This article contains spoiler’s for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Lion King (2019), not that you should care about the latter.
When giving my recollection of the horror that was The Lion King’s 2019 “photorealistic” remake, my dad asked me what I thought little five year olds who hadn’t seen the original animation would think. What his question hints at is the far more fascinating theoretical of how would we as an audience and a culture react to The 2019 Lion King if there were no such thing as The 1994 Lion King in a sort of bizarre simulation of society a-la another 2019 cinematic conceptual Hindenburg Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, which asks us to imagine a world where everyone forgets The Beatles exist and someone dropped their songs in 2019.
The Lion King question is far more interesting because the culture in 2019 is still capable of embracing an animated Disney-style musical (see: Frozen) in a way it is utterly incapable of embracing the sincerity and naturalistic instrumentation of Beatles songs where the zeitgeist has shifted to the artificial electronic ether of hip hop. In a world where the original 1994 animated film doesn’t exist, photoreal Lion King would still be one of the most hyped movies of the summer with Disney’s behemoth marketing team and a practically unparalleled wattage of star power:
- Post Lemonade Beyonce who is black royalty at this point in her career
- Donald Glover at his artistic apex coming off of Season 2 of atlanta/the This is America music video
- Chiwetel Ejiofor a few years removed from his Oscar hit 12 years a slave and more recently co-starring in Marvel’s Doctor Strange
- Seth Rogen not too far removed from his artistic apex
- John Oliver after his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” has become one of HBO’s megahits as the spiritual successor to Jon Stewart.
- Jon Favreau directing coming fresh off the super surprising megahit The Jungle Book’s remake (2016)
- Elton John’s been brought on to write the music (since in this universe the soundtrack doesn’t exist yet)
- Acting legend James Early Jones being recrutied from relative obscurity to voice an animated lion (rather than simply to repise an existing role since he’s never voiced Mufasa in this universe)
Certainy such a star studded project in a movie full of huge African American actors about African wildlife coming off the Africa/black positivity centered Marvel film Black Panther could be seen as the next successor.
But there would still be one problem.
The movie has a slavish dedication to photorealism. The animals do not emote with their limbs or faces in human-like ways like in Favraeu’s previous CGI talking animal movie Jungle Book. The 2019 rerecordings like Circle of Life that maintain the upbeat animated whimsey of the original clash horridly with the hyper real footage that looks more like a nature documentary than a narrative film, while songs like Be Prepared which are slown and strippped of their theatricality to better match the aesthetic are painfully boring bastardization that resemble the famously bad Kidz Bop disks of children singing articial bubble gum flavored top 40 hits with all references of sex and violence censored to absurdity.
I imagine it would be a box office bomb. It’d have its cult following of fans that appreciate the high points, which consist mostly of the moments such as the circle of life opening that are ripped frame for frame out of the real life 1994 Lion King movie.
Still, in this theoretical where such a remake doesn’t exist, it would mostly leave people emotionally empty and utterly confused. Every single cinematic decision without the context of its purpose as an artistically bankrupt and cynical box office heist is so utterly baffling and goes against every basic convention we know about effective storytelling. Strictly on its own merits, The Lion King (2019) has almost an “aliens made this” quality similar to Tommy Wisaeu’s The Room, where it feels like someone had a Disney musical described to them and then tried to make one without having ever seen one.
That is because every decision is only coherent within the most cynical, borderline evil context. Every frame and audio cue is algorithmically designed soley to trigger nostaligc memories for the 1994 film and everyone over the age of 5 knows it. It is so openly and nihlistically uninterested in even making empty gestures towards artistic integrity that it is incapable of garnering a respectable rotten tomatoes score even with the aforementioned social credit of African positivity and representation, its superstar cast, and the raw power of nostalgia driving it forward. The single positive review of the flim of the first page of Rotten Tomatoes’s top critics page simply summarizes: “It’s a remake with a roar.” It doesn’t feel like a real human being wrote that sentence, although the accompanying picture for Detroit News’s Adam Graham alledges otherwise.
I just spent nearly 800 words describing an incredibly simple phenomenon: we kind of all know 2019’s Lion King remake sucks.
It has made over a billion dollars in less than 2 weeks. It has already surpassed the original’s impressive box office pull. It is at the time of writing already the 43rd highest grossing movie of all time, and will almost certainly be in the top 10 barring North Korea managing to import it and launching their entire nuclear arsenal from the sheer offensiveness of its existence.
The Lion King (2019) also has one striking, important similarity to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tarantino’s ninth film likewise is borderline nonsensical without the context of what we’ve been told about it by the flim’s advertising and by our knowledge of Tarantino’s previous films.
