The medium is the message: On Disney’s new Lion King

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One of the things that’s important when you’re about to embark on a creative endeavor is to ask what medium you should use to tell your story. Should the story you’re telling be a film? Or would it benefit from listeners being able to binge-listen it in the form of a podcast? Should it be animated, so that abstract concepts and fantastical ideas can be conveyed more easily? Or maybe it only needs to be a well considered essay or novella.

Each medium has specific strengths and weaknesses. Figuring out how to navigate them is an essential part of the storytelling process.

Sadly, that seems not to have been something the creators of the new Lion King considered. This new version has photorealistic animals and surroundings but while it’s impressive as a technological feat, it falls short when for one basic reason: The lions can’t emote.

The hand drawn animation in the original Lion King gave the characters a memorable expressiveness. I still remember the horror on Young Simba’s face as the wildebeest stampede began, threatening to take his life and the life of his father. Jeremy Irons’ delicious performance as Scar was greatly augmented by that character’s over-the-top facial animations. All of this is lost in the conversion to the photorealistic 2019 version.

This might be acceptable and potentially even interesting if this movie veered in an entirely different direction with the story. Instead, many sequences are remade almost shot-for-shot, only with lions that can’t express themselves and with musical numbers that remove much of the fantasy and visual magic that helped propel the original tracks to become 10x platinum (the highest selling soundtrack ever for an animated film). Unfavorable comparisons are inevitable.

Siddhant Adlakha breaks it down well over at his Patreon page (free for now):

What this film is, though, is an exercise in nostalgia. Not the wistful tinge of memory — rather corporate nostalgia, as a tool of commerce, wherein bare-minimum familiarity is a benchmark for trade. As someone who enjoys Disney and Universal theme parks, the concept of manufactured nostalgia isn’t lost on me (sign me the fuck up for the obnoxiously expensive Galaxy’s Edge), but where the new Lion King departs from its ilk is how nakedly it puts Disney’s soulless corporatism is on display. Watching it is no more or less ethical than watching Avengers: Endgame, though it feels far more ugly.

The Lion King (2019) is a film that flattens expression. Its pursuit of “photorealism” has rendered its characters zombies, unable to emote even as much as real animals. Twelve-year-old JD McCray performs admirably as young Simba, his otherwise sprightly voice breaking and quivering as he discovers Mufasa’s body — the most hard-hitting scene in the original. Though here, in the “live-action” re-creation, the lion prince’s discovery is met with a deadpan expression, and a prodding akin to curiosity rather than desperation.

Jon Favreau is a supremely talented filmmaker and what he’s accomplished here hasn’t really been done before. I hope that he and the incredible visual effects artists that helped to make this movie are next able to apply their talents where form and function work more hand in hand.

A few other takes on Lion King worth considering:


The next episode of my new podcast, Culturally Relevant, is out now! I chatted with The Farewell director Lulu Wang. Then, my wife and I review the film from a Chinese-American perspective. If you are so inclined, check it out and leave a review. I have a lot planned for this season of the show and I’m excited to share it with you all.

Plus, in the podcast, I recommend and discuss some of the following pieces:

Spider-Man: Far From Home spoiler video review

I was really grateful to Ben Pearson for joining me to discuss Spider-Man: Far From Home. We delve into what this movie does to Peter Parker’s arc, the reliance of these movies on the legacy of Tony Stark, and the possibilities of future MCU films.

Also: I ran into some difficulty with my video in this one. My Sony A7III ran out of battery while I was shooting the first half of my video. Despite the camera’s promises to recover the file after I booted it back up, it didn’t work and I lost the entire first half of my side of the video. Making things even worse: I was monitoring the battery life the entire time and it plummeted suddenly from about 18% to 0%. This genuinely shook my faith in the camera system. How can I record interviews with this thing if the camera might die and take my video with it?

In any case, I’m grateful to Daanish Syed for stepping up and helping me out with some photoshopped images that I used to fill in the video above. Check them out. I hope you enjoy them.

Netflix’s “Always Be My Maybe” from an Asian-American Perspective: Details You Might Have Missed

I was thrilled to see that Netflix recently released a new romantic comedy featuring two Asian-American leads (Randall Park and Ali Wong). There were so many things that the film nailed that I made the above video with my wife to talk about them. We discuss what the film gets right about the Asian-American experience, and dive into details you might have missed. Check it out.

So many billionaire regrets

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Facebook co-f0under Chris Hughes, calling for a break up of Facebook in The New York Times opinion section:

The most problematic aspect of Facebook’s power is Mark’s unilateral control over speech. There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people. Facebook engineers write algorithms that select which users’ comments or experiences end up displayed in the News Feeds of friends and family. These rules are proprietary and so complex that many Facebook employees themselves don’t understand them […]

If the government were to use this moment to resurrect an effective competition standard that takes a broader view of the full cost of “free” products, it could affect a whole host of industries. The alternative is bleak. If we do not take action, Facebook’s monopoly will become even more entrenched. With much of the world’s personal communications in hand, it can mine that data for patterns and trends, giving it an advantage over competitors for decades to come.

