I became a pet owner at the Pampa, Texas carnival in the summer of 1996.
After hours, lost to rigged games, justice was mine at last, as the last of my bean bag tosses made an ESPN-worthy, slow-mo swish into the JUMBO PRIZE bucket.
It was a pity gift for my parents, really, the sweat-pit stained, makeup-streaked carnie having nudged the bucket towards the throw line, sensing a tantrum should I lose. Again.
“Congratulaaaaaations” she slurred, slinging my prize over the counter. Inside the silicon snow globe, a cross-eyed goldfish bounced inside, my own little astronaut flung into zero-gravity.
I should’ve questioned a system that hands out things with gills like party favors. But when you’re four and the only power you know is driving a mad barter for three, not four chicken nuggets before ice cream, you don’t ask questions. You snatch the bag and run.
I surveyed my newest treasure, poking my finger as if to enter her world, bopping her nose like an Eskimo kiss.
“Nala,” I said. I had saved that name in my reserve for years because, in ’96, no other held reverence like hers, the Queen of Pride Rock.
Four hours later, I summoned my family to the toilet. We gathered around a belly-up Nala laying in her porcelain coffin, the brief life and quicker death I would later learn is predestined to all carnival fish.
With a stoic hand on the lever, I declared my retirement from animal tending and said goodbye to the first thing I ever won, named and loved.
“Nala was a good fish,” I said.
I should’ve seen Nala’s demise as an omen of things to come.
Welcome to the era of Cinematic Recycling. Whether the creative well has run dry or simply we have not the manpower to dig a new one, I’m in a constant state of déjà vu, running into characters that earn a double-take, you look vaguely familiar?, reciting lines, I swear I’ve heard before?
Wasn’t there a vault practically threatening the safekeeping of these films forever?! I digress, no animated classic is safe and long ago I accepted the newer, better, IMAX-ier version awaits all the films of my childhood.
But then, The Lion King reboot was announced.
My reaction was as follows:
Heart-bursting, to nerves-squirming and then, full-body seething.
A line had been crossed.
And that mostly has to do with Beyoncé.
Before I’m thrown to stampeding wildebeest for an opinion offered before viewing, I am cashing in my hours of OG-rewatching credits, owner of the VHS cassette, a product of the Simba generation.
Let’s start by differentiating between the two streams of cinematic transfiguration.
The most common and pervasive, the Remake goes about massaging one work to birth a fraternal twin: same DNA, different essence.
At its best, you end up with something like Les Misérables, a book, a Broadway musical and twice-made movie. The gap differentiating them all is so wide, neither threatens nor competes, letting each be appreciated as an independent creation.
Remakes at their worst, well, we’ll get there.
Cousin to the Remake, the Extension can bear less initial offense simply because, sometimes, a story isn’t finished telling itself.
Wicked was built on this premise. Also a book-to-Broadway production, it plays on what the Wizard of Oz didn’t say: characters unexplained, theories unexplored, the whisper from Unfinished Business: But wait, there’s so much more.
However, some tales are one-and-doners.
Big Little Lies, written by Liane Moriarty, lived an after-print fairytale: picked up by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, swept into a script, swept up an A-team cast, and later, practically every Emmy with it.
But why stop at one?! The people want this!
With a hit on their hands and not a sequel to guide, Big Little Lies aired its ultra-hyped season 2.
The success garnered in BLL’s first season was only outshone by the failure of its second. Even the legendary Meryl Streep wasn’t enough life support to revive it.
Lesson being: no audience request, acting master, nor award is a justifiable pass to trespass the land of a completed story.
A Roar Gone Wrong
What both renditions often share is a self-indulgent goal to pester the soil and soul of a settled storyline. The Remake ratio of blockbuster to flop is so disproportionate, the pattern to continue this factory output of them is shocking.
So about Lions.
I can’t not mention, The Lion King has already violated its own franchise. Twice. However, The Lion King II and The Lion King 1 1/2 (1 1/2! The audacity!) stray so far from the original both can be forgotten and forgiven as naïve, faux pas.
