‘The Lion King’ sinks its teeth into critic-audience divide

Posted at 7:18 AM, Jul 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-22 10:47:12-04

As “The Lion King” counts up receipts from a big opening weekend while still licking its wounds from negative reviews, you can almost hear the familiar murmurs — that critics are “out of step” with the audiences they profess to serve.

It’s a notion that contains a few crumbs of truth, but also a host of misconceptions.

At the risk of painting with too broad a brush, critics — simply by virtue of seeing so many productions in a particular field — are almost by definition a little out of step. Because they see everything (or as much as is humanly possible), they’re generally predisposed to look for that which is different, novel or otherwise distinctive.

That’s a difficult bar to achieve when remaking anything, especially an animated movie that’s essentially just being redone using a different animation technique. From that perspective, “The Lion King” is as much a consumer product as it is a movie.

Why another “Lion King”some have asked, 25 years later? Because audiences often seek familiar experiences, especially when it means sharing a story with their kids. Whether it’s “Star Wars” or Batman, people who enjoyed those franchises in their youth not only tend to still like them, but relish the opportunity to share them with their kids.

So is its success — with an estimated $185-million debut weekend in North America, a box-office feast fit for a you know what — a rebuke to critics, or at least, those who panned it, yielding tepid averages on review-aggregation sites? Not really.

For starters, it’s always dicey inferring a connection between making a lot of money and quality. McDonald’s sells millions of burgers, but that doesn’t necessarily make them good for you, or worthy of a four-star rating.

Second, it’s faulty to assume that critics who panned the movie were either rooting against it or felt their negative opinions would dissuade people inclined to see it.

Indeed, the reality of modern criticism means writing about films and TV shows that are essentially review-proof, as well as showering praise (occasionally) on smaller projects with scant hope of garnering big crowds.

There is, perhaps, an “old man yells at cloud” quality to lamenting the studios’ reliance on remakes, reboots and revivals, as some early reviews did. Disney made “The Lion King” for the same reason it did “Beauty and the Beast” and will do “The Little Mermaid” — not to ruin or raid your childhood, but because it thinks it can make a buck off of it. That’s hardly new, and as studios try to cut through the content clutter, even less likely to change.

Viewed that way, it’s possible to accept and even enjoy the simplicity of something like this latest “Lion King” without seeing anything remotely exciting about it, and nothing wrong with trying to temper the expectations of those hoping to be wowed. In fact, critics unmoved by the experience would be remiss, and dishonest, if they didn’t.

The best summation of this whole argument, frankly, came from Craig Mazin, the writer and producer of HBO’s “Chernobyl.” On Twitter, he responded to presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who veered out of his lane to opine that he found Disney’s live-action remakes of “The Lion King” “and other movies I grew up with a bit depressing. It’s like we can’t come up with new stories.”

“Aladdin is about a thousand years old. Lion King is Hamlet,” Mazin wrote. “They weren’t so new when you saw them either. Let the kids enjoy.”

The strong box-office results for “Aladdin” (whose reviews were also fairly tepid) and now “The Lion King” will only ensure that more remakes are pushed into the pipeline.

Whether seeing such fare sounds appetizing is, of course, up to the individual consumer. For critics, by contrast, it’s usually just one of the mandatory groups in what can be an unhealthy movie-going diet.