When I was about two and a half years old, I set sail to join my father on board his cargo ship, where he worked as a marine engineer. There were few ways of keeping a young child entertained on board a ship back then, so my mother bought VCR tapes for me. One of the first tapes I remember watching? The Lion King. The expressive animals, with their big eyes (and obviously American accents, save Zazu), danced and sang into my little heart very quickly. I remember very little of my time aboard the ship since I was so young. But due to the sheer number of times I’d watched the film, the lines somehow were soldered on to my mind, where they sit, even today, as I turn 26. However, I do remember this one incident. I got locked in the TV room at night while watching the movie.
I was watching The Lion King, possibly for the hundredth time. Back then, the ships my father worked on only had one TV onboard. That day, as the film ended, Simba climbed onto Pride Rock to roar at the skies, the lionesses roared back in a chorus, Rafiki came back to Pride Rock to introduce the kingdom to Simba’s baby, and the credits rolled out. I flicked off the TV and walked to the door, hoping to skip across the hallway to my father’s cabin. To my horror, I found that I had been locked in. I remember crying and panicking; worrying that I would be locked in for the night. Apparently the crying was so loud that it brought crew members to the TV room, only to find me locked in. Even this incident did not stop me from indulging in my daily dose of The Lion King. Possibly to free up the TV, my parents bought books with cassettes that would read out stories to me. The medium changed but the story was the same. I still ran around the ship, humming ‘Hakuna Matata’.
Over the years, as I grew older, I never forgot this film that I loved so much. Through middle school, it became a ritual for me to watch the film at the end of every exam season. It felt appropriate to indulge in ‘Hakuna Matata’ for a few days before the results came out.
Naturally, when the live-action film was released, I was as nervous as I was excited. However, to someone who grew up on Bollywood in the 90s, the casting of Donald Glover, Beyonce, and John Oliver did little to bring excitement atleast not as much as that of hearing Shah Rukh Khan was cast in the Hindi version. Disney India achieved the perfect mix of nostalgia and star power through this casting, staring straight into the eyes of it’s millennial (now in their twenties) group of audiences, like I.
Yet, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to watch the live-action version. I was worried it would ruin my memories of the original. But in the age of social media, who is immune to FOMO? So on the day after it’s release, I gave in and walked into the theatre.
It was a Saturday morning and the hall was filled with little children, many of whom seemed to be watching the film for the first time. As they settled down with their tubs of popcorn, tissues and hand sanitizers, I braced myself for the experience. Ofcourse, I swayed and sang along to ‘The Circle of Life’. And when Rafiki held Simba for all of the Pridelands to see, I let out a ‘whoop’. Young parents quickly looked at this weird specimen of an adult who probably wasn’t much older than themselves, but sure did not behave it.
What followed was a two-hour emotional roller-coaster ride. On the one hand, the hyper-real animation almost made the film look like it was taken right out of a David Attenborough documentary, while on the other hand, the familiar songs and dialogues lulled me back into nostalgia. There were moments where some of the classic dialogues and scenes were swapped in for modern renditions; I missed those bits sorely. Like the part when Simba meets Scar after being shown the whole kingdom by Mufasa and he raises his eyebrows and says, “I’m going to ruuuuuuuule it all, haha!” Hyper-realism does away with these little quirks, by also somehow mysteriously taking away Scar’s, um well, scar. In the Disney original, even as a two-year-old, I could tell that Scar was the bad guy because of the signature Disney-villain green smoke around him. I’m not sure that if I were watching this film as a child, I’d understand that Scar is the villain, in the absence of the obvious Disney theatrics.
A striking difference between the original and the new film is obviously the difference in power dynamics between Scar and the hyenas. While Scar bosses over the ridiculous Banzai, Shenzi, Ed and company in the original, the new version hints at Shenzi being the leader of the hyenas and Scar somehow associating with them to plot against Mufasa. I’m no expert in zoology, but by possibly making the relationship between the hyenas and Scar look more realistic, the drama of the film is lost quite a bit. As this hyper-real Scar attempts to keep up relations with Shenzi and crew, he is robbed of his witty one-liners that make the Scar-hyenas relationship so entertaining in the original film. This also takes a toll on the song ‘Be Prepared’, where this new relationship leads to the conspicuous disappearance of some of the best lines like:
It’s clear from your vacant expression
The lights are not all on upstairs
But we’re talking kings and succession
Even you can’t be caught unaware!
Anyone who has grown up humming the song as a child will remember the wit and dry humour behind these lines as Scar teases the hyenas into doing his bidding.
However, the part that disturbed me the most in the new film was the scene where Mufasa died. It has been a tear-jerker (especially for millennials) for over two decades. The horror and panic that Simba feels are easily conveyed to the viewers as the background colours shift from brown, to grey, to red in the original film. Simba’s animated features help depict his sadness and terror when he sees Mufasa fall off the cliff. Even Scar’s expression looks more sinister in the animated version. It is my deepest belief that the animated eyebrows make all the difference.
In this version, Mufasa falls and dies amongst the wildebeest, much like the animals that go through their life cycles in a nature documentary. The striking resemblance that the visuals have to documentaries, coupled with the lack of eyebrows fails to engage with the audience and make them feel invested in Mufasa’s death. This was probably the first time that I watched Mufasa die and felt nothing.
By the time the interval began, I had a long list of things that I did not like about the film. But all that really changed when Donald Glover and Beyonce burst into ‘Can’t You Feel the Love Tonight’. There were tears in my eyes and nostalgia overcame me. After that, the rest of the film was mostly a great experience. I walked out of the theatre with a cohort of people who were at least two decades younger than me.
While the whole experience was bitter-sweet, I still quite wish the original were left to be. I wonder if Disney is done mining their backlist for live-action remakes.
Image courtesy: twentytwowords.com
Toonika is a writer and editor based in NCR.