That’s Disney, baby!
Photo: Parkwood Entertainment/Disney+
Beyoncé’s film Black Is King, out today on Disney+, puts so much on the screen in terms of style and poise and visual references, that it’s often easy to forget that it’s all built out of the 2019 Lion King remake. Well, until Black Is King directly deploys dialogue from the 2019 Lion King remake. Black Is King uses the music from Beyoncé’s companion album The Gift, to tell a Lion King–esque hero’s journey about a Black boy that mirror’s Simba’s coming of age. Mostly, Black Is King goes off in its own directions from there, focusing on Beyoncé’s own ideas about family and legacy, but occasionally it makes connections that feel almost mechanical, such as when the film segues between songs with dialogue taken straight from the movie itself. Most jarring: the transition from “Nile” to “Mood 4 Eva,” in which (as happens on the album), we suddenly hear Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen’s Timon and Pumba teach Simba about the concept of “hakuna matata.”
It’s funny to watch a manicured-to-perfection image of characters driving a leopard print car into a gorgeous sunset and suddenly end up in the world of bit comedy. On the grand scale of performances in The Lion King remake, which was not great, Bob (Iger), Eichner and Rogen acquitted themselves better than most, but it still feels like a pale imitation of Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella’s comedy in the original. You can’t hear Billy Eichner go, “Look, kid, bad things happen, and you can’t do anything about it, right? Wrong!” without suddenly feeling like someone will not be getting their dollar for an answer on Billy on the Street. The transition is less noticeable on the album, in large part because you can just skip to the next track, but here, there’s a more immediate disconnect of visuals and audio. It’s a little like Beyoncé has suddenly turned to the camera to plug her Disney backers, like a podcaster reluctantly shifting gear to tell you about Casper mattresses.
There’s also a secondary awkwardness to having two white guys pop up and start explaining the phrase “hakuna matata” itself. The original 1994 Lion King popularized the common Swahili saying to Western audiences, and Disney later frustrated many East Africans who speak the language in the run-up to the remake’s release by trying to trademark the words “hakuna matata” — albeit, in a limited way — in America. With Black Is King, Beyoncé intends to celebrate many aspects of African culture, as does The Gift, but it’s all based around a movie and a company that has pilfered from that culture freely for massive profit. Beyoncé’s project has its limits, too — the continent-spanning album notably doesn’t feature any East African artists. We’re probably not going to get an explanation from Beyoncé on any of this — as in most cases with her visuals, the singer prefers to let her music and images speak for themselves — but it sure is jarring when someone else is suddenly doing the talking. Specifically, when it’s Timon and Pumba. It’s the reverse of the Beyoncé? meme. Billy Eichner? Right now? Sure!