For better or worse, the live-action remake of The Lion King and Toy Story 4 carry on the legacies of their much-adored predecessors.
The stories that taught us empathy
Philbert Dy (The Philippine Star) - July 20, 2019 - 12:00am

With a third ‘Toy Story’ sequel and a new ‘Lion King’ released this year, what does it take for these stories to live on within us, and what does it mean when they’re told anew?

MANILA, Philippines — We didn’t know it back then, of course, but as kids in the Nineties, we were witnessing something special emerging in the realm of animated films. We were in the middle of the Disney Renaissance, a period of great success for the studio after decades of decline. In 1994, Disney gave us The Lion King, a talking animal musical riff on Hamlet set on the plains of Africa that was a major step in breaking Disney out of its familiar storytelling molds. And the year after that, Pixar dropped Toy Story on us, a strange little movie about talking toys that set a new standard for animation technology, all the while establishing a tradition of emotional storytelling that would set the studio apart for years to come.

It is 2019. We’ve just had a third Toy Story sequel come out, and a CGI remake of The Lion King is on the horizon. It would be easy enough to dismiss these revivals as products of pure commerce, as part of Disney’s larger mandate to stick to capitalize on nostalgia. But that doesn’t really seem quite right. There are, after all, plenty of things from the nineties that we wouldn’t want to see return.

Roger Ebert famously called cinema “a machine that generates empathy.” Animation is a medium that really exemplifies that description. There are no real people on screen, no human faces to express the emotions of the characters. They composed solely of images created by other people. There is no lion cub named Simba, and there is no Shakespearean power struggle on the savannah. But we feel for him, and we’re moved as he spends his last moments with his father.

And then there’s Toy Story, which gave life to inanimate objects, and made us see our own toys in a different light. In its first sequel, it had Sarah McLachlan singing over a sequence free of dialogue, telling the story of the antique toy Jessie and the girl who used to love her. There were probably some people during the rise of Pixar that dismissed computer generated images as cold and artless. They wouldn’t be able to say that after seeing Toy Story 2.

In their best moments, these animated characters feel fully alive. It’s a strange miracle of animation. In Toy Story 4, we’re introduced to Forky, a makeshift toy made out of a spork, popsicle sticks, and pipe cleaners. And in less time than it takes to actually shop for a toy, it makes us relate to his struggle, makes us yearn for his eventual happiness.

It probably wouldn’t hurt if Disney could go on to make new stories instead of constantly going back to the well. But in their current incarnations, it’s easy enough to argue that there’s still life in these stories. Nostalgia is generally a toxic impulse, but there’s something to said about going back to the pieces of art that taught us empathy. We were the kids that grew up with The Lion King and Toy Story, two cartoons that went well beyond what cartoons were supposed to be. And they’ve lasted inside us, even as we’ve grown older and more cynical and the world continues to assail us with awfulness. There’s a comfort in knowing that these stories will be around for years to come, reminding a generation of the time when they were young and hopeful, finding life in these drawn figures, feeling something for the pain of an orphaned lion cub, and the toys that were left behind.

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