Disney’s 1994 The Lion King is full of life, death, and the harmony in between. At a tight 89 minutes, it never runs out of steam, and its colour palette is as vibrant as its song book. Part of the “Big Four” of Disney’s 1990s renaissance, it’s a gem in their catalogue and a testament to the heart and imagination of the House of Mouse. In short, it is as perfect a film as anyone can ask for.

Even without this comparison, its reimagining in 2019 is depressing. Hand-drawn tactile animation is replaced by realistic CGI, which robs iconic characters of their individuality and expressive features. Top-tier tunes are flattened by updated production and half-hearted efforts; Chiwetel Ejiofor’s rendition of ‘Be Prepared’ is particularly mortifying, sucking the life out of Jeremy Irons’ flamboyant showstopper. Then there’s the bizarre choice to recreate much of the film shot-for-shot, doing little other than to remind audiences of the timeless original that they ought to be watching.

Lion King Animated

Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The remake is unquestionably a technical marvel, like 2016’s The Jungle Book (also directed by Jon Favreau). While hardly a masterpiece itself, The Jungle Book’s dark tone and CGI/live-action blend, carried by the fantastic Neel Sethi as Mowgli, made it stand out from the pack. The same can’t be said of The Lion King, which is little more than a drab experience all round, from its dusty palette to its utter lack of original narrative effort.  

And yet 2019’s lifeless cover of The Lion King is Disney’s highest grossing film of all time, outside of the Star Wars and Marvel franchises. Disney has released a live-action adaptation nearly every year since 2015, beginning with Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. (And before this, 2014’s Maleficent saw fit to re-shoot swathes of Sleeping Beauty in its effort to construct a satisfying pre- and parallel-quel.) Both The Jungle Book and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast grossed around $1bn each, and so, with dollar signs in their eyes, it was inevitable that more would follow. Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King were all released in cinemas within five months of each other in 2019. Audience goodwill is being used to line some very deep pockets.

Lion King Live

Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It would be a stretch to consider many Disney classics as challenging, but at the very least, they have often repurposed fairy tales and legends into cinematic magic. Most people think back fondly on the Disney films of their childhood. Those warm memories are being taken for a ride by a company hellbent on cashing in on name recognition over art. It is understandable that people turn to the familiar for comfort in tough times. But the cynicism of these remakes is not comforting. Instead, they’re an affront to their source materials, to Disney’s reputation as a studio of master storytellers, and to the whole reason we go to the cinema. Heart and imagination have been replaced with nostalgia and safety.

Reports suggest that there are currently 16 further “live-action” (a word with no weight after The Lion King and The Jungle Book) remakes or spinoffs in production. Emma Stone will likely knock it out the park as Cruella de Vil, and Lin-Manuel Miranda will continue his cultural dominance with his involvement in The Little Mermaid. Cruella will, like Maleficent, place the villain front and centre. Rose Red will place Snow White’s sister within the story we know and love, which is also getting its own standard remake. Maybe these new perspectives—and Mulan‘s revised new version out this weekend—will bring a much-needed sense of wonder to this near 85-year-old stable and give them the freshness they need, similar to how Marvel have leaned further into genre cinema with their recent releases.

Beauty And The Beast 2017

Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

But so far, it is difficult to feel excitement. There are moments in Hercules, The Aristocats, and Oliver and Company that I remember from watching over 20 years ago. Every live action remake has been forgotten on the train ride home. Dumbo’s drastic do-over was endlessly dull; Beauty and the Beast often felt fake, a CGI beast in his CGI castle with his CGI furniture friends; Cinderella too was shallow below the surface. These are nothing films, as significant as greatest-hits CDs, going against everything that makes people cultivate a lifelong relationship with Disney: heart and imagination.

Arguably all dominant franchises find formulae and stick to what makes them the most money. Those franchises are built from ticket sales, not critical acclaim. But the past 10 years have brought us Moana, Zootopia, Big Hero 6, Frozen and Tangled, all of which were new—or at least untested—ideas, all of which found audiences, and all of which made money. Some were better than others, but they all had the spirit of Disney in that they told us new stories in that familiar way that keeps us coming back. Among the onslaught of these remakes, the upcoming original Raya and the Last Dragon stands alone as a beacon of imagination. 

Disney Tangled

Courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

On a more serious note, overindulging in nostalgia does us no good. There is an irony in remaking a film about the circle of life, in which the main character learns to take his place within that circle and comes to terms with the loss of his father. We, on the other hand, never learn to grieve and to let go when stories are recycled. There are moments in our lives that belong in the past, which go on to shape us and which we reflect upon. We cannot keep everything with us forever and learning that is a major life lesson. Endless remakes provide false comfort, a cheap imitation of the real thing, setting us back along the paths we have no choice but to continue down.

Disney has consistently wowed over the last decade with its original features. Frozen deserved the hype, Tangled is endlessly rewatchable, and Zootopia had real thematic depth in a fully realised world. Maybe Cruella and Rose Red will justify this live-action series by telling a familiar story in a different way. We might be about to find out with Mulan. Promotional materials suggest a far more serious approach to its source material, with no songs and no Mushu. This kind of remake—one that reinterprets rather than simply reshoots—is welcome and serves a purpose. It would continue Disney’s grand tradition of building upon existing stories, making new memories in the process. There is no reason why this franchise has to be without the wonder we look for when going to the cinema. If they drop the copy-and-paste-in-HD approach and get back to storytelling full of heart and imagination, I’ll be the first in line.