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‘The Lion King’ Dominates, But Is Disney Running Low on Remakes?

The Lion King” and its massive $185 million domestic debut proved that audiences have an insatiable appetite for Disney’s remakes and re-imaginings. Despite mixed reviews, moviegoers turned out in force for director Jon Favreau’s hyper-realistic update of the classic cartoon.

The Lion King” broke numerous box office records, including the best start among Disney’s live-action reboots. If you liked what it was selling, you’re in luck. The company will continue to dip into its vault, with a “Mulan” update and “Cruella,” an origin story based on the “101 Dalmatians” villain on deck for 2020, along with a revisit of “The Little Mermaid” currently in development. However, it remains to be seen if Disney will ever be able to climb these particular box office heights with a revisit to their past properties.

“They’ve set the benchmark with this ‘Lion King’ remake,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with Comscore. “It’s going to be really hard to replicate something on this grand of a scale considering how big the original ‘Lion King’ was.”

The studio notes that its “Mulan” trailer amassed over 175 million views, more than any live-action trailer aside from “The Lion King,” indicating interest in Disney’s classics beyond those stemming from the Prides Land.

Audiences certainly have a soft spot for Disney classics, but “The Lion King” was uniquely positioned to become a box office smash. For one, it hits the nostalgia lottery. The original cartoon was first released 25 years ago, meaning the kids who went to see it in theaters during their formative years can now take children of their own to see Simba’s classic coming-of-age story on back on the big screen.

Aside from “Dumbo,” Disney’s updated animated classics have been commercial smashes. “Beauty and the Beast” crossed $1 billion globally in 2017, while 2016’s “The Jungle Book” surprised with an impressive $966 million worldwide. And Guy Richie’s “Aladdin,” which debuted in May, is in striking distance of being another billion-dollar earner. It’s a profitable strategy, but one that might eventually run out of steam.

“The only animated film left in Disney’s vault with a chance to be a mega-blockbuster at the box office is ‘The Little Mermaid,” said Jeff Bock, a media analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “In terms of musicality and popularity, it’s right up there with ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Lion King’.”

Part of the reason that those particular reboots have been so successful is they hail from Disney’s second renaissance, a sweet spot from the late ’80s and ’90s that signaled a return to form for the studio created by Walt Disney. It’s unclear if reaching from beyond that era — to massive hits from the 1930s through 1950s that include the likes of “Pinocchio,” “Bambi” and “Cinderella” — will have the same emotional resonance for today’s audiences. When Disney has tried to remake older properties, it hasn’t worked as well. Look no further than this year’s “Dumbo,” based on an 80-year-old cartoon, for proof that even the most well-known characters can feel dated. “Christopher Robin,” a somewhat dour spin-off of “Winnie the Pooh” and the 1960s cartoons it inspired, also disappointed when it opened in 2018.

“The emotional response to ‘The Lion King’ is what propelled it to these heights,” Dergarabedian said. “Whether or not another property can instill passion to this degree remains to be seen. But it’s not that anything slightly less than this is a failure.”

And to be sure, not every movie needs to reach a billion dollars to become a hit. Moreover, they don’t need opening weekends near $200 million to ensure profitability. They also benefit from home video and lucrative merchandizing deals. But these dazzling, photo-realistic adaptations don’t come cheap. The studio spent $175 million in production fees, and hundreds of millions more to market and distribute “The Lion King.”

“You know you’ve set a bar pretty high when you expect every movie to hit $1 billion,” Dergarabedian points out.

Plus, if all else fails, Disney can start remaking Pixar movies. Get ready for a live-action “Ratatouille.”

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