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Hollywood Lion King remake reboot

What Hollywood’s unbearable obsession with reboots says about our times

From The Lion King to Avengers, spin-offs and remakes dominate cinema – are we in a creative desert, or looking backwards for reassurance in an era of turbulence?

I felt my vision clouding with tears, enraged that my body was betraying me in public like this. “The great kings of the past are up there, Simba” boomed James Earl Jones’ trustworthy baritone, erupting from the CGI mouth of CGI lion in Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King. Mufasa, the King of Pride Rock, is reassuring his young cub Simba that the starry night sky is a map of history. It’s a gentle moment of father-son bonding made all the more poignant by the fact that in the next scene, Mufasa dies. In Favreau’s version, the tear-jerking sequence, much like the rest of the film, is recreated almost shot for shot. I did not think it was good filmmaking, but I was moved.

I watched the 1994 Disney film many, many times as a kid; as an adult, the remake activated my childhood nostalgia. A whole generation of viewers who hadn’t seen the original likely cried, too.

This easy-access nostalgia is motivating studios to recycle the same tried and tested stories. The Lion King is not the only film that Disney have rebooted or relaunched in 2019. Earlier this year, they released live-action versions of Dumbo and Aladdin (Mulan is on its way), while Toy Story, Frozen, The Avengers and Maleficent all received sequels. It’s not a trend, it’s a strategy that allows the studio to reap easy profits from existing intellectual property, trading on grown-ups’ nostalgia with reimaginings of and sequels to classic movies. It’s low risk, and it’s paying dividends. 

Disney made three of last year’s top five highest grossing films (Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, and Incredibles 2), capturing nearly a fifth of global movie ticket sales according to the FT. This monopolising of the box office is making so much money that Disney’s slate has been rendered critic-proof. This model is so profitable, that even the most artistically bankrupt of these offerings are considered a success. No bad review can so much as make a dent in Disney’s takings.

But Disney are just one example of a studio’s savvy choice to capitalising on pre-existing franchises. As a newspaper critic, it’s increasingly rare that I get to review films based on original screenplays. There is an endless stream of reboots, spin-offs, remakes of foreign films, live-action imaginings of cartoons, movie versions of video games and stage musicals and New Yorker articles and iPhone apps. There are literary adaptations, and updates of those literary adaptations. The film industry justifies this with the argument that these films are guaranteed to make money. By encouraging filmmakers to prioritise profitability over storytelling, Hollywood is encouraging – and rewarding – a dearth of creativity. There’s less space than ever for medium-sized films about everyday life and relationships unless they are anchored by major auteurs. Like fashion, pop culture has always moved in cycles, but this avalanche of refashioned material is creating a deafening feedback loop. These new films are, inevitably, compared to and judged by the standards of their predecessors, obscuring anything new or subversive they might be doing. And that’s if they are doing anything new. Updating is cheaper than innovating.

Take Tom Hooper’s megabudget adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical Cats, which stunt casts Taylor Swift, James Corden and Jason Derulo as its pirouetting felines, capitalising on their enormous individual fan bases. Like Ed Sheeran’s No. 6 Collaborations Project (which contained some 22 guest appearances), it’s a transparent attempt to game the system. As The New York Times’ Joe Coscarelli put it on a recent episode of the podcast, Popcast, pop culture is like sports; increasingly driven by data, not narrative.

“By encouraging filmmakers to prioritise profitability over storytelling, Hollywood is encouraging – and rewarding – a dearth of creativity”

Sometimes, the imperative to maximise profitability is disguised as something else. Consider Disney’s choice remake The Little Mermaid, recasting black actress Halle Bailey as redhead Ariel, that the photorealistic lions in new The Lion King are now voiced by a predominantly black cast, or Marvel’s unveiling of their ‘Phase 4’ slate at this year’s Comic Con, headlined by actors like Mahershala Ali and Hong Kong arthouse legend Tony Leung in Blade and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings respectively. Overdue on-screen representation in Hollywood blockbusters is supposedly good for everyone: if ‘diverse’ audiences are catered to, they will spend money on cinema tickets.

As the critic Mark Harris said on a recent episode of the Film Comment podcast, “We can sometimes fall into the trap of asking nothing of movies that do nothing, and asking everything of movies that do something”. In other words, we expect certain films to act as engines of change, fashioning them as historical watershed moments in the hope that the ‘conversation’ around them will translate into box office. Corporations like Disney and Marvel are building ‘The Discourse’ into their publicity campaigns, inviting thinkpieces, backlash and backlash to the backlash that ensures even their most sedate and formulaic offerings remain water-cooler talking points. The power of diversity is potent, and profitable.

“Why can’t we look at the moment we’re living through without refracting it through pre-existing franchises?”

Of course I think that a better and broader representation of humans on-screen is something worth celebrating, but I’m not convinced that inserting women and people of colour into historically white narratives does much to disrupt them. There is a distinction between the progressivism of genuine provocation, and the retroactive conservatism of tokenistic ‘liberal’ pandering, sold back to diverse audiences and rammed down our throats.

Movies, I believe, have a cultural value beyond their value as a consumer product. They tell us something about what’s happening in the world; they’re a document of history. In a time of political emergency and geological crisis, they’re an opportunity to make sense of the world in a way that straight reportage can’t. So why can’t we look at the moment we’re living through without refracting it through pre-existing franchises? Like a neoliberal culture that insists all ‘progress’ is good no matter the cost, the onslaught of reboot culture is exhausting. It is relentless. I reckon there’s something in the idea that we’re all so anxious about our complicity in the apocalypse that we’re looking backwards for reassurance, retreading stories that are simply more comfortable. Perhaps the hyperactive pace at which these films are being churned out captures the fearful and restless feeling of the present.