With brazen third-times-a-charm bravado, Disney took another whack at it, attempting to neither remake nor extend, but repackage, exhume and exploit.
They unboxed their best bells and whistles, bringing in photorealistic animation and a celebrity-studded cast. They borrowed the trade tricks of casinos to stimulate audiences with a richer, more-dazzling rendition of the 1994 original.
And on its CGI-botoxed face, it worked.
As of August 11th, The Lion King became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, dethroning Frozen and taking home $1.334 billion at the global box-office.
Reviews, however, roared in disapproval.
“Joyless, artless, and maybe soulless.”
“At almost every moment, this version is almost intentionally less urgent, less enchanting, less passionate and less operatic.”
“Unfolding like the world’s longest and least convincing deepfake, Jon Favreau’s (almost) photorealistic remake of “The Lion King” is meant to represent the next step in Disney’s circle of life. Instead, this soulless chimera of a film comes off as little more than a glorified tech demo from a greedy conglomerate — a well-rendered but creatively bankrupt self-portrait of a movie studio eating its own tail.”
The conflicting triumph and distaste of Disney’s latest adaptation revealed a misstep in the recipe. Turns out, Beyoncés and digital whimseys are insufficient substitutes for storytelling.
So why is this Beyoncé’s fault?
It’s not. Not exactly.
She is but one Disney recruited in a stacked cast rivaling an Avengers movie: Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, John Oliver, Shahadi Wright Joseph and James Earl Jones.
But they are not Beyoncé. Beyooooncé, with a name like an adjective, the way God is to omnipotence, Hitler is to evil, LeBron to athleticism.
I take issue with Beyoncé specifically because, once cast as Nala, the Venn diagram shared with the character was quickly eclipsed and swallowed whole by the Queen Bey Vortex.
The wildly-talented (and read: WILDLY, UNDENIABLY TALENTED) star has left no sector of art and culture unturned. Where there is a platform, you will find her present, breaking the Internet with her gospel.
So though it was rumored that “Disney created an expanded version of Nala to give Beyoncé more speaking lines and a much bigger role than the original,” her 18-minute, 51-second screen allowance (silent shots and background appearances of Pride-Land galavanting included) would seem like a poor and very expensive investment unless you fully grasp the power of a name.
And when that name is Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, success is a birthright to whatever attached, superseding public critique, therefore making organic consumption a byproduct.
Quick aside: being a female adds a layer of frustrating reluctance to admit my Beyoncé skepticism. Her image has become equated with female empowerment, so being for her is the peer-pressured membership dues to being on the right side of feminism. Any counter to her as an icon or of her narrowly-defined and obscurely-actioned genre of feminism, is to defend the patriarchy, thus divorcing you from The She Tribe, a deserter of the cause.
Rarely does a celebrity achieve this invincible brand of Demi-god stature. But it’s not without consequence. Beyoncé’s four-corner coverage stretches a character so thin, her authenticity becomes much like the Nala she voices: hyper-realistic, yet sterile.
She’s out here standing for sexually-liberating feminism! But she is not here for being sexually objectified, people! She’s all here for being Mrs. Knowles-Carter! But if Mr. Carter steps out, she’ll step out with an entire album to let him (and mostly us) know he’s dispensable! She’s mostly not here for the drama! Buuuut should scandal arise, Lemonade? She’s Nala, antelope-hunting! But really, she’s just Bey, here for a plant-based lifestyle, you guys! She’s here, she’s one of us, down to earth! She’s here, but actually not here with us, the commoners, at all!
Beyoncé is a battery of contradictions that make separating her from the on-screen character complicated, distracting and impossible.
Which was sort of the point, wasn’t it?
Less than twenty minutes was all the buzz needed to seal Lioyoncé, a relationship that feels as eternal and cliche as the high school quarterback and cheerleader match. Neither needs the other to climb the social hierarchy, but the matrimony breeds divinity, pulling the two into a contractural coupling.
