Avoiding the Roar – Boycotting ‘The Lion King’

Fikri Jermadi divulges the reasons why he’s not watching the biggest film in the world right now.

I’m not planning to watch ‘The Lion King’.

In truth, that’s probably not the most controversial statement anyone would have made any time recently. Other, far more important and significant things are occurring in the real world, so to speak, but in the context of running a website deliberately focusing on films, it’s probably not the wisest thing to deliberately skip on the biggest film in the world right now.

And my, how well it is doing. It’s posting blockbusting numbers, beating the final Harry Potter film by some margin, as well as being regarded as attaining the biggest three-day weekend for an animated film. An argument could and probably should be made about whether that should be an uncontested claim. Is it live-action? Is it animation? It’s a combination of both, truth be told, but conventional categories of film sorting have yet to catch up to this technological wonder.

It is a wonder, because when the announcement was first made, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how this film would look. “A live action version of ‘The Lion King’?” I had thought to myself many times over. I almost literally couldn’t see it. I had seen how ‘The Jungle Book’ looked like, and given how they have the same director in the hot seat, it would help in visualising the final bigger picture. Yet I still find it difficult to consider how the film would be reimagined as a live-action edition.

This is a conundrum that would continue even as news of the film’s production started to be promoted and shared around the web. Yes, I did not think this is a film I would like to watch, but I must admit to having a kind of thrill in recognising the names involved in the new version. No, it is not, as you might think, the likes of Beyoncé or Donald Glover, fantastic performers in their own right through they are. We’re getting a lot warmer with the likes of John Oliver, a personal favourite of mine whose career I have been following through the years with great interest. We hit the jackpot, though, with James Earl Jones, the voice not only of Darth Vader, but also the original Mufasa in the 1994 film.

Therein lies the clue behind the very deliberate decision of avoiding ‘The Lion King’ as it hit cinemas last week. Perhaps the term ‘boycott’ is a tad strong, averring as it does a sense of socio-political commentary to the proceedings. Maybe such a stance should be taken against Disney’s successful attempts of cultural imperialism, exporting many of its stories around the world. Yet even that I did not really have that big of a problem with, for they do a lot of the things they do very well, and I myself have greatly enjoyed many a Disney product.

It is the sense of meaning-making being taken out of my hands.

A similar discussion could be noted with the brief brouhaha brought about by many around the world with the (re)casting of Ariel. For those living under a rock (under the sea), Halle Bailey has been chosen to perform as the eponymous character in ‘The Little Mermaid’. The fact that she is an African-American caused some consternation, a reaction that some have lazily labelled as racist.

In truth, perhaps there are those who do feel that there is no need for such an adherence to political correctness and the righting of racial wrongs to be done to such an extent. Maybe some actually don’t like the idea of a black mermaid. I’m willing to bet, however, that many more are looking at the issue not with any conscious political statements in mind, but simply with the mindset that their childhood (or the memory of it, at the very least) is being messed around with, that there will be a reimagining of something sacred.

We are the stories we are told and tell. That’s a line I have long considered to be true, at least to my very self and perhaps those around me. Our identity is wrapped up in the very stories regurgitated over and over again, a (re)construction that reify (and perhaps even deify) who we are as human beings. The very repetition of that inevitably begets a meaning that will stay with us even as others don’t.

In the context of films, meaning is often made through repetition, by calling back that which have been presented earlier. The difference presented through this creates whatever you want to create: epiphany, catharsis, anagnorisis. All are useful storytelling devices, and all are important in the creation of meaning.

I mention all this because ‘The Lion King’ as a product of the cultural industry, a remake in its own right of Shakespeare’s own art… means so much to me. As a child, it’s sticker album was probably the first such effort I had attempted to complete. I have also read various editions of its own storybooks. Before my family moved to England, we went to MPH and bought all sorts of such cultural texts to bring along with us, as mementos that, in some cases, would soothe the feelings of homesickness when we are away.

Along with cultural paraphernalia such as the music cassette KRU’s ‘Awas’ and the ‘Putera’ film VHS tape, you could find the soundtrack for ‘The Lion King’. At times, it feels like we would have played it ad infinitum at home, and certainly on long trips we would later take with our Volvo, into which we would stuff a family of seven as we traverse up and down the British Isles. That’s the kind of meaning that the enjoyment of ‘The Lion King’ had brought not just to myself, but also to my family (my little sister still have the same Simba we’ve had for over 20 years kept for her somewhere in Penang).

As such, going to watch a newer version of the film feels like I am treading upon paths I have walked down many times over the years. Perhaps more specifically, I do not feel that I am motivated to enjoy newer vistas of the same journey; instead, I am stepping upon meanings already made real, and am encouraged to create newer ones in spaces where such feelings are still strong. In that sense, I am not watching ‘The Lion King’ not because I do not care for it, for the story, its characters, the journey of Simba, the treachery of Scar, the wonders of its music and the fine filmmaking skills of Favreau.

Rather, I care too much. It is where I may need to check my own biases. Maybe I just need to loosen up. This is, in a way, a denying of the self, given how much of cinema I have already enjoyed. Perhaps it is also rejecting what may well be a wonderful cinematic experience, one upon which newer meanings are to be made by a whole new generation; perhaps someday I myself will sit down and watch the film with my son. Nevertheless, if it is indeed true that we are the stories we are told, ‘The Lion King’ is one I have already been made aware of, been made to feel for, and been made to cry about, and for now at least, I am not willing to run the risk of displacing the meanings I have already made in my own life.

Featured image credit: Amanda Sovine / Pinterest 

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