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Woolverton, 65, was the screenwriter of the original The Lion King, after all, as well as of the original Beauty and the Beast. And after seeing what the studio did with the live-action remake of that movie in 2017, she has reasons for concern.
For starters, there was the decision to turn LeFou, the obsequious sidekick to Beauty‘s vain Gaston, into someone with a romantic crush on the lantern-jawed buffoon. (The gay undertones led the film to be banned in theaters from Alabama to Kuwait.)
“Was he in love with Gaston? No. He was just a toady and besotted with a person he could never be,” Woolverton explained during a recent visit to It Happened in Hollywood, The Hollywood Reporter‘s historical podcast.
Woolverton also questioned a change that saw the Beast come and go from his castle via a magic mirror. “The castle is supposed to be impenetrable,” she says. “After that, the mythology didn’t work for me.”
She should know. The writer of not just those modern classics but also 2014’s Maleficent and 2010’s Alice in Wonderland — the first screenplay by a woman to become a $1 billion-grossing film — Woolverton has spent nearly three decades living with the iconic characters she helped create.
She started as a Saturday-morning cartoons writer in the 1980s. When she caught a Disney feature that left her cold, she said, “I arrogantly thought I could do better.”
That led her to drop off a young-adult novel she had written at Disney reception. “There were no guards. I walked in and put it on the desk and said, ‘Maybe somebody here wants to read this,'” she said. Someone did — and two days later she was called in for a meeting.
Woolverton was hired as a contract writer and put to work on various animated features in development. She caught the ear of then-studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg during a story meeting about Beauty and the Beast.
“They were showing me the boards and I was saying, ‘Oh, this is really boring…and right there is where she has to escape. She has to escape and [the Beast] has to go and save her life,'” Woolverton recalled.
Soon she was the lead writer on the project, working closely with Howard Ashman, lyricist of 1989’s The Little Mermaid. “He taught me so much about writing,” she said. “One thing he told me about Disney features is each scene has an umbrella, an aura of emotion. So in Pinocchio, Geppetto’s workshop was a place that was homey and safe.”
At the time, Ashman was growing dangerously ill from complications due to HIV/AIDS. “He was suffering. He was really depressed,” Woolverton recalled. “I remember one time we were crossing the street in New York City and his shoelace was untied. And I said, ‘Oh, your shoelace is untied.’ And he said, ‘Oh. I don’t care.'” He died at 40 in 1991, just a few days after the movie’s first screenings.
But during his last burst of creative energy, Ashman and Woolverton conjured most of Beauty, including its bookish heroine Belle and the anthropomorphic items that run the castle, like Lumiere the candlestick and Mrs. Potts, the teapot voiced by Angela Lansbury.
Speaking of Mrs. Potts, Woolverton has one word for internet theories that she was too old to be the mother of Chip, the chipped teacup character: “insane.” She also confirms once and for all that Mrs. Potts is Chip’s mother. “I was fooling around one day and came up with this little teacup with a chip, and I called him Chip. I sent it to Howard as a joke, and Howard loved it and wanted to create a whole character around it.”
But back to Lion King: As Woolverton explains it, the idea was brought to her by Katzenberg, who experienced a personal betrayal by an uncle that led to him “becoming a man.” From there she reached into some of the most tried-and-true dramatic blueprints of all time — William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey — to concoct the story of a lion cub whose father is killed by a traitorous uncle.
Because Beast and King were completely animated, they didn’t qualify Woolverton for membership in the Writers Guild of America — something she didn’t achieve until writing 1993’s Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. As a result, she sees no residuals from either property, nor is she granted a say in how they are re-imagined for a new generation. (For the new King, out July 19, 2019, those duties fell to screenwriter Jeff Nathanson.)
“I wasn’t totally thrilled with The Beauty and the Beast remake because I didn’t think it was exactly true to the mythology of the storytelling,” she said. “And I’m not happy that I don’t get to participate. Who would be?”
And how does she feel about the new Lion King?
“I don’t know how The Lion King is going to be,” Woolverton said.
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