Which is why Disney’s Hook, Line and Sinker approach didn’t work. I polled moviegoers about their take, a chance to repeal my doubts. If there was something to hate, I wanted forewarning. Mostly, if there was something to love, I wanted convincing to go. But after three culprits were loudly repeated, my holdout was solidified.
The Hook: Nostalgia
If The Lion King remake didn’t feel like a Nostalgia invasion, Disney’s shot-by-shot product made a mockery of it. Sentimentality is largely unrepeatable and most compelling in subtle whiffs, which is why revamping is a delicate venture.
A blatant Copy + Paste could never be the vehicle to transport us back into the’94 feels, but rather a red-flagged reminder of just how far we are from it.
The Line: CGI
The Lion King’s most-impressive achievement was also the source of its loudest criticism: fake animals that didn’t look quiiiite fake enough.
CGI animation used the film as a stage to showcase Disney’s digital capabilities, like the unveiling of the iPhone 20X+ at an Apple Keynote.
I don’t need lions that could pass a Planet Earth casting call, the people said. Instead, bring me lions that can believably befriend warthogs, sing and swing across jungle vines, seek out a primate’s advice, fall in love. When animated imagination was traded out for lifelike *pizzazz*, viewers were hijacked the very emotive punch that brought them back a decade later.
The Sinker: Bey
Hakuna Matata memories could’ve been made possible if it was a placid cast delivered the story, rather than employing one that intentionally entangles it with the societal complexities we, the VHS-watching, chicken-nugget-bartering kids, did not yet know existed.
Beyoncé’s image dominated King collateral, but an impotent 18:51 contribution revealed Disney’s strategic, yet self-conscious move to ride the mane of a deity, backed by a frighteningly-loyal Beyhive stan (that I’m soon expecting to descend with pitchforks on my lawn and Twitter feed). Because Disney gave her the green light and we continue to allow her to bypass public critique, Beyoncé is robbed of her humanity, and by proxy, her work will be, too.
“Nostalgia is delicate, but potent.”
In a boardroom pitch to Kodak, Mad Men’s Don Draper clicks through photos of his wife and kids, a picturesque family that is a stark contrast to the reality of his personal life off Madison Avenue. The slide projector, Draper-dubbed “The Carousel”, was a memory-generator, allowing us to remake and extend the experience of a moment.
Don saw the perilous potential of nostalgia’s command.
Maybe movie trailers are the Carousels carrying a fair peace treaty: Technology gets to remind us it could’ve done this like, soooo much better *hair flip* and we still get a jolt of fuzzies without corroding the entirety of a memory.
I hadn’t heard about a Lion King reboot in the works, so my first trailer tease had me transfixed: I was hoisting a lion cub (couch pillow)in unison with Rafiki, belting “Naaaaaaaaaaahsavenyaaaaaa” over the Pride Rock (couch) edge, while a puddle of tears collected below.
And maybe that moment was enough.
I’m not asking Disney to quit the remake, I’m asking them to handle the potency (falsely promised to have been locked away in a vault…) responsibly. Because unlike Mufasa’s declaration, I don’t think everything the light touches is ours.
So why is this Beyoncé’s fault?
It’s not. Not entirely.
Because she’s just a carnival fish.
The latest Lion King was purely an impure sleight of hand. Disney shoved a bag of inviolable gills into our hands, adamantly chanting, “This is a pet! This is a prize!” Enamored, we believed in the fulfillment of its shell, forgetting the fish is toilet-bound by dusk.
But the carnival fish in the form of Beyoncé was not a prize nor a pet, only the simulation of one, a temporal, emotive fix for the real thing that was or will come later.
When I inevitably cave and behold the newer, better, IMAXier version of my favorite Disney Classic, perhaps an apologetic rebuttal will be in order.
Regardless, when Nala makes her brief debut, I will first think of The OG, how proud she would be of my Nala, the goldfish that outlasted Beyoncé by 222 minutes and 51 seconds.