Barry Jenkins Responds to Criticism That ‘Mufasa: The Lion King’ Is Part of “Soulless Machine”

Barry Jenkins isn’t necessarily feeling the love from every social media commenter over his involvement in Mufasa: The Lion King after the Disney prequel released its first trailer this week.

After screening footage at CinemaCon earlier this month, the film’s trailer was released online Monday and features narration from Rafiki (John Kani) explaining that the movie offers the origin story for Mufasa, the lion patriarch featured in 1994’s animated The Lion King and Jon Favreau’s 2019 photorealistic remake of the same name.

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Jenkins took to X (formerly Twitter) on Monday to share the trailer, and his post was greeted with both favorable responses and also some negative ones, with the criticism apparently stemming from backlash to Disney’s trend of reimagining its previous animation hits. One user wrote, “Barry, You’re too good and talented for this Iger’s soulless machine,” referring to Disney CEO Bob Iger.

The filmmaker, whose 2016 drama feature Moonlight won three Oscars, responded to the comment by defending the original 1994 animated film, which takes inspiration from William Shakespeare’s classic play Hamlet. “There is nothing soulless about The Lion King,” Jenkins wrote. “For decades children have sat in theaters all over the world experiencing collective grief for the first time, engaging Shakespeare for the first time, across aisles in myriad languages. A most potent vessel for communal empathy.”

This response spurred another commenter, who recalled having interviewed the filmmaker at the Toronto Film Festival when Moonlight first debuted, to write, “That Barry Jenkins wouldn’t have said what you just said.”

Jenkins appeared to interpret the comment as criticizing him for working on a family-friendly project and replied, “Bruh what kind of logic is that? How about this, here are a few videos from the ‘same Barry Jenkins who premiered Moonlight’ (as you put it) showing some of the things I was doing in my spare time AT THE SAME TIME I was writing Moonlight.” Jenkins then included videos from that time in which he discussed his work and advocacy that centered on children.

When the commenter then responded that his initial remark was referencing the post stating that Jenkins is above “Iger’s soulless machine,” Jenkins responded, “You said ‘and that Barry Jenkins wouldn’t have said what you just said.’ But it’s cool. You said it. I responded. It’s done. I’m going back to work now. Much respect.”

A third user praised Jenkins as an “extremely talented director” and noted that “very little good” can come from the filmmaker addressing social media criticism. Jenkins replied, “Yeah, there’s a quota. And I just hit it,” adding a laughing emoji.

Jenkins’ most recent feature as a director was 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk. The film won the Oscar for Regina King’s performance and was nominated for two other Academy Awards, including one for Jenkins’ script adapting James Baldwin’s novel. Jenkins himself won an Oscar for his work on the screenplay for Moonlight, which also prevailed for best picture and best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali.

During his CinemaCon appearance this month, Jenkins explained that the Mufasa script resonated with him in part due to his fond memories of watching the 1994 original with his young nephews. “This film explores Mufasa’s rise to become the iconic king that we all know,” he said at the time. “And yet what I love about it is that it’s so full of heart and it helps all these kids, like these same kids that I helped raise.”

The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to Disney and Jenkins’ representatives for additional comment.

Hitting theaters Dec. 20, Mufasa includes original music from Lin-Manuel Miranda, in addition to the voice work of Aaron Pierre (Mufasa), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Taka), Seth Rogen (Pumbaa), Billy Eichner (Timon), Donald Glover (Simba), Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (Nala) and Blue Ivy Carter (Kiara).

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