Five Ways to Prep: The Lion King
By George Rose
July 18, 2019
Throughout Disney’s recent period of rebooting their classic animated tales with live action-updates, we’ve come to anticipate one title the most: The Lion King. The wait is finally over. Arguably the biggest animated film of a generation, the very nature of its all-animal cast makes a “live-action” retelling almost impossible. It’s not that Disney can’t reboot their crown jewel because it’s “just too classic,” but rather it seems a bit redundant to replace cartoons with CGI. It’s not “new” so much as it is “old with a facelift.” All of their previous efforts have had human characters, which gives the eye something to compare when that person is standing next to a singing CGI teapot. This begs the question, can their biggest animated beast make the leap into largest live-action reboot territory?
While Disney’s Jungle Book is probably the best comparison for how a cartoon about animals can be redone to fit this new era of reboots, their one human element made all the difference in getting to call the film “live-action.” Sure, Lion King still gets to brag about their “photo-realistic” animals and the technical achievement required to pull off the visuals needed to justify this upgrade, but the point remains that Lion King is as much the most difficult classic to revamp as it is the most anticipated. To me, this makes for a compelling and complicated analysts of what to expect from its box office chances. For others, it might be the moment Joker was talking about in Dark Knight when he explains how chaos is born from uncertainty.
Given how poorly non-Disney films have done this summer (and Sony/Marvel, which is basically Disney), there’s no way Lion King can be viewed as a flop. Even a complete cratering of expectations should lead to a minimum of $300 million in domestic earnings, which is a full $100+ million more than any non-Disney feature has pulled off this entire year. Disney/Marvel currently hold the top five spots on the 2019 domestic charts with all expected to at least top $300 million, although $350 million is more likely. Number six on that list is Jordan Peele’s Us with $175 million. Since some analysts think that’s how much Lion King will open with (not unreasonable since that’s what Beauty and the Beast started with), that already makes Lion King a smash hit in terms of 2019 box office performers. Compared to Hollywood’s history, well, that’s another story.
There’s a lot of reasons why we can expect a monumental run for the new Lion King and there are just as many reasons why it will underperform. We’ve grown so numb to disappointing box office returns lately that nobody will really care what happens to Lion King. For anyone to really cry about its failure it would need to earn less than $300 million, which won’t happen. For anyone to really get overjoyed with its success, it needs $700 million. The odds either of those situations happens is slim but anything is possible in this age of unpredictability. All we can do is weigh the handful of comparisons history has given us and hope realistic expectations emerge. At the very least, though, we can talk about a movie many people are excited to see and hope we can pump ourselves up for potentially the biggest non-Avenger film of the summer. So update your passport and get on your safari gear, friends, because we’re about to travel to the heartlands to prep for Disney’s Lion King!
1) THE SOURCE MATERIAL: THE LION KING (1994)
We all know the story. Current king of lions (Mufasa) is beloved by all, except maybe his wannabe king brother (Scar). The current king has new baby and would-be king (Simba). Wannabe king gets jealous, stages an accident where the would-be king thinks he is responsible for the current king’s death, wannabe king convinces the would-be king to flee his home so wannabe king can become the new current king. As a result, the tribe and local landscape fall to hell, which prompts the would-be king to return and reclaim his place on the throne. It’s a back-to-basics Games of Thrones, except instead of three major families fighting for power it’s three related men whining about who can sleep on the best rock while the women are expected to obey what’s left of the hierarchy after the pissing match is over. There’s also a few songs.
Ok, that’s underselling it. It’s actually a wonderful film about family and responsibility and there’s so much incredible music that millions of albums were sold and a hit Broadway musical was born from it. Even with mediocre reviews already coming in for the reboot, my mother is on a mission to make sure our whole family goes to see the new Lion King together “for old times sake.” The remake is basically bulletproof and nothing can slow it down. The only question left is: how loud will it roar? To start answering this question, we can look back at the O.G. Lion King. Excluding IMAX and 3D re-releases, 1994’s Lion King opened wide with $41 million and earned $313 million after a lengthy run. In 2019 dollars that becomes a $88 million debut and a $672 million domestic total. Given the way films now open larger and fade faster, the $88 million original opening weekend could possibly be what 2019’s King does on its first day alone. That’s what it would need to come close to a $200 million opening weekend, which is what it would need if it hopes to hit $672 million domestic. That didn’t seem impossible a month ago, but weak early reviews and the current summer movie doldrums make the once expected now seem just a touch out of reach.
2) DISNEY LIVE-ACTION UPDATE COMPS: JUNGLE BOOK (2016) & BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) & ALADDIN (2019)
Jungle Book took one of the oldest Disney cartoons, one with mostly talking animals, and somehow made a photo-realistic/live-action hybrid masterpiece. After 95% of critics unanimously supported it, audiences were not far behind. It debuted with $103 million, beat the average 2.5-3x multiplier of most movies and legged it out to $364 million, and earned almost $1 billion worldwide. A movie almost nobody asked for became a blockbuster smash that spawned a sequel (in pre-production) and gave way to hope that a Lion King update could actually work. Looking to capture the same charm as Jungle Book, Disney decided to bring back the same director (Jon Favreau) for their next photo-realistic venture. Can lightning strike twice or is the return of Favreau playing it a little too safe?
Beauty and the Beast took the played-out concept of live-action updates and defied expectations to become the biggest hit yet. Was Emma Watson that bankable as Belle? Did the timing of the release hit the live-action sweet spot to out-earn the other two biggest Disney remakes (Jungle Book and Alice in Wonderland, both in the $300-400 million range)? With only 71% positive reviews and questions about how auto-tuned Emma’s singing was, it’s amazing the beast raked in $175 million on opening weekend, $504 million domestically in total and almost $1.3 billion worldwide. Since the animated King earned over twice what the cartoon Beast did back in the 1990’s, it seems like it’s safe to bet Simba will reclaim yet another crown. Or is it?
