Apologies in advance for a couple of earth-shattering puns.
One might say Disney could really FEEL THE LOVE this weekend. The studio’s latest release, a “live-action” remake of The Lion King, ROARED into theaters with a domestic haul of $185 million, becoming the best opening weekend of all time for July, breaking a record that was previously held by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2. Whether it was the brutal heat wave or yet another promise of pleasantly packaged Disney nostalgia that sent families into heavily air-conditioned theaters—including international totals, Disney’s latest remake has already passed $500 million at the box office—The Lion King is on its way to potentially becoming the highest-grossing live-action remake of the studio’s animated films yet. Among its other notable records, the new Lion King is Disney’s best opening outside of Marvel and Star Wars projects, and the best opening among Disney’s new spate of remakes.
It’s unclear whether the new Lion King should be classified as a live-action feature or an animated film—even Disney and the film’s director, Jon Favreau, aren’t sure. If The Lion King does end up being considered an animated film, this opening then doubles as the highest opening weekend for an animated movie, surpassing the showing of Incredibles 2 from last year. (Also a Disney product, via Pixar.) The live-action-versus-animated designation doesn’t really matter outside of which categories The Lion King will compete in at next year’s Oscars—all Disney should care about this weekend are the record-shattering numbers.
The Mouse House already owns the four highest-grossing domestic releases on the year—and depending how high The Lion King rises at the box office, the studio could own the top five by itself. The question now becomes how many projects Disney could land among the top 10 domestic earners in 2019, with the highly anticipated Frozen 2 and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker still on the way. You don’t really have to read the tea leaves on this one: Disney is absolutely crushing this year, and is one of the only reasons the box office hasn’t continued to flail after a brutally slow start and an underwhelming sequence of summer sequels.
If that weren’t enough reason for Disney to celebrate the weekend, Avengers: Endgame also officially surpassed Ocean Master James Cameron’s Avatar as the highest-grossing movie of all time. The official Avatar Twitter account commemorated the occasion with a weird graphic of Iron Man playing with some Pandora alien fauna that’s giving off real “Bleacher Report celebrating the USWNT winning the World Cup with a portrait that included cast of Friends for some reason” energy.
Disney was quick to boast about this record-breaking achievement during Marvel’s star-studded panel at San Diego Comic-Con—though if you want to understand Disney’s current box office dominance in miniature, surpassing Avatar means the studio has technically … defeated itself. The Avatar franchise—yes, franchise; Cameron is entering his final form and making four more of these things in the 2020s—along with other IP from 21st Century Fox, has already been acquired by Disney. This record-setting achievement was, mainly, bragging rights that Disney owns the top box office spot of its own accord, and not from something produced before it acquired a rival studio.
The Lion King’s [Borat voice] great success continues to justify Disney’s commitment to churning out remakes of its own animated films. There are tons of remakes in different stages of development, including live-action versions of Mulan and The Little Mermaid. But while Disney is doing great business with these projects, it’s come at the expense of more original animated offerings. It’s not like the Moanas or Zootopias of the world failed to make a killing at the box office. Plus, the animation in these movies isn’t liable to traumatize children.
But despite the harsh critical reception for The Lion King—mostly coming down to the photorealism of the CGI and the lack of original ideas—audiences loved it, as the film received an “A” grade from CinemaScore. (The same grade doled out to the Aladdin remake.) Even if all the Disney remakes aren’t as creatively bankrupt as the new Lion King, it’s evident that the company has no reason to stop doing what’s working, critical derision be damned. The Lion King, after all, is shaping up to be one of Disney’s biggest money-makers to date. Welcome to the new circle of life.