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26 July 2019

The deeply uncanny valley of Disney remakes

Film companies continue rebooting old favourites. Are we so attached to the past that we can no longer imagine a future?

By Annie Lord

The beginning of The Lion King is etched into collective cinematic memory as though it were actually experienced. A sun simmers over the red-hot African savanna. A voice cries out over the landscape, “Naaaaaaa-nts ingonyama bagithi Baba.” Rhinos rise out of long grass, elephants drag their feet over dusty earth, and ants scuffle through the undergrowth. As the animal kingdom gathers beneath a clifftop, a mandrill monkey takes a lion cub and thumbs a red cross across his brow. The cub is raised high enough for all to see. Giraffes bow, zebras neigh, cheaters roar, all in rapture at the sight of their future king. 

Re-watching this scene now is to be drenched in nostalgia, no different from rummaging through lost memory boxes, embarrassed at the goosebumps that inevitably arise. Why, then, have Disney recreated the film in David Attenborough-documentary realness? Why have they invited us to return to this now deeply uncanny valley?

The new photorealistic Lion King is no anomaly. Sequels and spinoffs are congesting today’s film landscape; original screenplays are now at their lowest level of Box Office representation for at least two decades. So far, Disney has given us live-action reconstructions of Aladdin, Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast, Jungle Book, Cinderella, Pete’s Dragon and Alice in WonderlandThe Little Mermaid, Mulan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pinocchio and Lady and the Tramp will soon join this bloated list.

Meanwhile, Universal is remaking West End musical Cats on the big screen, and the box office is filled with re-imaginings of popular 90s franchises, as imaginative as London’s regeneration projects are generative. There’s been Jurassic Park, Flatliners and Jumanji redos, and in the future we can expect new versions of Blade, The Crow, The Craft and White Men Can’t Jump. To the ire of incels everywhere, directors are recreating blockbusters with all-female casts, from Ocean’s 8 to Ghostbusters and After the Wedding.

Earlier batches of Disney’s live-action remakes were innovated with plot and image. Jungle Book (2016) drew heavily from Rudyard Kipling’s original children’s stories. Alongside plot development with wolf-leader Akela and Shere Khan, the new version included a backstory for Mowgli that explains how he found his modesty-preserving red cloth. A rebooted Pete’s Dragon (2016) weaves threats of environmental collapse into a tale about a boy befriending a gentle reptile, as a logger hacks away at its prelapsarian forest habitat. 

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Yet any semblance of innovation among Disney’s first live-action remakes was absent from Beauty and the Beast (2017), a near shot-for-shot reincarnation of its predecessor. Dan Stephen’s remake was a carbon copy of the original that set the standard, both aesthetically and financially, which The Lion King now dutifully carries through this cultural shadowland. Granted, the film featured meagre attempts to make a tale as old as time feel new again: now Belle reads books! LeFou is gay! Belle actually tries to escape! But even the best directors can’t box-tick their way into modernity when the story is basically Stockholm Syndrome made cute. The Lion King (2019) is even lazier, seemingly refusing to hire a whole new cast: James Earl Jones returns as Mufasa.

How have Disney sold the same movies back to us? Of course, through the technological advancement, executives cry. Director Tom Cooper has said that Cats, his most recent feature, uses “astonishing new technology to transform his cast members”, who now appear in the most “perfect covering of digital fur”. And he’s right, the hair looks bouncy and fibrous like it would tickle your nose. The cats’ realism is let down only by the decision to give all the female felines boobs. 

Even more astonishing, apparently, is the way an entire 360-degree virtual world was designed for The Lion King. Cameramen could now move through Pride Rock, the elephant graveyard and Rafiki’s Ancient Tree as though they were in a video game, mimicking the angles and imperfections of live-action shooting – affecting a human touch in an otherwise computer-generated world.