In writing this piece, Hughes joins a litany of former Facebook execs who have come out against the company, including Dustin Muskovitz, Sean Parker, and Brian Acton (Casey Newton has a good rundown here).

In a striking coincidence, pretty much all of them rebuked Facebook after becoming immeasurably enriched by the company. So weird how they found the courage to voice their convictions not during their time there, but way afterwards, when they’d all become billionaires. (To be fair, Hughes acknowledges this and takes responsibility for it in his piece).

Putting that aside though, we should evaluate whether Hughes’ recommendations have merit on their own. And on that measure, his primary suggestions don’t really stand up to even cursory scrutiny. Ezra Klein breaks it down over at Vox:

This is the core contradiction of Hughes’s essay. Every time he names the decisions that competition led Facebook to make, he describes the platform’s moral devolution. But every time he imagines the alternatives that more competition would create, he muses about kinder, gentler platforms — platforms with fewer ads, more privacy, less attention hacking.

But look around. Twitter assessed the competition and went algorithmic, creating a space so toxic the company is now trying to understand how “healthy conversations” work. YouTube ran the numbers and built an algorithm that’s become a powerful force for radicalization. Instagram became attractive to Facebook precisely because it’s so good at being addictive. Tumblr turned out to be so reliant on porn that Pornhub is considering a bid to buy the flailing business. Pinterest, well, Pinterest seems okay. For now.

Perhaps more competition in the social media space would lead to better alternatives. But perhaps it would do what it’s done so far: lead to yet fiercer wars for our attention and data, which would incentivize yet more unethical modes of capturing it.

Klein’s piece nails it. Facebook is the way it is not because of the lack of competition but because of the competition. Regulation could probably help but letting a thousand social network flowers bloom is what’s gotten us into this mess in the first place.


A few more links from the week:

Cinema is dead. Long live content.

Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for RogerEbert.com about the recent release of Endgame and “The Long Night” episode of Game of Thrones: 

Art house cinemas (which have a business built around stand-alone, non-tentpole features) are struggling to stay open, and their proprietors face increasingly old crowds that aren’t being replaced by younger viewers. Theaters generally are on what an exhibitor friend of mine bitterly referred to as “Disney life support.” Forty percent of domestic box office receipts come from that one studio, most of its business is based around serialized, mega-expensive, dopamine-hit franchises. […]

It gives me no pleasure to write any of this, having come up in what retrospectively seems like the death throes of an older culture, only to enter a spectacular and in some ways unnerving new one. Sometimes it feels as if I’m chronicling the things I love as they take their sweet time fading to black.

But I can also honestly say that, at this point, I’m more curious than apprehensive about what the future will bring. This is the kind of cultural moment that people tell their grandkids and great-nephews and nieces about. Whether the tone of the remembrance is sad or wondrous depends on who’s telling it, but tell it they will, because it’s happening, right now, to all of us. It’s not often that you get to watch the complete transformation and eventual fusion of two art forms, the transformation of art and entertainment itself, and the technology that supplies and defines it.

It’s still staggering to me that Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones are both ending major chapters of pop culture lore in the span of a few weeks. Both achieved the nearly impossible. In the case of Endgame, the MCU sustained 22 films’ worth of storytelling and somehow managed to tie them together in a satisfying way in Endgame. In the case of Game of Thrones, it may well end up being one of the last instances of mass-appointment viewing in America. Millions of people watch together every Sunday, and by the time the episode is over, the memes have already begun.

It’s possible we may never see anything like them again. And it is exhilarating to be able to witness it all as it happens.

In the meantime, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to speak in-depth about Endgame and Game of Thrones with some interesting, intelligent people:

Here are some of my reactions to this week’s Game of Thrones, “The Long Night”:


Some other recent links I’ve found interesting:

An intense time

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You may have noticed it’s been a little quiet recently on the blog/newsletter. That’s because I’ve been busy gearing up for an intense time of my life: Hosting three weekly podcasts at once (Write Along, the Slashfilmcast, and now with the premiere of Game of Thrones, A Cast of Kings). A surprisingly large amount of prep has gone into this season of A Cast of Kings and I’m both nervous and excited to go through this final step of the journey with all of our listeners.

Given this schedule, for the next few weeks I’m going to take take steps to maintain my mental health and likely slim the blog/letter down, perhaps keeping it mostly to a list of recommended links.

We are about to enter a consequential time in pop culture history. In April and May, we’ll see the conclusion of Game of Thrones and the end of the first few phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These are both epic stories — breathtaking in scope, sprawling in ambition, and unequaled in their respective mediums.

I find myself experiencing a lot of emotions as I contemplate these stories wrapping up. While I’m obviously a fan that has considered both of these works worthy of analysis and debate, I’m also a commentator with a modest following that has been podcasting/blogging/vlogging since they began.

I’ve looked back on the past decade and considered all the things I’ve devoted my time to. And I’ve started to turn my eye towards the next decade, and begun thinking about how I will take what I’ve learned to create valuable work that can stand on its own. Hopefully, I’ll have more to share with you soon. Hopefully.

In the meantime, here are a few things I’ve been working on recently:


Some more interesting links from the past week or two: