What Favreau’s choice for Nala says about the adaptation.
As Beauty and the Beast rakes in enormous sums, Disney’s next live-action remake appears to be coming together in big way. Variety reported yesterday that director Jon Favreau is courting Beyoncé for the role of Nala in his upcoming reimagining of The Lion King. This announcement comes just one month after Favreau nonchalantly declared on Twitter that Donald Glover and James Earl Jones would be playing the roles of Simba and Mufasa respectively. While Beyoncé hasn’t confirmed yet, her potential casting provides us with a number of clues about how Favreau might be intending to adapt the classic story. Details on the project have been scarce, but irresponsible speculation is in order.
The role of Nala in the original animated film, though vital, is actually a relatively minor one in terms of music. Simba’s queen only gets to sing a small part of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” suggesting that any faithful adaptation would cause Beyoncé’s vocal talents to go almost entirely to waste. It’s possible that Favreau and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson plan to import elements from the Broadway musical, which contains a number of additional songs, including two for Nala: “The Madness of King Scar” and “Shadowland.” That would make the upcoming film more an adaptation of Lion King The Property than the actual film. Ample liberties were taken in Favreau’s The Jungle Book to distinguish it from both the original Kipling novel and previous film versions, so one suspects that the same approach will prevail on The Lion King.
But as many have noted since the announcement of the remake in September, the very notion of a live-action Lion King poses some major concerns for all the songs in the film – not just Nala’s. However advanced the computer animation technology becomes, it’s difficult to imagine the characters performing the original soundtrack without access to the anthropomorphic gestures and appearance of the animated film. A real lion singing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” might come across as frightening or comical. Most of the songs from the original Jungle Book animation were nixed in Favreau’s adaptation, so perhaps The Lion King is headed the same way.
What’s more, the original film features different voice actors for Simba and Nala as children and adults. A flash-forward occurs during “Hakuna Matata,” dividing the story into two parts. No announcement has yet been made suggesting that Glover will have a young counterpart, and it seems unlikely Beyoncé would be tapped to play just adult Nala, so the very structure of the narrative may be under review. Perhaps the role of Nala will be expanded. Perhaps this decision is even contingent on whether Beyoncé accepts the role (she’s currently undecided, given her pregnancy with twins).
Expanding the role of Nala would be one way to bring the story into a more modern context. When the film was originally adapted for Broadway, the role of Rafiki was made a woman because of the absence of any strong female characters in the cast. Developing Nala for the live-action film could have a similar effect. And even without exploiting her singing prowess, Beyoncé’s charisma as an actor could do much to bring the character to life. Though she hasn’t been in a feature film since 2013’s Epic, a number of critics called Lemonade one of last year’s finest films.
We remain ambivalent about the Lion King reboot, in part because of skepticism about the animation strategy, and in part because of protectiveness of the original film. But with each new casting announcement, it’s difficult not to get more and more excited about what Favreau is cooking here. Here’s hoping that Beyoncé finds the time to act in the film, and that the project is worthy of her talents.