The Lion King, Aladdin, Mulan, The Little Mermaid: Disney embraces diverse cast, setting course for future films
Now, Disney is investing in course-correction of all the stereotypes it has reinforced over the decades though its animated films like The Lion King.
It is quite interesting that Disney India has chosen Shah Rukh Khan to voice Mufasa and his son Aryan to play Simba, Mufasa's son, in Jon Favreau's live-action remake of their blockbuster animated film The Lion King. As a kid who grew up in the 1990s in India, both SRK and The Lion King formed a great part of my childhood.
But the live-action remake goes beyond just a nostalgia project. As Mufasa tells Simba in the film, "The sun will set on me as the king. But a new sun will dawn on you, the new king." Similarly, with Aryan Khan voicing Simba, the live-action remake is heralds in a new era. I'm not referring to the nepotism debate. But that this new generation of audiences will not grow up with the same uni-dimensional idols we grew up with in the 1990s.
Disney has had a great year so far with the top five highest grossers across the globe belonging to the production house, from Marvel's Avengers: Endgame to Pixar's Toy Story 4. A lot of film critics have written that the monopolisation needs to stop in order to prevent the Disney narrative from pervading the globe. However, Disney is conscious of the corporate social responsibility it has as the biggest studio the world of entertainment has seen so far. It is increasingly hiring black, Asian and Middle Eastern actors to be part of the live-action remakes of the very animated films that were criticised for involving only white actors.
The Lion King
The most recent example is the live-action remake of The Lion King, that stars Donald Glover as the voice of Simba and Beyonce as the voice of Nala, Simba's love interest. The voice contains a wide variety of other Black actors, but not in the role of comedians, a section that once was inherently reserved for Black actors. The voices of Timon and Pumba, Simba's two good ol' funny pals, are in fact given by Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner. Beyonce leads the pride here (literally) by Disney roping in her to compose The Lion King Album, that includes hits from the original, like 'Can You Feel The Love Tonight?' and fresh tracks, like 'Spirit'.
The recently released teaser of Niki Caro's live-action remake of the 1988 animated film shows Chinese actress Liu Yifei at the forefront. Mulan was a watershed character for Disney since it was their first ever non-white animated character. Had they wanted, Disney could have conveniently taken any white actress in the role of Mulan. Their choice of an Asian face, along with a predominantly Chinese cast and crew, including the director, speaks volumes of the direction they are heading in. Like Beyonce, Yifei will also sing the soundtrack of the live-action remake.
The live-action remake of the 1993 film introduced a potential primary character in Princess Jasmine. She was the first Middle Eastern Disney princess but was given much less screen time than her predecessors, like Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Ariel from The Little Mermaid. In Guy Ritchie's live-action remake, that released earlier this year, Jasmine is an aspirational woman and eventually becomes the Sultan. Additionally, the film boasted of actors with Middle Eastern descent, like Naomi Scott (Jasmine), Mena Massoud (Aladdin), and Marwan Kenzari (Jafar). To add to this, Disney hired Will Smith to fill the large shoes of Robbie Williams' Genie.
The Little Mermaid
After a lot of deliberation, Disney has finalised Halle Bailey, one half of pop band Chloe x Halle, as Ariel for the live-action remake of the 1989 animated film. This recent announcement led to actress Halle Berry giving a shoutout to her namesake, having starred as Catwoman in the 2004 superhero film and as Storm in the X-Men franchise herself. Fans were visibly excited on Twitter when they came up with the various fan arts of how Bailey would look as Ariel, and who they wanted to be cast opposite her in The Little Mermaid.
The Jungle Book
Disney's maiden attempt at live-action remakes started with Jon Favreau's 2016 film. Though it was said the film was inspired more by Rudyard Kipling's book than the 1967 blockbuster animated series. The film did exceptionally well in India and was the first Hollywood film to do more box office business in its original version as compared to the Hindi dubbed version.
Diversity in India
The original Lion King film had widespread influence in India, to the extent that it inspired South Indian director SS Rajamouli to make the Baahubali franchise, the plot loosely inspired by the story of The Lion King. Naturally, the live-action remake will be dubbed into three Indian languages in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. Disney India has roped in the biggest names from all the three industries to voice the characters, from Siddharth, Aishwarya Rajesh and Arvind Swamy from Tamil to Nani and Jagapathi Babu from Telugu. Additionally, director Jon Favreau's last Disney directorial crated huge waves in the Indian market.
Critics may call Disney's attempt to diversify its cast as damage control. It surely is reparation for all the stereotypes they reinforced over the decades. But they had the choice to not do so either. It would be more apt to call this new wave a course-correction. They are completely aware of how far their reach goes and the impact they can create through cinema. And by doing so, Disney is creating a new (and welcome) example of inclusive diversity.
All images from YouTube.
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