The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
If you scroll down far enough on the Disney+ home page, the streaming service’s algorithm will probably give you the carousel of what it calls “Reimagined Classics.” There, you will find a disorienting jumble of reheated ideas. All the studio’s recent live-action remakes, blockbuster takes on movies that were already blockbusters, are in there. There’s also a Turner & Hooch TV show. There’s the 1996 101 Dalmations, with Glenn Close, as well as its sequel. There’s Tim Burton’s stop-motion feature version of his old Frankenweenie short. Garfield is there, for some reason. The Lindsay Lohan versions of The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday are there, too, as well as a 2018 Disney Channel musical re-reimagining of Freaky Friday.
The mere existence of this little carousel is a testament to Disney’s persistent self-cannibalism, a key part of the company’s strategy for decades. Once upon a time, Disney would selectively keep its old animated classics out of circulation, dropping them back into theaters or on VHS every few years. Even in the company’s pre-Disney Renaissance ’80s wilderness years, when new Disney movies weren’t making money, the corporation’s heads could always put Sleeping Beauty or Lady And The Tramp back into theaters, or it could release those films as white-clamshell VHS tapes, and they would reliably earn. In a changing world where that withholding is no longer possible, Disney has found another way to monetize its library: It has cranked out an endless line of CGI-heavy live-action remakes, banking on the idea that people will want to see some version of these old, reassuring stories told on big screens again.
In the second decade of the 21st century, this strategy proved hugely lucrative. In 2010, Tim Burton’s version of Alice In Wonderland piggybacked on the popularity of Avatar’s bugged-out 3D special-effects visions. Alice In Wonderland became one of that year’s most popular movies even though its own imagery is ugly enough to rip your corneas in half. Over the next few years, Disney followed that ghastly commercial triumph with things like Maleficent, Cinderella, and Beauty And The Beast—all hugely popular, none even remotely artistically necessary.
Some of those movies have been pretty good in one way or another. I loved David Lowery’s heartfelt mood-piece retelling of Pete’s Dragon a whole lot more than I ever liked the corny-ass original, and Jon Favreau’s hugely popular 2016 cover version of The Jungle Book was watchable empty-calorie spectacle that successfully invested its photorealistic animal characters with something resembling personality. But if any of these remakes had any aesthetic or artistic value, it almost seemed like this happened by accident, or at least without the encouragement of the company’s overseers. They existed only to capitalize on any and all goodwill that people had for the originals. If Bill Condon’s 2017 version of Beauty And The Beast was a garish, monotonous, two-hour eyesore, it still made more money than any non-Star Wars movie that year. It accomplished its objective.
2019 was the year that Disney weaponized all the intellectual properties in its portfolio and held the box office in an unbreakable chokehold. That year, seven of the eight highest-grossing films were Disney products; the other one, Sony’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, was an extension of a Disney franchise, made with Disney’s cooperation. 2019’s biggest hit and most dominant cultural phenomenon was Avengers: Endgame, the grand blow-off for an unprecedented storytelling experiment that had been cranking for more than a decade. (I wrote a long column about Endgame less than two years ago, so we’re talking about other stuff here.) The year’s biggest disappointment, Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, still grabbed more than $500 million from ticket-buying North Americans, good enough for the No. 3 spot on the year-end box-office list.
Americans paid a lot of money to see great, weird movies in 2019. Us, John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, Knives Out, and Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood were all serious hits, but none of them could compete with what Disney was putting on the marketplace. In the last year that blockbuster theatrical releases were even theoretically possible, Disney cornered the market. Remakes were a huge part of that strategy, and Disney spammed the hell out of them, to the point where people started to wonder when the studio was going to run out of animated classics that could be remade.
In March, Tim Burton’s Dumbo only did lukewarm business and probably lost money, but that was fine. Disney had surefire hits on deck. In May, a blue computer-enhanced Will Smith starred in a take on Aladdin that was inexplicably directed by Guy Ritchie, and that one made a cool billion at the global box office. Then, in July, Disney followed up with its biggest gun: Jon Favreau taking on The Lion King, transforming the 1994 animated film into something that the company could market as a live-action remake even though it had no live action. Favreau’s Lion King did what it was supposed to do: $543 domestic and more than a billion abroad. It probably would’ve made even more if it had been any good at all.
The Lion King had long been one of the most valuable items in Disney’s whole collection of valuable items. Back in 1994, the original had been a happy surprise smash. While most of Disney’s big guns worked on Pocahontas, the company also made an 88-minute musical about big cats fighting each other and singing Elton John songs. The first Lion King—an original story, though it heavily ripped off the ’60s anime series Kimba The White Lion, as well as Hamlet—came out in the midst of Disney’s fabled Renaissance. It did huge business in theaters, more than any non-Forrest Gump picture that year. It also tattooed itself on the consciousness of a few different generations in ways that Forrest Gump could never even approach.
For anyone who was not yet a fully-grown adult when The Lion King first came to theaters—and for plenty of people who were—the movie became a part of a shared cultural experience, an endless source for quotes and memes and jokes. It left an impression, and Disney did a whole lot to turn that imagination real estate into cold hard cash. The Lion King spun off a diamond-selling soundtrack album, two hugely successful straight-to-video sequels, a couple of TV series, and a Broadway show that’s been a consistent goldmine for the company, as well as all the stuffed toys and theme-park attractions that you’d expect for a Disney hit. A Lion King remake was inevitable. It was always going to happen. Nothing could stop it.
