5 steps to make the Lion King remake work

Say what you will about Disney, their resilience is a force to admire. Is there any other studio that’s been so consistent in its ability to bounce back from creative slumps and adapt to global sociocultural changes all while preserving a unique identity and style? If I were an evolutionary biologist writing a survival guide for whichever next generation of sentient beings takes over our planet, I’d be sure to dedicate an entire chapter citing the House of Mouse as an example.

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With millennial revisionism and nostalgia being the current hot trends, Disney has been busy recycling their greatest hits in the form of live-action remakes and an ongoing TV crossover event. This way, adults who grew up watching the classics on VHS and lived through the ‘90s renaissance can take their kids to see the same stories told in a slightly updated way, and everyone goes home happy.

Following the massive success of The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau has been once again assigned to give a beloved furry classic a CGI/live-action makeover. His target? The Lion King.

Oh, you may cry sacrilege. You may kick and scream, and protest this as further proof that Hollywood is out of original ideas (and you’d be right), but you know you’ll be in line at the multiplex to watch it like everyone else, just as you were for The Jungle Book and will be for the upcoming Beauty and the Beast remake. Besides, The Lion King itself was essentially a very loose adaptation of Hamlet (as well as Kimba the White Lion, but we won’t go there), so it’s not like they’re working from completely original material.

And regardless of any personal misgivings I may have with Disney’s remake enterprise, even the worst ideas can be turned into good movies. As blatantly mercantile as its purpose may be, this remake still offers enough creative opportunities to work well on its own. So in the unlikely event that Jon Favreau may be reading this, here are five steps I would recommend him to take to make his Lion King roar.

1. Make it real.

Let’s start with the obvious elephant in the graveyard: How on Earth can Disney remake The Lion King with both live-action footage and CGI? Unlike The Jungle Book, where you had Mowgli interact with motion-capture animals on a soundstage, there are no humans at all in The Lion King, and thus no easy surrogate to make us feel the computer-animated animals are actually there.

The last time Disney tried to combine CGI characters with live-action landscapes and sets, they ended up making Dinosaur. It was derivative, generic, and boring, but the visual blend worked quite well, because the only animals on screen were dinosaurs (who, as extinct creatures, can get away with looking unrealistic) and monkeys (who are close enough to humans to look half-cartoonish and half-realistic without stepping into the uncanny valley). But in The Lion King, our protagonist is a lion, which makes the task more difficult due to how familiar audiences are with the way they look and move.

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The obvious answer to this issue would be to have every character played by motion-capture performers imitating feline movements, and maybe use a combination of CG and real animals for wider or more complicated shots, such as the stampede scene. But to do so would require maintaining a balance between realism and fantasy that would be difficult to maintain. It’s a risky move, but the solution could lie in discarding realism altogether. The Lion King is, after all, a theatrical story at its heart, where character’s emotions must be visualized clearly and broadly. Make the animals look like their real-life counterparts enough for them to gel with the live-action backdrop seamlessly, but not to the point where their faces can’t be animated without looking like a taxidermist’s cheese nightmare.

2. Perfect your protagonists.

Compelling as its overall story was, The Lion King did have a few problems that stopped it just short of being one of the all-time animated greats. Chief among these was Simba, whom I’ve always found to be a rather weak and un-engaging protagonist. Granted, that was always going to be the case for any protagonist played/voiced by Matthew Broderick whose name isn’t Ferris Bueller, but the problem goes a bit deeper than questionable voice casting.

The trouble with Simba is that his character arc is not very well-defined. Theoretically, it should be about facing your problems, accepting responsibility, and putting your personal issues aside for the common good. Unfortunately, it’s a little undone by certain choices in story details. Take his motivation, for example: He feels responsible for his father’s death because of a transparent setup even a seven-year-old should find somewhat suspicious. Instead of having Scar pointedly tell him to wait in the middle of a deserted valley for a vaguely-defined “surprise”, why not make him trick Simba into accidentally starting the stampede himself, or at least play an indirect part in it? His guilt would carry a lot more weight if the role he played in his father’s demise went a little beyond that of obvious bait.

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The other character sorely in need of improvement is Nala, who exists primarily as a plot device doubling as an obligatory love interest. Even by musical standards, the immediate romance that follows their reunion as adults is contrived and unconvincing, no matter how much Elton John and Tim Rice insist otherwise. My advice would be to show more scenes of Nala leading the lioness resistance against Scar’s reign, and have her meet Simba again while looking for extra help to fight him. Not only would it make her character more dynamic, it would also help make the climax more dramatic.

And speaking of drama…

3. Improve the hyenas.

You’ve probably all heard the criticism leveled at the film’s depiction of the hyenas; how the only two who speak both happen to be voiced by actors of color, how it supposedly encourages us to think of them as inherently violent parasites who deserve to be kept in the kingdom’s equivalent of a “ghetto”, and so forth.

While I think most of this criticism is excessive (especially since Mufasa, Rafiki, Sarabi, and kid Simba’s singing voice are all performed by black actors), it does raise interesting questions: Why exactly are the hyenas kept separate from everyone else? And why should we see that as a normal thing?

