With The Lion King seemingly disappointing Disney fans, has the time come for the iconic studio to steer away from the remakes and focus on original concepts?

By Jonathan Reed

7 August 2019

There aren’t many film studios which can boast a collection of award winning and culture defining classic movies like Walt Disney Studios. The entertainment empire has created arguably some of the most beloved and revered animated films of-all-time, starting with their Oscar Winning and World-First, 1937 feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

From this ground-breaking movie, which cemented Walt Disney as much more than just the ‘man behind the mouse’, other instant classics would follow, both animated and live-action. Cinderella, Mary Poppins, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Sleeping Beauty; Disney effectively began producing hit after hit, filling cinemas across the world with his addictive stories.

© Disney

And though throughout the early 80’s the movie studio would struggle to create a “Snow White” or “Peter Pan”, a resurgence in Disney’s animation films would quickly become bigger than ever before. So much so, loyal fans would dub this time period as ‘Disney’s Golden-era.’

Films such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan all became instant classics proving that no one could tell stories quite like Disney. But once again, the appetite for traditional animation faded. With the introduction of computers and specifically Pixar Animation Studios, the pencil effectively became redundant and keyboards and a different type of ‘mouse’ became the future.

Thanks to Toy Story – a movie which smashed the glass ceiling on the possibilities of storytelling – Disney’s old classics became just that, old classics. And as time would move on, Disney would struggle to create an independent animation film which could rival the juggernaut of Pixar.

This struggle wasn’t particularly damaging to Disney financially, as they purchased Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion. With each successful movie dominating the box office, Disney also essentially dominated too. But for many fans who were old enough to experience that ‘golden-era’, it felt as if Disney had lost its spark.

Fast-forward to a few years ago and Disney looked as if it had found it’s feet again. Setting out an independent Animation Studios away from Pixar and harnessing that unique ‘magic’ within their live-action studios, Disney began to make traction with new, original movies. And once again, Disney found themselves dazzling the box office like never before.

With monster hits like Pirates of the Caribbean, Enchanted, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6, Disney was at full throttle again. They even dabbled into the traditional animated feature again with The Princess and the Frog in 2009, a whole five years after the less than lacklustre Home on the Range in 2004.

As Disney’s success reached unprecedented levels, and they acquired box office studios such as Marvel and Lucasfilm, they quickly began to focus on Sci-Fi themed movies. But in the wings Disney was planning a new type of franchise, one which would connect the old with the new.

In 2015 the Studio would launch their ‘remake’ franchise – taking those iconic classics and bringing them to the live-action universe. The first would be Cinderella, and although it didn’t feature any of the beloved music of the original, it became a box office gem. Signalling that audiences were more than happy to see the classics brought to life away from the pen and paper, The Jungle Book would quickly follow.

© Disney

This began an influx of remakes with Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Aladdin and their most recent, The Lion King. Whilst many have responded with both nostalgia and excitement and seeing the movies which made their childhood reimagined for the big screen, are we now reaching a sense of fatigue?

The Lion King has sparked this debate, questioning whether every animated Disney film can transition to live-action. When reading The Lion King’s reviews, while critics praise the CGI, most left the theatre feeling that the restriction of expression by the life-like animals reduced the impact of the dramatic moments of the movie.

These criticisms haven’t stopped millions descending on cinemas around the world to experience the “circle of life”. The film has already taken over $1 billion in world-wide box office revenue, but it is fair to say that many fans have been left either disappointed or a questionable feeling of whether the remake was needed after the original felt the perfect movie.

Similarly the recent revisit to Aladdin didn’t quite hit audiences the same way as Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast, and Dumbo has been largely regarded as a giant-eared elephant flop. The trailer for the upcoming Mulan remake faced huge backlash after revealing that the adored music and Mushu character (voiced by Eddie Murphy in the animated version) would not be making an appearance.

This recent dimming of the remake ‘franchise’ doesn’t seem to be concerning to Disney as they have announced further re-creations are still to come. Hercules is set to be announced at the annual D23 conference in Anaheim, as well as the much debated The Little Mermaid. Lady and the Tramp is set to release on Disney’s new streaming app, Disney+, and there are strong rumours that the animation which started it all, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is set to receive the live-action treatment.

Looking at this upcoming list, it does feel as if Disney have run out of original ideas and can’t seem to hit the jackpot like they did in the late-80s and 90s. And whilst there does seem to be the occasional original-esque film planned, like the Maleficent sequel and the recently confirmed Cruella – a prequel of 101 Dalmatians, though this time focusing on the fashion conscious, puppy-killing villain, Cruella de Vil – you are left wondering whether Disney is losing its magic touch.

It would be unfair to say that they have completely lost it after releasing the brilliant Moana and Wreck-It Ralph. But there doesn’t seem to be the consistency anymore.

© Disney

With sequels and remakes Disney are guaranteed a high-percentage of box office success. And whilst not all may land, and some may even disappoint, the cinema-going public will still flock to the cinema to see them. But how long can this last?

Many fans wish that Disney would take more risks, like they did with Pirates of the Caribbean, which has now become one of the studio’s biggest franchises. There does seem to be a resurgence of this daring attitude with original films Artemis Foul and Jungle Cruise set for release in 2020. Disney hopefully will continue to focus on this lane instead of focusing their attention on what has already been.

The unfortunate truth is, none of the remade films, except Cinderella, have lived up to the original animated versions. The Lion King is sadly another example of this.

Disney is a truly magical studio and expert storytellers. They can weave a ‘tale as old as time’ like no other. Financially Disney will always thrive, their brand is much too strong not to, but it does feel as if fans want something new. Movies such as Frozen and Moana provide that sense of classic magic for a 21st century audience. To youngsters today these films are our The Lion King or The Little Mermaid.

The original classics will always appeal to an audience, whereas most of the remakes sadly feel forgetful. It is almost certain that if an audience could choose between the 1994 version of The Lion King or the 2019 remake, the original would win every-single-time.

Disney create magic, not redistribute it. They are the originals not copycats and lead the way both visually and emotionally. If they don’t remind themselves of this and soon, then the magic of money making may not end, but their originality just might.