Nobody can properly judge the 2019 Lion King as a discrete, self-contained work of art because it never even attempts to work as one. Instead, it remains slavishly, stultifyingly devoted to the 1994 original, to the point where it repeats camera shots and verbatim dialogue exchanges. (Lion King remake screenwriter Jeff Nathanson, who’d previously scripted things like Catch Me If You Can and the two Rush Hour sequels, must’ve had the easiest job in the world. It’s practically a control-C/control-V gig.) But because its CGI animals are made to look as realistic as possible, the remake loses all the stylized silliness that gave the original its most purely fun moments. The 2019 Lion King is a cartoon without any cartoony qualities. It’s a kid’s movie that pretends to be a documentary. For all the millions that went into making The Lion King, the fundamental idea of the thing is so strange and redundant that it’s almost avant-garde. It answers the question that nobody asked: What if we took this beloved nugget of childhood memories and made it boring?
The Lion King is half an hour longer than the original. It feels like it’s twice as long. The additions—the long lyrical interludes, the deeply unmemorable Beyoncé song—add nothing. But what really makes the remake drag is the way it rips out all the physical vitality. Beholden to a concept of realism, the computer-generated animals of the remake simply can’t express themselves in the ways that the hand-drawn shapes of the original could. The special-effects lions do look cool and realistic; lions themselves are fun to watch, and the technical expertise that went into the movie is just baffling. (When I rewatched the remake a few nights ago, one of my cats was absolutely hypnotized, which has to be a sign of a good special-effects illusion.) Every individual strand of hair must’ve taken untold hours to render, and there’s a certain stoner majesty to some of the sequences. But once the initial shock of these realistic animals wears off, you’re left with an entire cast of characters that can’t visibly emote.
It’s possible to imagine a Lion King remake that would do weird things with the original. If the movie version had involved puppets, like Julie Taymor’s wildly popular Broadway adaptation, then that could’ve been a way to discover some new sense of life in the material. But that would’ve been weird and risky, and Disney isn’t particularly into weird or risky. Instead, the company turned the project over to Jon Favreau, who’d come out of indie comedies and into the world of efficiently managed special-effects blockbusters.
Favreau had made Disney a lot of money with The Jungle Book, but that had been a little looser with its source material, and looseness was not the goal with The Lion King. The Jungle Book also had one human character that could anchor all the digital stuff happening. The Lion King doesn’t have human characters. It has animals who act human. The remake takes those animals and removes their human characteristics, which makes watching the movie an oddly cold and alienating task. You can’t latch onto anybody. For all the virtuosity of the animation, you can’t even tell the characters apart sometimes.
The musical numbers have no swirling bold colors, no impossible choreography. Instead, they just sit there. We watch as animals calmly roam across the screen. The moments of cartoon logic from the original—lightning striking a tree and causing a fire during a climactic confrontation— seem absurd when presented as something other than a cartoon. Without the charisma of those drawings, the storytelling becomes harder to buy, too. A young Simba, for instance, seems a whole lot dumber for trusting his obviously malevolent uncle Scar after Scar has knowingly sent him into danger. If Simba is immature, The Lion King works. If he’s simply an idiot, it becomes harder to empathize.
The decisions that went into the Lion King remake all make sense on paper. The original had way too many white people in the cast, so the remake is full of Black actors, many of whom are generational figures. But since the actors couldn’t add anything beyond their voices—no motion-capture was involved—they don’t really get to add much personality. Donald Glover, cruising on a couple of huge years, sleepwalks his way through the lead role. (He was a lot more charming promoting the film on the talk-show circuit, dressing in a lion suit and pretending that he’d been shooting on location.) Beyoncé, always a wooden actor, is simply a distracting presence whenever she’s not singing. Chiwetel Ejiofor, hampered by boring realism, never gets to chew scenery the way Jeremy Irons did in the original. An 86-year-old James Earl Jones rumbles out his old lines without the energy that he’d shown 25 years earlier. The film does none of them any favors. Only Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen, as Timon and Pumba, get a chance to riff, and they make the most of it. When they first appear, the film briefly threatens to come alive. It never quite happens.
Four months after The Lion King opened in theaters, the Disney+ streaming service launched with the premiere of Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian. That show kicks ass. It’s already had a much greater cultural impact than the Lion King remake, with Favreau reminding the world that he can do beautiful things with long-established cultural properties, as long as he has room to play around. The Lion King gave Favreau none of that room.
In its misbegotten drive to show off special-effects wizardry while otherwise declining to mess with its source material, The Lion King speaks to something dark at the heart of blockbuster filmmaking. It’s not that the people who make movies have run out of ideas. It’s that new ideas are simply not as lucrative as familiar images presented in familiar ways. A movie like Avengers: Endgame takes unpredictable left turns, but it depends entirely on the viewer’s familiarity with its characters. The Lion King remake also depends on that familiarity, but it removes the unpredictable left turns, leaving nothing. In its witless and numbing repetition, it might be the ultimate late-era blockbuster—the most representative example of that last little run before people, through habit and necessity, stopped going to the movies entirely. If the movie business, in its current form, is about to die, then it won’t just be the pandemic that killed it. The rote joylessness of spectacles like The Lion King will have a lot to answer for, too.
The contender: Toy Story 4 was pretty good, right? It’s been a little weird to see molded plastic representation of a doodled-on spork for sale at Target, since the entire idea of the Forkie character is that he’s a piece of repurposed trash given life by love and imagination. But don’t hate the player. Hate the game.
Next time: The big asterisk year. A global pandemic shuts down theaters in March and then turns all attempts to reopen into flaming disasters, threatening the entire already-tenuous existence of moviegoing culture. The would-be blockbusters all get pushed to later dates or dumped onto streaming services. Through a quirk of timing, the random-ass January release of Bad Boys For Life turns out to be the last hit standing. Shit just got a little too real.