Last week, trying to find something to satisfy my one-movie-a-week rule, I resolved to finally watch the remake of the Jungle Book that John Favreau directed. I have been a huge fan of Favreau ever since he was totally not playing Tony Stark in Friends season three, so I thought I’d enjoy it. I ended up loving it. On the whole, I thought that the movie was cleverly done, with brilliant imagery and a unique approach to adapting the source material. Favreau’s Jungle Book is not so much a remake as it is a reimagining, telling a different story using the cartoon’s beloved characters and incorporating elements from Rudyard Kipling’s stories that were not adapted into the movie.
My viewing of the film came hot on the heels of the announcement that Donald Glover would be playing Simba in the remake of the Lion King. Now I am always on board for anything with Glover, who is one of the most unique talents in just about every form of media right now. We are still months away from even having a clear idea of the cast, but I started to think about how Favreau could breath life into his remake as he had with The Jungle Book. My trip to see Beauty and the Beast in theaters also gave me some idea of some things that I might not like to see them do.
Now I enjoyed the remake of Beauty and the Beast, even if the soundtrack relied a bit too much on auto-tuning and if it ironically seemed to lack some of the vibrancy and life of the original. The movie was gorgeously shot, very well acted, and for the most part a lot of fun to sit through. I particularly enjoyed Dan Stevens’ Beast, who brought an unexpected energy to the role under the layers of CGI. Yet the things that I enjoyed the most about the film were the moments when I got exposed to the relationships and stories that were not explored in the original cartoon.
To be honest, I found myself more interested in the love story between the Candelabra and the Feather Duster than I was between the Beauty and the Beast. The brief snippet of Lumiere and Plumet’s intimacy made their inability to touch and feel seem all the more tragic. Although it could be argued that other additions to the story were unnecessary and slowed down the film with an additional fifty minutes of content, these new character pieces made the film seem somewhat richer than the original. Where I think the film suffered however, was where it clung too closely to the source material.
When I was younger I played the first two games in the Kingdom Hearts series, where classic Disney characters and Final Fantasy characters meet and do battle. It’s unique. The second game has a level set in the Beast’s castle. I am fairly certain that I could successfully navigate the set of the remake simply based upon this experience.
I am usually a fan of paying respect to the source material, but there is imitation and there is emulation, and Beauty and the Beast erred on the side of the former. Scenes from the original movie were recreated almost frame for frame in live action, and looked exactly as I imagined them prior to seeing the film. Yet instead of feeling thrilled that these images were coming to life, they somehow felt smaller and less intense. For The Lion King to be successful I believe that it needs to emulate the original, using it as a template but expanding upon it to do something different.
The first thing that the new Lion King must do, in my opinion, is to update the classic tunes for a more modern sound. This might seem like heresy, but while listening to the new Beauty and the Beast soundtrack I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. It was all perfectly fine, but it just never added anything to the film beyond a few original pieces. (“Evermore” is quite good, but I still prefer “If I Can’t Love Her” from the stage play) In order to do something interesting with the Lion King’s music the new film has to reinvent them, rather than just reproducing them. We don’t need to hear Donald Glover imitate the original Jason Weaver’s “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.”
Wait, the older brother from Smart Guy was the singing voice of young Simba?
That being said, I would very much like to hear Donald Glover’s take on “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” or more accurately, Childish Gambino’s take on the same. Donald Glover is not just an actor who can sing, he’s a musician in his own right, and an incredibly talented one at that. If this movie is going to succeed and surpass the original, it has to take full advantage of his considerable abilities. He should be involved in the soundtrack. He should have the chance to play with and update the music. Let the man rap for god’s sake. Hamilton just proved that massive audiences can be won over by a musical that incorporates hip-hop. Disney should learn from this and take the opportunity to let a great performer have some fun.
I think this brings up another important point for the adaptation of The Lion King, the casting. Just cast actors of color. You know you’re going to take heat for not doing it, so just do it. There is an absurdly rich pool of actors who can shine in these roles, and Disney can afford to cast them. Imagine Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele of Key and Peele as Timon and Pumba. Or Maharshala Ali, fresh off of his Oscar success, being cast as Scar. Not only would these actors bring depth and gravitas to beloved characters, but they would also give the new film its own flavor wholly unique from the first film.
One thing Beauty and the Beast did very well was to incorporate a very diverse cast, and this just gives Disney the chance to follow-through on what they’ve already begun. I’m not saying that we need a Timon-Pumba love story, but I think that this is a great opportunity to expand the audience and to be more inclusive. This gives them another chance to do something unique, and if the Internet complains then they can just point to the version that has been performed onstage for the last twenty years.
