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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Will Beyoncé roar in live-action remake of The Lion King?

We muse on the superstar’s latest cinematic contribution and whether it might start a trend

Disney’s remake of ‘The Lion King’ will star the vocal talents of Beyoncé. Courtesy Disney
Disney’s remake of ‘The Lion King’ will star the vocal talents of Beyoncé. Courtesy Disney

Beyoncé has ascended to that rare plateau of superstardom where she isn’t just in the news – she directs it, halting the international news agenda’s flow at whim, with all the precision and poise of a traffic cop. In July, the singer was charged with “breaking the internet” after publicly sharing the first picture of her newborn twins – it was no smartphone selfie or paparazzi grab, rather an artful portrait that revealed the nearly naked singer, framed by flowers, greenery and the sea, clutching her offspring with the cold composure of a Greek goddess.

And this was just the latest in a string of occasions that the pop royal has been accused of rendering inoperable the century’s greatest method of communication and commerce. Diligent journalists have counted anywhere between five and 14 earlier times that Queen B has “broken” the internet.

For example, Bey’s baby photo – which attracted more than 10 million likes on Instagram, announcing the twins names as Sir Carter and Rumi – has only been rivalled in online excitement by the earlier post, in February, revealing that second pregnancy. That equally arty, disrobed image of her baby bump, courtesy of artist Awol Erizku, is currently the most-liked image in the history of the social-media platform, with an eye-watering 11.2 million likes. Little wonder a report by D’Marie Analytics calculated that every post Beyoncé makes would be worth more than US$1 million (Dh3.7m) to advertisers.

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Even the relatively humble “life event” of dressing up for Halloween becomes international news when you’re Beyoncé – her recently shared image costumed as rapper Lil’ Kim was met with the instant online approval of 2.7 million fans. If Beyoncé belches after a hearty meal, one imagines readers logging from Siberia to Sydney to find out about her entrée. Even my word processor knows to add the accent to her name automatically.

But the most recent missive of carefully curate Bey news has a greater game-changing potential for the entertainment industry. Last week it was revealed the 36-year-old will star in a live-action remake of Disney’s animated classic The Lion King – joining a cast that also includes Donald Glover as Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar and Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, while James Earl Jones will reprise his classic role of Mufasa. It is “live action” as in using real-life actors, despite the fact there are no humans in The Lion King story.

Beyoncé will be “playing” lioness Nala, which prompted a handful of weak puns – “all the single lions”, quipped Vanity Fair – and widespread confusion. How exactly was our Queen B to play the future Lion Queen? Was she actually going to dress up in a lion costume, Halloween style? Readers who took time to scroll beyond the headline-grabbing cast were baffled by Disney’s promise of “utilising pioneering filmmaking techniques to bring treasured characters to life in a whole new way”. But what on Simba’s Earth does that actually mean?

Set for release in July 2019, The Lion King will capitalise on a growing trend at Disney HQ for remaking classic animations with big-name, real-life casts. The past three years alone have seen Angelina Jolie star in Sleeping Beauty remake Maleficent, Cate Blanchett play Cinderella’s evil Stepmother and Emma Watson evoke the eponymous Belle of this year’s Beauty and the Beast – a film Beyoncé was reportedly also approached to appear in.

However, unlike these human-led star casts, the best clue of how Bee and co will be presented in The Lion King comes from examining the technological marvel of director Jon Favreau’s adaptation of The Jungle Book, released last year, which mixed live-action elements with dazzling computer-generated environments. The animals didn’t look like cartoons, but they definitely didn’t look like people, either. The result of “virtual-production techniques”, Favreau’s animals looked rather like, well, animals. The key piece of the puzzle is the fact Favreau is again teaming up with The Jungle Book’s Oscar-winning effects guru Rob Legato – which means we can expect a similar “greenscreened” approach. In short, sorry Bey-ites – as tantalising as it sounds, if Beyoncé is acting as a lioness in the movie, you probably won’t actually be able to tell it is her.

However, you will certainly hear her. Pocketing a reported $25 million for the pleasure, Beyoncé will also oversee the film’s soundtrack, which promises a mixture of fresh material alongside re-recordings of the classic singalongs originally penned by Elton John and Tim Rice. Film-composing superstar Hans Zimmer, who scored the original animation, has been called in again, yet it seems inevitable a few fresh musical showstoppers will be shoehorned in with the express purpose of showcasing Bey’s chords.

One possible source for these additions may be the smash Lion King stage show, which opened on Broadway in 1997, bolstered with several new musical numbers, while the cast performed dressed in animal costumes. Beyoncé is, after all, a musician first, and while she has notched a number of dramatic acting credits over the years, her best screen work remains roles where she gets to sing and dance – such as invoking a fictionalised version of Motown legends The Supremes in Dreamgirls and playing late soul great Etta Jones in Cadillac Records, a heady tribute to the storied glory days of Chicago’s Chess Records.

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In Hollywood, there exists a curiously mounting trend for adapting hit stage musicals to the silver screen – of which Dreamgirls was an influential forebearer, opening on Broadway 25 years before the cinema remake of 2006.

Here once more Beyoncé helped kick-start a craze, with legions of Hollywood stars since signing on for film remakes of stage musicals, such as Tom Cruise’s ludicrous turn in Rock of Ages (2012) – a tribute to trashy pop-metal of the 1980s that also featured Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, Mary J Blige, Paul Giamatti and Russell Brand. More Hollywood heavyweights gamely signed up for Abba romp Mamma Mia!, with Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth heading an ageing dream team alongside Julie Walters and starlet Amanda Seyfried – all of whom have reteamed for a sequel entitled Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, which is due for release next year, alongside new addition Cher.

Normally, it is the other way around: vintage singalongs Saturday Night Fever and Flashdance were cinema hits later brought to life as live musicals. Recent years have seen dozens of smash films taken to the stage – lucrative big-budget adaptations strafing genres and moods from Billy Elliot to Aladdin; The Full Monty to Back to the Future – and everywhere in between. If the live-action Lion King does draw from the live stage musical, it will signal a beguiling switch in the opposite direction – arguably harking back to the success of Grease, and even West Wide Story, both iconic musicals that later became cinema blockbusters.

In either case, Disney’s growing reliance on recasting former animated glories into the real world, with real stars, taps into an entertainment climate increasingly built on existing brands and familiar stories. Many might have predicted this trend to be a passing fad, an easy buck for a flash in the pan – but as the reigning royal of not just pop, but popular culture at large, signing up Beyoncé may be the final stamp of endorsement required to legitimise this otherwise dubious artistic practice.