It seems to me the writers opened up a lot of potential for morally complex conflict that was ultimately discarded, perhaps out of fear that the plot would become too difficult for kids to follow, or that it might distract from what the story was fundamentally about. It’s too bad, because all you’d need is a few tweaks to make these ideas come together.

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Here’s the basic pitch: Years before Simba was born, a young King Mufasa faced his first major crisis when a rapidly-growing hyena population threatened the Circle of Life’s balance by eating too much food for all the kingdom’s other carnivores to sustain themselves. Torn between Rafiki’s advocacy for a peaceful solution and his pride’s pressure for a decisive reaction, Mufasa ultimately chose force and banished the hyenas to the elephant graveyard, forbidding them from ever returning on pain of death. Forced to survive on meager scraps, the hyenas rapidly dwindled, as many died from starvation and poisoning. Cursing Mufasa for his cruelty, their young leader Shenzi swore that she would one day return to avenge her people for the injustice they suffered.

Sounds like a cool backstory, right? It gives the hyenas a more nuanced characterization, a better motivation for following Scar, and makes Mufasa a more flawed father figure. Part of Simba’s character arc could be the acknowledgement of his father’s imperfections and the correction of his youthful mistake, making his redemption a twofer: by the story’s end, he will have convinced Shenzi to turn on Scar and help him depose him, then come up with some sort of pact with the hyenas that leaves everyone satisfied and the Circle of Life intact. The trick, of course, would be to implement the backstory in a way that’s tonally consistent with the rest of the story, perhaps via a scene showing Scar first meeting with Shenzi and pretending to sympathize with her people’s plight in order to get them on his side. Then Simba himself could learn about it from Rafiki before returning to Pride Rock.

4. Get the cast right.

Now comes the fun part of any article of this sort: the fancasting. The original Lion King is well-known for its star-studded cast, ranging from respected veterans like James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons to Mr. Bean himself, Rowan Atkinson.

It’ll be a hard cast to top. James Earl Jones in particular has made Mufasa such an iconic figure of wise, authoritative fatherhood that recasting the role feels positively blasphemous. But it would be impossible to hire him again without repeatedly reminding audiences of the original, so whoever steps into his shoes must share enough of his qualities to stay true to the character’s essence, all while delivering something unique and distinct. We need a deep-voiced actor with a solid history of playing both reliable authority figures and tragically flawed human beings. We need… Laurence Fishburne.

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The rest of the cast should be quite easy to figure out. John Boyega’s innate likeability and charisma make him a natural fit for an adult Simba, and Lupita Nyong’o has proven herself pretty comfortable with mo-cap and voice acting, making her well-suited for a more rounded Nala. Admittedly, it’d be a bit weird seeing Finn and Maz Kanata making goo-goo eyes at each other, but I’m sure there are at least a couple of fanfics out there where they get up to much worse.

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For Scar, I nominate Keith David. His baritone is at least as seductive as Jeremy Irons’, and there’s a tough texture to it that should help differentiate the performances, making him sound less like an oily vizier and more like a slick con artist. I know he’s already played a similar villain for Disney before, but then so did Eleanor Audley, and that didn’t stop her from making Maleficent one of the all-time greats.

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In supporting roles, cast Key and Peele as Timon and Pumbaa respectively (admit it, you thought of it too), April Grace as Sarabi, and Jeff Bridges as Rafiki (think of him as the cool, pot-smoking hippie professor you wish you had). As for Zazu, John Oliver’s been doing a bang-up job of playing the British-accented court jester on TV, so why not carry on in animated bird form?

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And finally, there’s Shenzi. As a three-dimensional anti-villain, this version would deserve to be played by an actress of deceptive depth, someone who can conceal a whole life of wounds behind a silky curtain of poised menace. She’d deserve… Claudia Black.

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From Farscape’s Aeryn Sun to Morrigan from the Dragon Age games, Claudia Black has specialized in playing complex, multi-layered characters who often cross the line from good to evil and back again. Even as a computer-generated canine, the cool power emanating from her voice would be a force to be reckoned with.

5. Give us something new.

All of the above suggestions amount to one single recommendation for any remake to live by: don’t give us more of the same in a different package. Keep the soul of the original story and characters, but take them someplace new and unexplored. We may think we don’t want any version of The Lion King that isn’t the original film or its Broadway musical adaptation; we may think there’s nothing in this story that any of these versions (or even, heaven forbid, the direct-to-video sequels) didn’t tell us already.

Prove us wrong. Don’t recycle the story; reveal it. Show us ideas, themes, and emotions that we didn’t realize were there all along, waiting to be explored. Or, if I may allow myself a moment of pretentiousness and quote the great filmmaker Robert Bresson, make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.

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  • Chris Palmer

    But will they keep the songs?

  • The Annoyed Historian

    Nitpicking time!

    1. Excellent cast choice overall, BUT I still prefer James Earl Jones for reprising Mufasa.

    2. I can’t really see Jim Boyega voicing adult Simba. If I knew more celebrities I would name an alternative choice, but…

    3. Hyenas are not canines, they are actually related to weasels and cats (belonging to suborder Feliformia).