“Animals have personalities like people," Walt Disney declared in the heyday of his cartooning career, "and [they] must be studied." Disney's audience agreed 75 years ago, and they agree again today, as evidenced by the live-action remake of The Jungle Book soaring over $100 million at the box office in just one weekend.
The magic of animated animals is alive -- and photo-real. Which is why I'm ready to make a radical proposal: it's time to overhaul The Lion King.
OK, that sounds like a horrible idea if you love The Lion King, which most people do. Disney's Academy Award-nominated take on Hamlet towered as the top-grossing movie in the company's history for well into the 2000s. Elton John and Tim Rice's original songs owned the charts and carved out a place on Broadway in the years to come. Disney produced several direct-to-video sequels in the wake of the movie's success, because no one could say no to the exploits of adorable lion cubs and a farting warthog. And for the kids who need reminding that The Lion King rules, there's The Lion Guard, a sequel TV series that kicked off in January. Remaking The Lion King would be as stupid as... remaking The Jungle Book.
Don't get me wrong: remolding Mowgli, Baloo, Bagheera, and Shere Khan's adventures with fancy new special effects is, on a dramatic level, pointless. Ex-children around the world still approve of the 1967 original, and the movie's readily accessible for the younger generation. But there is a great, Walt Disney-approved reason: wow factor.
The first third of the new Jungle Book is a total triumph, a cast of talking critters who give expressive performances and blend in naturally with constructed landscapes (as opposed to real locations -- they built the movie's African plains on a Los Angeles soundstage). Technology allows director Jon Favreau to treat a jaguar and a human boy like two walking-and-talking Aaron Sorkin characters, and the action like a ruthless Game of Thrones brawl (yes, it's still a kids' movie). The animation is so lifelike, the audience never questions the mechanics of a singing bear's mouth or Mowgli's wolf-cub wrestling matches. You never think of the zoological co-stars as constructs -- only characters.