CS Soapbox: Did The Lion King Redo Mess Up the Music?
Remaking a beloved film is like playing with fire; there’s a good possibility that everyone and everything gets burned. In an interview with British GQ, music superstar Elton John threw some serious heat in Disney’s general direction. John called the House of Mouse’s “live-action” remake of the 1994 animation, The Lion King, a “huge disappointment” and claimed that the creative team in particular “messed the music up.” He then went on to say:
Elton John co-wrote the original animation’s music with lyricist Tim Rice. Their contribution to that film can be recognized in iconic songs like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King,” “Circle of Life,” and of course, “Hakuna Matata.” The duo’s most notable involvement with the Jon Favreau remake was a song they wrote called “Never Too Late,” appearing in the film’s final credits—an afterthought.
Although it may have done well at the box office, 2019’s The Lion King was a critical failure. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been; the original film had proven to have a brilliant story and soundtrack. On top of this, a founding father of the MCU (Favreau) was directing and stars like Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Seth Rogan, and Chiwetel Ejiofor were all at the helm; James Earl Jones was even reprising his role as Mufasa. It was primed for perfection. Throw in Pharrell Williams to oversee the music, a song by Beyoncé called “Spirit” for good measure and Disney is happy. What in the world could go wrong?
Does the music work within the movie?
It all comes down to the idea of a remake. To remake something is to make it again albeit differently. A good remake builds upon everything the original did well while adding its own magic. It’s impossible to best a masterpiece, and that’s exactly what the original animation was, so celebrate it.
In order to create a faithful remake, Disney needed to leave the essence of The Lion King intact while adding contemporary flair. Instead, the “live-action” remake stripped away one of the most important aspects of its counterpart and then attempted to rearrange the pieces. It tried to best it with “realistic” visuals, serving more like a love letter to CGI than to The Lion King. The result was a bland, computer-generated, and disconnecting experience that betrayed the hand-drawn artwork of its predecessor.
The original worked because it embraced the fact that it was an animated movie. All of the animals adapted human characteristics; a smile, wink, or choreographed dance was made all the more effective because the characters had palpable personalities. Mufasa strutted around as an admirable, wise, and emphatic king while Simba pranced in the shadow of his birthright. 2019’s The Lion King is an animated movie masquerading as a whimsical episode of Planet Earth (without enough whimsical). One of the reasons The Lion King works so well on stage is because those productions celebrate the life and excitement of the original.
“I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” for example, is still a good jam in the remake. However, without the belief-suspending performances from Simba and his backup dancers, it’s just not as much fun. Nothing in the new movie even remotely compares to the headbanging “Hakuna Matata” montage of Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa from the original. In 1994, children were given enough room to let their imaginations run wild, in 2019, not so much. The moments were bigger and better (larger than the circle of life if you will) in 1994; it was easy to picture (and revisit) your experience with the film when hearing its songs on the radio. The remake is littered with uninspired and hollow callbacks.
So is Elton John right?
He’s rightfully cranky about his apparent exclusion from the creative process—he played an important part in The Lion King‘s original success. Regardless of all that has been said here, no one can know what went wrong with the remake other than the people involved. What we do know is that a vast majority of people who saw the remake enjoyed the original more; this had nothing to do with the music being bad.
The remake’s soundtrack takes very few creative liberties; it stays true to the original’s African-inspired sound. Hans Zimmer’s score just seems louder. The biggest differences come in the form of a spoken version of “Be Prepared,” and the two new songs, “Spirit,” and “It’s Never Too Late.” So when Elton John says they messed up the music, they didn’t. They didn’t really do anything to the music. The music wasn’t successful because it was simply a matter of “been there and done that.” It would seem that John’s frustration stems from a lack of musical innovation—they could’ve done more with it (presumably with his help). The burn John is throwing Disney’s piggy-backs every diss aimed not at the music, but the movie.
The original The Lion King was a cultural phenomenon of the Disney renaissance. The remake is a one-off that tries to survive on and, ironically, best nostalgia. The energy just isn’t there. People don’t go to a movie or listen to music because they want to submerge themselves in reality, they do it to escape. The argument here is that the most recent film’s music didn’t do well because… the movie wasn’t great. An unusual level of Disney dissonance (maybe not in the category of “live-action remake”) serving as an afterthought in the shadow of its predecessor—everyone and everything gets burned.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)