The reasons for remaking old ventures rather than developing new material are obvious. Commissioning new stories is expensive, and remakes have made a huge amount of money: In 2015 remakes of Cinderella and Dumbo took $543.5m (£436.5m) and $352.2m (£282.8m) respectively. The more pertinent question, though, is why audiences want to keep returning to old stories. Can’t we imagine anything new? Or are we so attached to the past that we’ve lost the ability to conceive of any future?

The late cultural critic Mark Fisher blamed the emergence of vintage revivalism on unbridled capitalism. He argued that the destruction of political solidarity and financial security made us into atomised debtors who crave the ease of the familiar. For Fisher, the evisceration of decent public services, unions, pensions and affordable houses leaves us yearning for cultural products symptomatic of an easier time. We are soothed by The Cure’s headlining set at Glastonbury and the audible vinyl crackles on a Burial LP. Haunted by the ghosts of past modes of cultural production, we have begun to endure the “loss of loss itself”.

This yearning for nostalgia predates the original Lion King. In his 1991 book The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson argues that society retreated from the modernist challenge of innovating cultural forms that could capture contemporary experience. Instead, postmodernism mines history to glean empty stylisations that can be endlessly reproduced and re-consumed. 

Jameson called this a “nostalgia mode”, which arises when a coherent sense of history disintegrates, leaving us with nothing but attachments to the techniques and formulas of the past. An important cultural experience of growing up during the 1930s to the 1950s was spending a Saturday afternoon watching Buck Rogers-style television series – aliens abducting blonde damsels, square-jawed heroes, lots of purple goo, laser guns and tentacles. For Jameson, Star Wars takes advantage of our deep longing to experience these shows again by reinventing them in the form of a pastiche.  While children and adolescents can take the adventures “straight”, adult audiences are able to “gratify a deeper and more properly nostalgic desire to return to that older period and to live its strange old aesthetic artefacts through once again”. Obscuring its origins in a fusty old adventure series, Star Wars could appear glittering and new precisely because its special effects relied upon contemporary technology. 

If The Lion King can satiate a cultural homesickness, what era does it return us to? The 1990s – when affordable housing was actually affordable, young people weren’t saddled with (as much) university debt, and we could still blithely ignore scientists warning us that the planet is hurtling towards environmental collapse. It is no coincidence that The Lion King will be popular with a millennial audience. We want to return to those moments where security felt more guaranteed; to re-watch Nala and Simba gentle play with each other is to be back on granny’s sofa, apple juice clamped between chubby fists. It’s worth noting that The Lion King production contracted the musician Chance the Rapper as a “nostalgia consultant” because he was such a fan of the film as a child.

We might bemoan the way film companies poke at the zombified corpse of franchises, but we still turn up to watch them. Among the top 100 US box office films last year, there were just 23 that featured an original screenplay and were not prequels or sequels in existing franchises, comfortably the lowest number since the turn of the century. Part of the reason for this lies with the birth of Netflix; the cost of a £9.99 cinema ticket, and a further £6 bucket of popcorn, makes us less willing to take a risk on an avant-garde production or even a new storyline. Instead, we reach for films that are guaranteed to be reliably enjoyable. The Lion King might not blow anyone away, even with the soft rustling of Simba’s mane in the wind, but the nostalgic yearning prompted by the sound of “Hakuna Matata” guarantees it will be at least inoffensively agreeable. 

Rather than feline deepfakes, we deserve stories that help us understand our present moment, that shock and jolt us. As long as film companies continue weaponising collective memories for commercial gain, Disney’s cinematic snake will continue to eat its own tail – albeit rendered in a digitally improved light. 

As Fisher writes, “Neoliberalism now shambles on as a zombie – but as the aficionados of zombie films are well aware, it is sometimes harder to kill a zombie than a living person”. Clearly, the zombified now haunt more than just horror movies. Must we refuse to let Mufasa rest in peace? Must he continue to fall from atop dusty clifftops? Must he continue to be trampled upon by charging buffalo? The lion wants to sleep. We want a new movie. Both of these can happen.  

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