Pictured: Not Matthew Broderick and Jeremy Irons
In addition to these basic ideas about the music and casting of the film, I have specific ideas to update and innovate when it comes to the story. Now as I mentioned in the beginning, one of the things that made the Jungle Book stand out for me was how it borrowed from and played with the original literature. Favreau used not only the classic cartoon, but also the writings of Rudyard Kipling to creating a more interesting world of jungle politics and intrigue. He hit the major beats that everyone came for like “Bare Necessities” but delivered a new and interesting narrative. Favreau should take a page out of his own book and lean on his two sources: The Lion King, and Hamlet.
It should be no surprise to anyone that The Lion King is essentially Shakespeare’s Hamlet with talking animals. A treacherous brother kills the king to take the throne and the prince, after much waiting, eventually avenges his father’s death. Now the Disney version of this story streamlines it significantly and cleans up much of the angst of Hamlet’s character. Simba is afraid to go back both because of his shame but also because he wants to run away from his responsibilities and have fun. It’s a brilliant way to sanitize the original story without losing the drama of Hamlet’s struggle.
But since we’re adapting the Lion King, why not put a little bit of the original character back into the story? At its heart Hamlet is a palace intrigue story that meanders into abstract explorations about the meaning of life, death, and loss. This is driven by the nature of the thoughtful, conflicted, and constantly uncertain title character. This is genius of the play, it’s about a thinking man grappling with difficult questions. I’m not suggesting Donald Glover’s Simba should perform the entire “To Be or Not To Be” speech, but why not let him be more of an intellectual?
Glover has the charm and talent to make a quirkier, more introspective Simba likeable and relatable. Perhaps he doesn’t feel like he is suited to be the king after all. Maybe he wonders whether or not it is right to take revenge on his father’s killer and bloody his own…paws? He should be conflicted and troubled, because this tells us that the silly child from the beginning of the play has become an adult who understands the gravity of his choices. This would give Simba a more mature arc that would still be palatable for younger audiences. It also provides the opportunity to include more of the themes and characters from the play.
I have a few ideas about how Favreau could incorporate these story elements, such as the presumed madness of Hamlet and the more conniving nature of Polonius, (I mean Zazu). However, I think that the best addition to the movie would be to give Simba a version of Laertes to compete against. Now in Hamlet, Laertes is the older brother of Ophelia (Nala) who butts heads with the prince in a very, very fatal duel at the climax of the play. Whereas Hamlet is introspective and hesitant, Laertes is inspiring and brash, and galvanizes the people’s support. He is a perfect foil for Hamlet, and he should be used as one.
Imagine if throughout The Lion King this character, let’s call him Jelani, was introduced as Simba’s childhood rival. Simba is meek but inquisitive, but Jelani is proud and dutiful, never stepping a toe out of line. They don’t get along because Jelani feels that he is more suitable to be king, and because of Nala’s connection to Simba. Although we know that he is in conflict with our main character, we start to recognize that Jelani is admirable in his own way.
While Simba fled from the pride when his father was killed Jelani remained and tried to do his best for his family, not shirking his responsibility. Yet his loyalty to his family and to the pride leads to his downfall. Eventually, just like Laertes, Jelani is poisoned against our hero through his uncle’s trickery. Maybe Scar even assures Jelani that he will make him his heir so that he will become king one day. Jelani becomes Scar’s lieutenant and becomes an obstacle for Nala and Simba.
When Simba returns, perhaps leading a rival pride, he has to prove himself against Jelani. This allows Favreau to put in some more action and raise the stakes before the climactic battle with Scar. Simba and Jelani, who in my dream cast is voiced by the star of Hamilton/Clipping Daveed Diggs, battle while singing a twisted version of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.”
We see that Simba has become Jelani’s equal in strength and skill, and that he has combined his keen mind with an ability to lead and inspire just like his father. Only after proving himself as a leader can Simba truly accept his mantle as the leader of the pride, and Jelani can prove a powerful ally for him when he is inevitably redeemed. By adding to the original film you provide the actors with a chance to reinvent the classic characters while paying homage to the material we all love.
This is how I would remake The Lion King, but ultimately I really just want it to take some risks. Based on everything we’ve seen of these remakes and adaptations, it is most likely going to do very well for itself in the box office. Everyone is going to want to see it, and to take their children to see the film they loved when they were young re-envisioned. So if we know that it’s almost guaranteed to be a financial success, why not have some fun?
If nothing else, we know Favreau can get this scene right: