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Lion King in 3d?

August 4, 2011

Well this is disappointing.

I’m slightly late to the party in learning this, but apparently Disney is planning a re-release of The Lion King–in 3D. I find it hard to express how disgusting the idea of this seems to me. I actually watched The Lion King again with my little sister last week, and the strongest impression it made on me was that it’s the kind of movie that probably couldn’t be made today. My reasons:

Firstly, he moral of the story is too patriarchal and insufficiently individualistic. It’s about the duty of the true king to assume his responsibilities as king, and the importance of the other animals accepting his rightful authority, and there’s little about being yourself or not bowing to peer pressure. In fact, the most famous song, “Hakuna Matata,” meaning “no worries,” isn’t actually a denial of the importance of responsibility. It’s instead the cause of some of Simba’s moral failures–because he misinterprets it to mean “do whatever you want” rather than “don’t obsess over the past and instead do what you can to act correctly in the future.” It’s rather similar, I think, to Hamlet’s “the readiness is all.”

Second, the metaphysics are too explicit; yes, the animal-religion-spirituality-whatever is just vague nature and ancestor worship, but it’s also fairly explicitly correct. There’s a great scene where Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba look up at the stars and wonder what they are; Timon gives what moderns imagine a “mythical” explanation would be, saying the stars are fireflies trapped up in “that big bluish black thing.” Pumbaa gives a scientific explanation, saying they’re big balls of burning gas millions of miles away. Then Simba says they’re the great kings of the past watching down on them. This is more like what an actual mythical explanation would be–not giving random explanations for things not understood, but interpreting the grandeur of the universe as reflecting a spiritual and moral order. And Simba, not Pumbaa, is the one who the movie treats as correct.

Third, the tone of the movie is too serious–somewhere between epic and fable. It sustains a sense of gravitas that I find it hard to imagine in a contemporary kid’s movie. Yes, there are jokes, but they’re always subordinate to the general narrative thrust. But my point here isn’t just that it’s not mostly farce as so many contemporary kid’s movies are. There have been serious animated films recently–e.g. much of Pixar’s stuff, like The Incredibles. But The Incredibles is serious in a realistic way. It’s more like a modern novel than an ancient epic. And this applies to most recent kid’s movies I’ve seen that can be taken at all seriously. The only real exception is Kung Fu Panda, which attempts some of the epic seriousness of The Lion King–but it has too many self-consciousness, I think, and plays more like a straight action flick than an epic. It’s the difference between Shaolin Soccer and The Lord of the Rings.

And now for my point–I think that perhaps the key reason underlying these three is that The Lion King is 2d, hand-drawn, imagery, not 3d computer-generated imagery. It’s look reminded me almost of stained glass. This allows us to take the images as not a “realistic” imitation of reality, but a flattened, stylized portrayal of the moral forces at work in the world. I have yet to see a 3d animated movie that doesn’t look like a simplified version of the real world. Put simply: the Lion King flattens, The Incredibles simplifies. The former is epic; the latter novelistic. The Lion King’s epic nature is what allows it to be so patriarchal and spiritually serious.

And converting the Lion King to 3d completely ruins the its flatness.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2011 11:39 pm

    Would you say that a movie like The Lion King couldn’t be made today or wouldn’t be made today?
    If the latter, it seems that it wouldn’t be made because it wouldn’t sell. or writers think that stuff like that does not sell, so they do not bother.
    If the former, it seems that it couldn’t be made because the patriarchal moral, the explicit metaphysics, and the serious tone are not available to writers today. I mean that the writers of children stories nowadays do not possess a frame of mind that allows them to think, much less create, in those terms.
    Is this problem economic incentives, or ideological unavailability?

  2. August 5, 2011 10:37 am

    I suspect that the answer is the former. I don’t think The Lion King couldn’t happen again because of economic incentives–actually, them re-releasing it offers evidence that Disney thinks it will sell even in 2011.

    The difficulties, rather, lie in the twin combination of a medium less friendly to The Lion King’s tone and ideology (2D vs. 3D) and a film-making culture even less disposed towards thinking in those terms (which both reflects and has propelled forward a broader cultural shift against that way of thinking). If only one of these was true, The Lion King would be possible, though unlikely (The Lion King itself seems like somewhat of a fluke), but today, it’s nearly impossible.

    Incidentally, I just remembered one other 3D animated film of recent years that has attempted an epic tone–Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Gahool, which few people saw. But I still wouldn’t take this as evidence that epic-ness is economically unfeasible or imaginatively possible. The film failed because despite it’s quite impressive visuals and sustained dark, epic tone, the story was weak and hard to follow, and the film had too many characters who were too difficult to distinguish. And though it goes for “epic,” it’s more of a children’s-adventure-story epic, plus some chiarascuro… Perhaps LotG:TOoG is the one that’s like The Lord of the Rings, and The Lion King is more like… Hamlet? The Oresteia? A fairy tale? My point, I think, is that The Lion King seems timeless in a way Legend of the Guardians is not–LotG seems more like history than myth.

  3. August 7, 2011 7:19 pm

    I would be hesitant to say such a movie *couldn’t* be made today, though, in a sense. The money-making motive has been strong throughout Disney’s history, and they went through a pretty money-grubbing period of awful, cheap, badly written stories in the 80s too. I’ve read about how the “Disney Renaissance” of the early nineties blew everyone away. That’s when we got the few good non-Pixar animated films of the past few decades (Beauty and the Beast was another excellent one, though in a very different vein than The Lion King.) I don’t really see culture as having shifted all that much since the nineties such that what was conceivable artistically back then would be inconceivable only 20 years later… It’d just take similar creativity.

    I’m wondering what you might think of the idea that not so much time period as choice of subject might be instrumental in enabling what you describe as the “epic” scope of the movie. As you observed, the Pixar films are great. But not only is “The Incredibles” different, I think it’s different because of its subject matter, closely tied as that actually is (in movies, especially; novels can cross over more easily, I think) to its genre. The Incredibles was deliberately drawing on the comic book “culture”, which I rather think is the reason for the “flatness” you describe. (Comic books tend to be two-dimensional in the best of senses, in my experience.) I think it’s key in explaining the scope of the Lion King to consider the African culture it’s immersing itself in. You probably remember well all those discussions from Lit Trad I to 20th Century about the difficulties of “epic” in a post-enlightenment (even post Renaissance world). Hence the reason Walcott’s “Omeros” almost has to be set in a non-solely-Western society. Epic makes sense in a culture that still has a concept of tribes, hereditary rule, prestige through battle, etc. If you look at it from that perspective, it seems less that The Lion King couldn’t be made today than that something similar couldn’t be made *about* the present day.

  4. August 8, 2011 5:19 pm

    That’s a good point–and you’re right there hasn’t been a seismic shift from the early 90s to today, though it is somewhat amazing how quickly gay rights in particular have changed the cultural landscape–but there have been other animated movies in the last ten years set in times past or alternate worlds or about anthropomorphic animals, which would seem to be more available to epic, that have fallen short. I think ultimately I’m going to stick to my claim that the change from 2D to 3D has significantly shifted the narrative possibilities of children’s animated movies. Another “Disney Renaissance” is possible, I suppose, but I don’t expect it.

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