Aladdin’s animated counterpart earned more than Beast’s back in the 1990’s, but that wasn’t the case for the live-action update. Fan outrage over the Genie’s appearance, a barely tolerable 57% positive rating and a haunted Memorial Day release date meant nobody was surprised by Aladdin’s almost laughable $92 million debut. Was it another Solo: A Star Wars Story, doomed to debut under $100 million and struggle to top $200 million? NOPE! Critics got it wrong with audiences LOVING the update (this writer included), with word-of-mouth carrying the tune to almost $350 million domestically and $1 billion worldwide. Despite Lion Kong’s similarly underwhelming 59% positive reviews, there’s hope audiences feel differently again. Everybody loves a 4x opening-to-total multiplier, but what good is that without a proper opening weekend?
What does all of this mean? Even a great animal tale like Jungle Book couldn’t cross $400 million. Beauty and the Beast needed an A-list princess and decent reviews to cross $500 million. Aladdin has similar star power but worse reviews, and also couldn’t cross $400 million. Good animals + bad reviews = $350 to $400 million, which will be the case if Lion King opens between $100-125 million. It needs at least a $150+ million debut and $500+ million total to tie Beauty and the Beast, which itself is disappointing since the cartoon was twice as big. And we need at least $200 million to hope it crosses $600 million, which it has to do to come close to comparing to the original animated feature.
3) MARVEL IS ALL THAT MATTERS: BLACK PANTHER (2018)
The problem most analysts are facing is that we are talking about Lion King like it’s playing by all the same rules as every other Disney live-action remake. If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that the only reliable brand is Marvel. If Marvel has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t underestimate the not-white characters and you certainly can’t compare them to the standard fluff the studio usually churns out. Before Black Panther, no individual character film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was able to top the Avengers’ $623 million total. Heck, only a few could barely top $400 million. Then came Black Panther with its $202 million debut, $700 million domestic total, and $1.3+ billion worldwide earnings. Maybe the 97% positive reviews helped or maybe the almost all-black LIVE-ACTION cast made this an event film and cultural phenomenon. Lion King doesn’t have the strong reviews and the almost all-black voice cast is hidden behind CGI lion faces, so the stars aren’t as aligned as they were when a black actor came out from behind his CGI panther mask. Still, the power of inclusion might be at hand for Lion King. Nothing breeds success quite like including audiences that are generally ignored, and if any reboot can overcome lackluster reviews to debut around $200 million it’s Lion King.
4) LOOK WHO’S TALKING NOW: MADAGASCAR 2 (2008) & ZOOTOPIA (2016)
You know, all this talk about numbers and potential earnings has distracted most analysts and fans from one of the most burning unanswered questions: do humans exist in the world of Lion King? There have been movies made before about sons of lion kings that must prove their worth to lead a pack (Madagascar 2), but people existed in that world with animal conversations occurring outside of human awareness. There’s also movies about lions that are kings (or mayors) of a city (Zootopia), although humans don’t exist so the tales revolve around animal-only drama while they do the same nonsense daily activities as the missing humans. Lion King doesn’t have the animals living like humans and wearing clothes, like in Zootopia, but they also aren’t exploring areas outside of Africa where the humans can cage them in zoos, like in Madagascar. There is no mention of poachers or nearby tribes or Wakanda or airplanes, so maybe Lion King IS set in a world of humans before they evolved enough to take over the land. Nobody knows but one thing is for sure, Disney does everything better. Madagascar 2 wasn’t a Disney release and had 64% positive reviews, which led to a $180 million domestic total and $604 million worldwide. Zootopia was a Disney release and had 97% positive reviews, which led to a $341 domestic total and $1 billion worldwide. What does this mean for Lion King, a Disney release with Madagascar-level reviews? Well, probably still $1+ billion since Aladdin is pulling that off but maybe not the $1.3-ish billion Beauty and the Beast or Black Panther managed.
5) THE ACTUAL SOURCE MATERIAL: AFRICAN CATS (2011)
No matter what happens to Lion King, it will still never perform as poorly as actual lions on film. For all the blockbuster chasing that Disney does (and does well), you can’t argue that at one point they took a clear beating in the name of charity. Their DisneyNature films never broke out big but they always served a purpose, proving it’s the responsibility of the rich to help earn money for the poor and proving they’d do anything to show audiences they aren’t just a money hungry machine. Despite the documentary earning respectable reviews with 73% showing positive marks, African Cats only opened with $6 million and barely earned $15 million. These are numbers the new Lion King should eclipse during the Thursday sneak previews alone.
Maybe the problem is that anyone who wants to see normal, boring lions can find them on YouTube or Animal Planet. Or maybe people only like lions that can talk. Even bad movies with talking lions do moderately well. It’s no question that Lion King will be profitable and will fall somewhere on the list of the Disney-owned Hollywood 2019 Top 5 Biggest Blockbusters of the Year. It’s barely a question if there’s humans living in the world of Lion King. The only question still needing to be answered is what will Lion King debut with? A 2.5-4x multiplier will follows from there and then we’ll really know how badly (or not) the 2019 box office is performing. At the end of the day, we’re the only ones that care about this numbers game. Disney just releases these movies as two-hour advertisements for their real cash cow: merchandising. They’re the real lion king here and we’re just the stupid prey waiting to be consumed by whatever box office numbers emerge now that the Summer Drought of 2019 is finally over.