While, at this point, nothing should surprise us when it comes to whatever Disney is planning, this morning's Lion King related news was still something of a shock. The fact that the "live-action" Lion King is getting a sequel is not the part that should be a surprise. The movie made $1.6 billion at the global box office and there's no universe where numbers like that don't scream "sequel." However, what was somewhat shocking was the detail that Barry Jenkins, director of the Oscar-winning Moonlight will be taking the helm from Jon Favreau this time around. And I'm... excited?
To start: I was honestly pretty lukewarm on the Lion King remake. I think the movie is a technical marvel. The way the CGI creatures come to life on screen is truly phenomenal. However, the magic vanished to a large degree when the characters started speaking. Voice performances, from actors who we know are capable of more, were lacking, the characters' ability to express emotion was hampered by the "reality" of it all, and most importantly, the remake did basically nothing outside of the technology to make the story we were being told any different from the movie we all loved the first time around. (OK there was a new Beyonce song, but still.) But that's why there's some real potential in this follow-up.
The Lion King 2 Will Be Something New
It's still a little unclear just what to expect from this new Lion King follow-up film. Disney is calling it a "follow-up" to the last movie and is being careful to not use the word sequel. In part, this seems to be because the film will include some prequel elements, telling the story of Mufasa and his rise to power. Comparisons to The Godfather Part II are being made, which may be helpful to understand the story we'll get, but clearly also are putting this movie in a particular class.
Whatever the story is, one thing that's clear is that it will be something entirely new. While the animated Lion King got some direct-to-video sequels, or "follow-ups," nobody would be expecting to actually see sequels based on those movies. For example, Simba's Pride is not remembered that fondly. Then, while The Lion King 1 1/2 has some fans, it's unlikely that Disney is ready to give Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner their own movie quite yet.
This one simple idea that we'll get an original movie already has me more excited for this new movie than I ever was for The Lion King live-action film. From the first trailer, it was clear that the Lion King remake would be doing nothing different from a story perspective. This movie will have to do something new. Whether it's a story with characters we know or whether even the characters are fresh, those characters will certainly be going on an adventure we haven't seen before.
Will this one be a musical? If it is, it will need entirely new songs that we won't be automatically comparing to the songs from the original movie. If it's not a musical, then that fact itself will be a radical departure that could take this new film in all sorts of potentially interesting directions.
Moonlight's Barry Jenkins Is Directing
How can one not get excited by the idea of Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, directing the new Lion King movie? The fact that he's a somewhat shocking choice is exactly the reason I'm excited to see what the director creates for Disney.
Let's be blunt, Disney has never had difficulty attracting talent. The writers, actors, and directors that come on board projects under Disney, Marvel, and Lucasfilm are some of the biggest names in modern filmmaking. Many of them have Oscars on their shelves. Yet, there are directors, like Barry Jenkins who, for whatever reason, tend to find themselves classified above "popular cinema." Barry Jenkins makes important movies about important topics, right?
Well, yeah, he does, but first, that doesn't mean he's somehow incapable or unwilling to do other things, and second, it doesn't mean that Disney movies are incapable of handling more topical or important storylines. Will people walk out of the new Lion King and compare it to Moonlight when it comes to groundbreaking cinema? I mean, probably not, but Barry Jenkins is absolutely a filmmaker with a unique voice and one can be confident that voice will be part of this new film. I have no idea what form that will take, but the idea is exciting.
The New Lion King Can Improve On The Previous Film's Flaws
As I mentioned earlier, the only major place where the new Lion King does anything different or special compared to the original is the technology used to bring the characters to life. To be sure, that technology is truly impressive. The animal characters look like something out of a Disneynature movie. Unfortunately, there's a downside to the impressive reality of it all, as much of the emotion is lost because the animal characters can't emote the way they could in the less realistic animated film.
The new movie will give the filmmakers a chance to go back and fine-tune the parts of the technology that didn't work as well and perhaps find a way to make it more successful. We see this phenomenon in the video game world often. When a new concept or game engine is introduced, it might have a lot of promise, but the newness of it can mean a lot more bugs and various elements just not working as well as possible. When the game sequel comes along, it almost always plays better than the original because the developers are more familiar with everything and have learned how to get the best performance out of it.
Something very similar could happen here. I don't know if there's a way to make a realistic lion character emotionally resonate with a human audience better, but if it can be done, the second time around may let the digital effects people fine tune those details now that the core work has been done. It will sort of have to, as the new movie won't have the audience's memory of the original film to rely on the way the last movie did.
Obviously, I have no idea if this new Lion King movie will be any good. Certainly, it's so early that anything could happen with this project from start to finish. Maybe this movie won't even actually get made. Still, there's a lot about this upcoming movie that has me hopeful. Is the sort-of sequel being made mostly because the last movie made a metric zebraload of cash? Sure, but any movie can be great, and that includes otherwise unnecessary sequels. There's no shortage of those, and this one has more going for it than a lot of them.