A mandrill shaman raises a lion cub over an imposing tabular rock to ecstatic cheers of a beautifully diverse animal crowd. You won’t need to think twice to figure out the source of this exuberant imagery. For us westerners, it comes as a given. We grew up watching the Lion King, soaking in the underlying messages, appreciating all the intricacies of Disney’s old-school animation and crying over all the stuffed Simbas that we never got for our birthdays. But here, in China, the impact of this iconic film hovers on a slightly different level, speaking not as much to people’s nostalgia, but to the staggering economic strides that the country has made since 1996, when the motion picture first reached its theaters.
The 2019 remake of the Lion King got its Chinese premiere a week ahead of the rest of the globe. Nowadays, it stands to reason that the world’s most populous nation and second biggest film market would receive preferential treatment spurred on by potentially massive box office gains. But some thirty years ago the situation was the polar opposite. In the 1980s Deng Xiaoping just started opening China up, and movies were not the most pressing issue. It was not until the beginning of the 1990s that foreign films started slipping into the Middle Kingdom in limited numbers. Before 2001 only 10 foreign pictures were allowed to be screened in China annually, including Hong Kong films that dominated the Asian market.
In 1996 Disney got unprecedentedly lucky, receiving approval to show three films, The Lion King, Toy Story and The Rock, more than any other Hollywood studio at the time. The Lion King garnered somewhere around $5 million in China, just a tiny fraction of half a billion dollars it grossed worldwide, yet a big step for a country where liking anything capitalist could get you killed just 25 years ago during the height of the Cultural Revolution. As if the film’s American origins were not enough, the list of lead animators on the project included Davy Liu, one of the first Chinese animators employed by Disney and an immigrant from Taiwan.
During the apogee of China’s copycat years in the beginning of the 2000s, many local TV stations started airing a cartoon that for many Chinese kids at the time was the true Lion King. In reality, it was an Italian copycat developed by Mondo TV and brazenly titled Simba the King Lion. Hardly could there be a more emblematic illustration of that period in China’s history.
By the time the original Disney picture finished its run in China, another version of Lion King was already in the works – the musical. The new production successfully premiered in various cities in 1997 and became the biggest global box office hit in any entertainment medium, generating over $6 billion in revenues, $3.4 billion more than “Avatar”, the highest-grossing movie of all time. The show first had a limited run in Shanghai in 2006, but when it returned in 2016, China was a different country – more prosperous, more open and way more finicky.
The second coming of the Lion King musical had to be special. To please the Chinese audiences, Disney made a bold move of editing the story and translating it into Mandarin. Now, all of a sudden, Simba spoke fluent Putonghua (Standard Mandarin), while the viewer favorites Timon and Pumba somehow adopted a twang native to Northern China. The localized version of the show also featured a Monkey Master character inspired by the Monkey King, hero of numerous Chinese legends. No other staging of the musical had received that many alterations, but Disney’s bet payed off, with a series of sold out performances at the 1,200-seat Walt Disney Grand Theater in Shanghai’s Disneyland and many positive reviews.
Now, three years later, the Lion King pounces on China again, making over $50 million in its opening weekend, with exclusive screenings in IMAX movie theaters curated by local music labels and most importantly, an early premiere date. The live-action 3D remake of the Disney staple, just like its precursors, is a harbinger of change, epitomizing China’s new standing in the world. Just a couple of years ago it was a country that got a jubilant musical more than a decade after its original premiere, now it’s a country that gets to see American films before Americans.