A few years ago, when Disney announced it would be remaking The Lion King, I can’t say that I was swept up in the general excitement.
Sure, it’s a wonderful thing to bring to the forefront once again a story so rooted in African imagery and culture. Yes, we would get to hear some of our faves like Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, and Beyoncé, assuming the voices of classic characters.
But still, I wasn’t all that moved.
It’s not that I’m a stalwart in thinking that no Disney classic should ever be touched. It’s just that so often when they are touched, the results are uninspiring.
Occasionally, Disney will turn the wheel in a more interesting direction, like remaking Sleeping Beauty as Maleficent’s origin story, or making Alice a bit more complex as in Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland.
But by and large, Disney rarely pushes its intellectual property in any bold direction.
To a certain degree, why should it? Disney has rarely had a miss at the box office with its wave of remakes. It’s a copy-and-paste job that still rakes in massive audiences.
However, Beyoncé’s Black Is King is a blueprint of what’s possible outside the obvious—and one that I’m hoping Disney takes note of for future projects.
In conjunction with the release of The Lion King remake last year, Beyoncé also dropped The Gift, a soundtrack featuring new songs inspired by the film.
In true Beyoncé fashion, she had to turn it into a visual album, nay, a film—more on that later.
Released today on Disney Plus, Black Is King is a sweeping cinematic exploration of loss, traditions, transformations, and celebrations, all rooted in arresting images of Blackness—and it’s exactly what The Lion King remake should’ve been.
Black Is King is pretty much an abstract version of The Lion King. We follow the journey of a young prince into adulthood as he navigates all the detours that lie within. Black Is King even includes the interludes on The Gift that are sound bites from The Lion King, which further frames this experience as a conceptual retelling of Simba’s odyssey.
Black Is King and The Gift are such rich and unique adaptations and interpolations that I couldn’t help wondering how other Disney classics could benefit from this treatment. I’m not saying we can’t have both a traditional remake and this visual feast that Beyoncé and collaborators cooked up—and Disney certainly has the budget to do both.
But there’s a broader lesson in creativity that Beyoncé has clearly laid out: There’s room (and a need) for retellings to serve a higher purpose than rehashing the past.
As Beyoncé has proven, there is a way to take that familiar IP of a musical and spin it into something that’s in between a “visual album” and a film—because, let’s be honest, Beyoncé is past the point of these projects just being called “visual albums.” That might have flown with self-titled, but with Lemonade and now Black Is King, poetry serves as the words that connect the music, creating something deeper than a string of music videos. I’m sure it’s no mistake that Black Is King is described as “a film by Beyoncé” and not a visual album.
Of course, Black Is King is its own project and was never meant to be a remake of The Lion King. But after watching it, I couldn’t help but think why wasn’t this the remake? It has just enough reference points that call back the source material, but it shifts the story and characters into a different creative realm.
There will always be an audience for the low-hanging fruit of remaking a Disney classic pretty much verbatim.
But Beyoncé has delivered an innovative way forward in completely reimagining the music and visuals of familiar IP that Disney should definitely continue to explore.