'The Jungle Book' Is a Massive Hit - Now Bring on the 'Lion King' Remake!
“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.
Newcomer Neel Sethi is the only sour note. It's not entirely his fault. Favreau saddles the 12-year-old actor with the responsibility of being the movie's sole humanoid character. Without a compelling story to back him up, he's a boy lost in the wilderness, figuratively and literally. The hard truth, and the special effects team's greatest achievement, is that The Jungle Book would be a better movie without its human component. That's where The Lion King comes in.
The revamp is a matter of when, not if. After the mega-success of Alice in Wonderland, Disney turned its eyes toward a vibrant back catalogue that could be exploited just like Marvel comic books and Star Wars characters, the other two pillars in its multiplex-dominating business model. The one-two punch of 2014's Maleficent ($758 million worldwide) and last year's Cinderella redux ($542 million) turned "toying around with the idea" into serious strategy. This summer we'll see an update of Pete's Dragon, followed in 2017 by an Emma Watson-led Beauty and the Beast. Currently gestating behind the scenes: Cruella, a new spin on 101 Dalmatians; The Little Mermaid; a Dumbo remake directed by Tim Burton; Mulan; Pinocchio; Winnie the Pooh; The Sword and the Stone; a Cinderella spinoff focused on Prince Charming; and even a take on the "Night on Bald Mountain" segment from Fantasia (that's the one with the giant demon dude).
To be clear: The Lion Kingisn't in the current stack -- but it should be, because there's a fresh version of the movie waiting to be reintroduced to the world. Despite being the highest-grossing Broadway musical of all time, the stage version of The Lion King, chock-full of new songs, has yet to find itself adapted for the screen. Under the direction of Julie Taymor (Across the Universe), The Lion King went post-modern, outfitting vocally capable casts with lion headdresses and puppet extensions. It felt like the movie without looking like the movie.
A new Lion King could reinterpret the musical with actual feline performers. They could film realistic background scenery to create the ultimate illusion, and rely on animators' creations to add in the cast.
Disney's done this before -- with 2000's Dinosaur. Technically, it wasn't one of their traditional animated films, as the production team employed live-action backdrops for the CG characters. A team of cameramen spent days filming blank spaces where dinosaurs would eventually go. (Not the most glamorous job, but the result was mesmerizing.) Dinosaur grossed $349 million worldwide, the fifth-highest-grossing movie of the year, before falling into relative obscurity.
The Jungle Book never goes full Dinosaur, save for a few heated Baloo-Bagheera conversations. Mowgli is in every scene, scrambling for his life -- and our attention. In an age where spectacle is everything and CG artisans struggle to match live-action actors, a Lion King remake could take the movies to a new space: not quite "real," not quite animated, just gorgeous and engrossing and meaty. Animals have personalities, and with the Disney remake business in full swing, let's hope they take a lesson from ol' Uncle Walt.
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Matt Patches is Thrillist’s Entertainment Editor. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Guardian. He just can't wait to be king (of his apartment). Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.