Disney's Lion King musical: Why porting is not trivial

28 October, 2019

I have just watched the aggressively advertised "Lion King: The Musical" (Told ya I'd post about every film and such I watch!), and… let's just say, it absolutely needs that aggressive advertising.

Don't get me wrong, there are many good setpieces, and each one is brilliantly executed in lockstep. The choreography is perfect, the fog jet machines fired precisely on the beat in beautiful harmony with the music, and the on-script voices are right on point. However, when the whole thing is put together… there is barely any coherence or graspable plotline in the zoomed-out lens. It feels more like a pile of shiny cobble rather than a polished workpiece.

"The Lion King" is the Sonic Forces of musicals.

The non-obvious challenges of porting to a different medium

If you only speak proficiently in one language, you might think that translating would only consist of systematically replacing words with equivalent ones from another language (taking care to pick the right word for your meaning!) and moving them to be consistent with grammar rules. Unfortunately, the world isn’t that simple. Firstly, some words just don’t have one-to-one synonyms like that:

For example, The German word “Man” refers to whoever happens to be reading the text, while “Du” refers to a very specific person at the other side of the conversation. Both words are crushed to “You” in English.

Secondly, just like how your grandparents probably don’t know who Sans the Skeleton is, any cultural norms that are perfectly well known in the original country would be lost in translation. Westerners probably don’t know what “catching a grasshopper on an elephant” means, much like I don’t understand why westerners love baked beans so much.

You can’t expect to get a good translation by merely copying what is said in the original. You have to make sure that the intent of the author gets across in its entirety. The text is often extensively modified to make everything flow together, but at the end of it all, the readers get an experience so smooth they could almost believe it was originally written in their native language.

The same thing applies to adapting movies to musicals. You can’t copy the screenplay as exactly as possible and slap on music instead of speaking and call it a day. Musicals have a very different expectation from cinema films, and the whole thing will have to adapt to that new frame of reference.

How musicals are different

Besides those aisles to the side of the audience being accessible (a fact that The Lion King uses to great effect), musicals are just different from most films. Music is an emotional medium, being able to convey the subtle feelings of the character, so the script has to be very tightly centered around the arc of the story. Also, the goal of a musical is not to surprise new viewers, but to be something that you can watch over and over again and still feel the story the same way they originally did. That’s a very tough call, and unsurprisingly The Lion King failed it.

I have to condone the team for keeping to the tradition of local references, although a lot of them didn’t appear to be properly researched. Zazu mentioned that he would have to “go back to Suansat Khaokiaw” when Mufasa threatened to fire him, which is wrong on two accounts - one, Zazu was never in human captivity, and two, this isn’t a moment where you’d expect the audience to laugh. When Nala had to evacuate Prideland due to all the overhunting, the song is very beautiful, sure, but the backing behind it is rather shallow. It didn’t manage to pull me in from the sidelines. (Granted, I’m an aspiring engineer who walked through a haunted house with a straight face, so maybe don’t believe my senses on that one)

The port who lived

Granted, porting an existing story isn’t a bad idea - coming up with a competent story is hard, and if there’s already a famous story they can use, the creator can simply take it and optimize it as far as it can go. One example of this, which happens to be one of the most famous musicals in the world, is The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew L. Webber.

In a way, Andrew had a much harder task. A novel is this magical thing that can describe endless facts without getting the audience bored, and having a few of them make interesting fantasies of what everything looks like. Film, on the other hand, is already a performance by actors behind a fourth wall. Andrew decided to play hard mode and base his adaptation on the OG book (allegedly after attempting to base it on the film adaptations) and twist the story just a tiny bit to solve all of its flaws.

The effort paid off. While the first performance takes place in 1988, the show is famous enough to continue running to this day. While the book is often ridiculed, the remix actually receives worldwide acclaim and sparked new Hollywood film adaptations of the material. When is the last time that a sequel brought a niche franchise into the mainstream? (I can actually name one - Mega Man 2!) It’s a testament that, if you put your mind to it, a good adaptation to a musical is always possible.

Art is hard

Making an artwork of any form is no joke. The result might seem trivial and uncomplicated (unless you're an art collector I guess), but actually reaching that level of competence is actually a very hard task. Each digital canvas often takes six hours or more to polish until the artist is satisfied with it, and that's after a very long study period of color, geometry and anatomy. A movie shot is made out of a very complicated stack of takes, overlays, effects, and audio that has been endlessly tweaked to achieve the director’s vision. The agile and graceful performances of every actor in Lion King, while adding up to a not-so-good whole, has been practiced for months upon months so the actors can perform complex choreographies seamlessly in front of whole theaters of people.

However, the barrier of entry into the field is getting lower and lower every day. In the ancient times, art is a thing that is taught in a fairly exclusive manner. Today, entry level art schools are everywhere, and you might even be able to get a head start on Udemy or something. Artists no longer have to try selling paintings to the local people, they can either get themselves a Patreon or be commissioned custom work from all over the world. Furries no longer have to stay secluded, as there are probably like-minded people in some forum on the Internet. It’s now easier than ever to start your journey in the world of art, and remember, in this world, there’s no "right" or "wrong" - there’s only "you" and "not you". There's no "getting better", there's only "getting closer to how you imagined it".