In Defense of Barry Jenkins’ Mufasa: The Lion King

Courtesy of Disney

My disappointment for reboots, prequels, and sequels has been heavily documented in my review writing. Despite my preexisting feelings about movies like that, I go into each film with an open mind. Take the musical reboot(?) of Mean Girls from earlier this year. I was personally attacked when the first trailer came out proclaiming this was “not your mother’s Mean Girls” and yet, I walked out of that theater fully enamored by this new take on Regina George.

I want these remakes to feel purposeful in their existence and to do something beyond coasting on the laurels and nostalgia of their predecessors. I don’t think that’s asking too much. In fact, that bar is something I look for in any movie whether or not it is based on existing media. What is the story at the heart of the film and what can we gain from experiencing this movie at this point in history? I think I am more willing than most to give the benefit of the doubt to filmmakers I love. Even if I don’t understand their decision immediately, I am willing to be there opening weekend to see their vision.

That brings us to the teaser trailer of Academy Award-winner Barry Jenkins’ Mufasa: The Lion King, a prequel to the 2019 Jon Favreau film and therefore, sort of a prequel to the beloved 1994 animated classic, The Lion King as well.

As it is only a teaser, we don’t get much to go off of in terms of plot. The name implies that Mufasa: The Lion King will be the story about Simba’s father and his rise to power over Pride Rock. The trailer starts in the most expected way with the opening call from “The Circle of Life,” but instead of the grassy terrain we expect, it’s snowy mountaintops. Our narrator for the teaser is Rafiki (John Kani) who informs us that the story we know begins “far beyond the mountains and the shadows.” The rest of the trailer is a montage of Mufasa (Aaron Pierre) running through dangerous circumstances alongside some familiar faces like Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen).

It’s easy to see an announcement for a movie called Mufasa: The Lion King and immediately be wary of its existence. Many of the Disney live action remakes or prequels have been lackluster, but Mufasa has an ace up its sleeve named Barry Jenkins who has created some of the most emotionally driven stories in the past few years. Moonlight received near-universal acclaim, If Beale Street Could Talk is simply not talked about enough, and The Underground Railroad got lost to the abyss that is streaming services. Even if Jenkins is simply cashing this Disney check for the ability to self-fund his next feature, should we blame him?

Adult Mufasa stands on Pride Rock
Courtesy of Disney

It’s also important to consider that Jenkins would’ve been about fifteen when the original Lion King was released. There’s a fondness that exists for quite a few generations for this era of Disney films. You’re telling me that if you were a famous director and were given the chance to play in the  sandbox of your favorite childhood Disney movie, you’d say no? If I was presented with the opportunity to make my live-action Hercules dreams come true, you better believe I’m taking it. These films are classics for a reason. The Lion King, whether kids realize it or not, is likely their first interaction with the stories of Shakespeare. It’s also a film that teaches anyone, regardless of age, about loss, perseverance, and family. Mufasa: The Lion King, under the guidance of an auteur like Jenkins, has the potential to be a classic for a new generation of children. We should also be celebrating that a decorated director is making a film for young people because they deserve complex, emotional stories directed by one of the greats.

My only true wariness comes from the new songs by Lin Manuel-Miranda. After his meteoric success with Hamilton, he’s become Disney’s go-to guy for new music. As someone with little cousins whose favorite movie for years was Moana, I’m quite familiar with Miranda’s work. He’s got some hits (“How Far I’ll Go,” “Know Who You Are”) and some dismal misses (“Shiny,” “Scuttlebutt”). However, I must practice what I just spent 600 words preaching and go into Mufasa: The Lion King with an open mind and see what Jenkins and Miranda have in store for me.

Directed by Barry Jenkins, written by Jeff Nathanson and starring Aaron Pierre, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Mads Mikkelsen, Donald Glover, and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Mufasa: The Lion King will be released in theaters on December 20, 2024.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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