The flim does not even make the true historical events and the fake alternate history historical events particularly clear. Fictional Actor Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo Dicaprio) got famous by starring in the fictional TV show Bounty Law, which leads to him being cast as the villain in the real life TV show Lancel (which obviously didn’t star the fictional Rick Dalton in real life.) This particular distinction is not important to understanding the flim, but easily illustrates the sort of confusion easily made if one is not already intimiately familiar with the culture and historical events of 1969 -particularly the Mansion murders.
What crystalizes the sort of necessity the film has on outside knowledge and context is the Playboy Mansion scene. Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski visit the playboy mansion and Sam Wanamaker and other 1969 celebrities are introduced with blunt stylish captions labeling who they are, since they unlike the other historical celebs in the movie have not been given the context of the film’s ad campaign for the audience to be able to reasonably know who they are.
Let us do another Yesterday exercise and pretend that Sharon Tate is not a real life figure who was murdered by cultists, but a fictional character created by Tarantino and played by Margot Robbie. Her entire character arc consists of her and her rich director husband moving in next door to Rick Dalton (who wants to befriend them to reignite his failing actor career.) Then they go to a party and dance. An ancillary character talks about how she likes handsome boyish looking men while she dances. She purchases a book for her husband and then watches herself in one of her movies in a movie theater. Then at the end, a bunch of Manson cultists are murdered next door and she invites Rick Dalton in afterwords to meet and talk about what happened.
Without the context of what happened with the Manson murders, all of her scenes serve literally no narrative purpose. 30ish percent of the movie’s run time is dedicated to literally nothing but showing that Sharon Tate is a charming lady who is beloved by her friends. She then proceeds to have no impact on the plot of the movie.
It’s also borderline nonsensical without the context of Tarantino’s previous films – specifically Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds. All three films can be said to be under the fairly Tarantino specific film genre of “historical revenge” – a tarantino specific subgenre of historical fiction. The difference is while the white slave owners and nazis of the previous two films are shown on screen committing horrific acts of abuse and terror, the Manson cultists do no such thing until the last scene of the film. The aformentioned historical villains also function narratively as evil villains without context while the Manson cultists, while definitely unsettling weirdos, the skip straight to murder after the in-movie 6 month time skip seems nonsensical without the historical context.
Metanarrative is movies is not a new phenomenon. Almost every movie’s interpretation is in someway altered by its own context. We understand stormtroopers and the empire in Star Wars to be irredeemable bad guys because they are framed in the same cinematic language as nazi propaganda films. We understand Superman to be narratively human in spite of his alien birthplace and super powers because of his backstory’s similarties to that of the all-American high school quarterback mythology.
What makes Lion King (2019) and OUATIH (that’s a fun acronym!) unique is their absolute reliance on metanarrative for even basic narrative coherence. Even the Disney Star Wars movies – which are movies about a new generation of heroes inheriting the legacies of older hero that happen to be made by a new generation creative team inheriting the legacy of an older generation creative team – still function narratively within their own isolated run times. Han Solo and Leia Organa appear as their old washed out selves in the films – and we see that the entire universe still talks about and reacts to the previous events.
That is not to say Tarantino’s 9th film is similarly without artistic merit. Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance is jaw dropping. The editing and visual cinematography is weird and unique and fun. Rick Dalton desperately clinging to the last shreds of his relevance and pushing one last great performance out of himself is incredibly emotionally moving. But it also represents the same trend that Lion King does.
It is hardly an original thought to point out and movies and TV are trending more and more towards existing brand names and cinematic universes and storylines. It is likewise unoriginal to point out that there’s no such thing as a truly original storyline – that most human stories exist within a handful of familiar shapes and archetypes.
But there is something uniquely troubling in the trend that both movies encapsulate. This sort of storytelling by references to the past is the next evolution of unoriginality. What’s even the point of a movie that tells it’s story simply by construction a giant, pristine CGI arrow pointing towards a previous movie?
In the vein of Lion King, How much longer before technology advances enough that simply stop using human actors all together in photorealistic faximalies. It is only a matter of time before real historical events and The Godfather alike recreated in computers. It is simply the natural evolution of art driven by the capitalist free market that the idea of auteur directros and superstar actors is simply priced out by the easier to produce and cheaper pristine CGI recreations of meryl streep drawn by Malaysian animators making 9 bucks an hour.
And once our popular mass art has driven out all the artists, the final evolution is similarly inevitable. In a world where popular media storylines are made by capitalist billionare executives, it shall simply become propaganda for the fully unregulated free market to siphon every last dollar while their adoring fans fight for the scraps.