were absent.


But the original animations were made decades ago. The enaissance period is still fresh in most people's minds, though that hasn't stopped Disney.

In May, we had Guy Ritchie's live-action Aladdin, featuring Will Smith as the Genie so memorably voiced by Robin Williams in the 1992 cartoon. While it's ironic that a song from the original film, A Whole New World, is given an airing when the live-action version feels anything but, it's been a huge hit, with its box-­office takings not far behind the staggering $1.3bn made by Bill Condon's 2017 reworking of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson.


Still, the lure of money has left a bitter taste in the mouths of some critics. Film industry paper Variety said "it took Walt Disney Studios the better part of a century to build a library filled with what the world thinks of as animated classics, and less than a decade to pillage that catalogue in service of all these entertaining but clearly unnecessary live-action remakes, movies that, from the looks of things, will not stand the test of time, but have proven awfully profitable in the short term". 

Favreau played it ultra-safe with The Lion King, from bringing back the booming Jones to voice Musafa (as he did in the cartoon) to approaching the story virtually shot for shot. Favreau is all too aware of the sacred ground he's stampeding on. "Like anything else, I think people have expectations based on what their childhood was," he told entertainment website Digital Spy. "I certainly felt it when we did The Jungle Book, there are people who remember the old way that it was done."

Stray too far from the original, as Burton did with this year's live-action remake of Dumbo when he invented a needlessly complex story involving Michael Keaton's circus entrepreneur, and it'll leave fans craving the simple beauty of the original. But copy the cartoon too closely and you risk sucking the life out of it. "How do you take the charm out of Hakuna Matata?" wrote one disappointed Twitter user after clips of Favreau's The Lion King surfaced, with expressionless animals singing one of the film's seminal songs.


Nevertheless, the latest Disney Renaissance is set to continue. Next down the conveyor belt is a live-action reworking of Mulan, the story of a Chinese woman who disguises herself as a male warrior to save her father.

Abandoning the musical element of the film, director Niki Caro, who cast Chinese actor Liu Yifei in the lead, appears to be broaching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon territory, calling the film "a girly martial arts epic".

The Little Mermaid is also on the slate, with Rob Marshall directing and Halle Bailey playing Ariel. Largely, the reaction to casting an actress of colour as a character ­previously depicted as white has been positive. 

The concern is less about the quality of these remakes but the speed of their arrival. Even earlier Disney films are being raked through relentlessly. Later this year, 1955's canine classic The Lady and the Tramp is getting the live-action makeover, while Angelina Jolie reprises her role as the evil witch in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (though, to be fair, 2014's Maleficent was one of the more original spins on a cartoon, looking at 1959's Sleeping Beauty through the eyes of the antagonist).

Then again, no idea stays original for long. Along the same lines, next year's Cruella, starring Emma Stone, will focus on the villain from 101 Dalmatians. No wonder the feeling is that The Lion King needs to roar at the box office to justify these continual remakes. But the real question remains: what happens when Disney has entirely exhausted its back catalogue? Don't be surprised if, in a generation's time, the Renaissance happens all over again.

The Lion King comes out in theatres across the UAE from July 18