As someone who’s been obsessively watching movies for most of my natural-born life, the ones I haven’t seen take on an almost totemic status. I don’t mean the ones I’ve skipped on purpose, or the ones that just don’t seem worth the bother, but the egregious omissions, the holes in the canon that I’ve never gotten around to filling. There are some, like the three in They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s Top 100, that would make any self-respecting cinephile gasp in horror. Others are so omnipresent that actually seeing them seems almost beside the point. (You don’t need to see Love Actually to understand what the meme of Andrew Lincoln with a cue card means.)
The Lion King—the one we now, annoyingly, have to refer to as “the original”—falls into the latter category. I was either too old or too young to watch it when it first came out, past childhood and not far enough into adulthood to accept that any movie with that kind of cultural footprint was worth seeing, whether or not it was “for kids.” And then it just … never came up. There were no 35 mm rep-house screenings that might have sharpened my desire, no deluxe restorations to make an old film seem new again. It was just there, sitting on the shelf along with the other movies I’d get around to watching someday. Eventually, I decided I’d watch it with my child, once I had one, but then I had one, and, while over at a friend’s house, she watched it without me.
I can’t say I came to Disney’s new digital remake without preconceptions or foreknowledge. You’d truly have to have lived under a rock for the past 25 years to not recognize that opening blast of vocal fanfare or to not know at least a few bars of “Hakuna Matata,” and Elton John belting out “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was inescapable. But, while the idea of restaging the story as a photorealistic “nature documentary” seemed fundamentally flawed, I didn’t have any opinions about whether Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar could measure up to Jeremy Irons’, or whether John Oliver was a fitting replacement for Rowan Atkinson. I had nothing to compare the new version to.
Right from the start, though, something was off. Even without having seen the original movie’s opening sequence, I could tell the new one was copying it, and I started jotting down notes to see if it was, as I suspected, shot-for-shot. The movie was already simulating reality, attempting to make lions look “lifelike” even as they did extremely non-lifelike things like talk and sing, and now it felt like there was another simulation going on inside of that. It was similar to the feeling you get when a movie or TV show makes a reference to some piece of popular culture you’ve never seen; you don’t know what it’s tipping its hat to, but you know it’s something.
The thing is, there’s no way to watch the new Lion King and not think of the old one, even if the new one is the only one you’ve seen. Every time a clunker dropped, I wondered if there was a version of the movie where it actually worked. It’s weird, and eventually grating, the way John Oliver’s hornbill keeps hopping around as he blurts out one-liners, but maybe it would work better if the bird had arms, or at least cartoonish wings he could move like them? Why did “Be Prepared” sound like it was just shoved into the sound mix at the last minute and no one bothered to inform Ejiofor that it was actually a song? (I did love his Scar’s growling menace, although having done some post-viewing investigation, I can see why people prefer the sly insinuations of Irons’.) I didn’t need to have seen the original to know that the Beyoncé song jammed in over helicopter shots of capering animals and not sung by any of the characters was the one that had been added to the soundtrack so that Bey could get her Oscar nomination, although I turned to the person next to me and asked, “Is this the new one?” just to make sure.
Remakes permanently alter the status of their source material, which goes from being the story to a version of the story. But even if the new version supplants the original—which, despite the Lion King remake’s box-office haul, seems quite unlikely—it will always have come late to the party. Even if you somehow made it into the new Lion King without knowing its origins, you might start to wonder if there was another version of it that made more sense—one in which, for example, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” isn’t sung in broad daylight. Without an immensely popular original to guarantee the new movie’s audience, the idea of making a musical about lions that also looks like a National Geographic special would have seemed insane. It’s only out of a determination not to tread on the original’s turf that the new one was forced to trek so far into the uncanny valley. You could destroy every print, every Blu-ray, every iTunes download of the original Lion King, and the new one would still feel like a copy.