Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Better Than I Remember It, The Lion King Is Still Robbed Of Perfection By Disney Conceits.

The Good: Animation, Great voice acting, Good character journey, Amazing Blu-Ray bonus features
The Bad: One musical number didn't seem to fit, Timon and Pumbaa section seemed more "Disney" than fit the movie.
The Basics: The Lion King lives up to being a (mostly) timeless epic, save where it is constrained by Disney to try to appeal to children.

The day after I was supposed to be able to present my wife with The Lion King as an anniversary gift, the film finally arrived for us on Blu-Ray, which has led to some truly troubling customer service calls with the Disney Movie Club. Yeah, I'm opening my review of The Lion King with a bit of griping, both because the fabulous gift didn't arrive in time and because I think it's just indicative of Disney's "make money at all cost" attitude that I find troubling beyond belief. That and the fact that as we watched the movie, my wife nudged me and noted, "I bet that would look cool in 3-D;" this after I had bugged her for the last three weeks to let me take her out to the movie, one of her all-time favorites, but she declined repeatedly. But even the 3-D release of The Lion King is part of what I am irked about in terms of Disney's ultra-capitalist agenda. Having announced months ago the DVD/Blu-Ray release, the studio made sure the 3-D version hit theaters for a limited release in the weeks prior. What's the point? Disney released the 3-D film as, essentially, a paid advertisement for the Blu-Ray release. Keeping the film fresh in viewers' minds, they released the Blu-Ray after the audience was primed. It's a smart move and I am sure they sold a surprising number of the 3-D Blu-Ray discs to the viewers who did not read the fine print and realize that one must have the 3-D television and player to make use of that disc.

Outside that, there is surprisingly little to gripe about with The Lion King, so I'll get to why this isn't a perfect film in my book right off the bat and then lavish the film with the praise it actually does deserve. When I reviewed Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl (here!), one of my immediate gripes with the movie was the inclusion of Pintel and Ragetti, a duo that I define as a "Disney Conceit." The sidekick characters appear for comic relief and are more or less unnecessary for the story. They are, however, consistent with the formula Disney has come up with to create a successful movie. It is disappointing in The Lion King that that formula is adhere to, instead of defied, and the section of the film that has Timon and Pumbaa robs Simba of a genuine character journey and replaces it with a plot-convenient answer to where Simba is for years. The film (and viewers) deserve better, despite the quality of the song "Hakuna Matata." That and Scar's song "Be Prepared," which felt less congruent with the character than some of the other songs, rob the film of perfection.

That said, it is easy to see why The Lion King has been beloved by fans of Disney films and modern cinema. It is easy to see how it became a world-famous musical play and while the story is universal enough to arguably survive without being a musical, it is an engaging one with a soundtrack that is exceptionally easy to recognize.

In the savanna in Africa is an area the animals call Pride Rock, where the king of Pride Rock oversees the animals and shows off his newly born son, Simba. Mufasa is proud of his heir and frustrated when his brother, Scar, refuses to show proper respect to Simba. Mufasa teaches Simba about the interconnected nature of life on the plains, as well as about the responsibilities of being a good leader. He also forbids Simba from going to a dark area on the edge of the kingdom. Simba mentions this to Scar and Scar manipulates Simba, and his friend Nala, into going there. At the elephant graveyard, Scar lets a trio of hyenas attack Simba, who is rescued by Mufasa.

Observing their reactions, Scar determines how he may best ascend to the throne. Making a pact with the hyenas, Scar lures Simba into a canyon, where he has the hyenas cause a stampede with wildebeests. When Simba becomes trapped, Scar lures Mufasa there to kill him and then manipulates Simba into fleeing. Setting the hyenas upon him, Scar assumes the kingdom while Simba finds himself saved by a warthog and merecat and spends the next years lazing about in denial of his potential. But when Simba and Nala are reunited, Simba must decide whether or not to run from his responsibilities or depose Scar and his hyena army.

The Lion King tells a pretty universal story of the importance of understanding both the nature of power and the ecological interconnectivity of all things. Mufasa is a smart, responsible king who tries to educate Simba on how life in all of its aspects needs to be kept in balance. Unfortunately, Scar's machinations upset Simba's education and he is thrown off balance, becoming a loafer instead of a king in his exile. But fortunately, enough of the seeds of Mufasa's lessons stick in order to make it realistic for Simba to have a conflict when Nala re-enters his life.

The characters in The Lion King are interesting and the film is one of the few Disney movies with an all-animal cast. Mufasa, Scar, Simba, Nala and Simba's mother Sarafina, are all lions and the animators give them enough coloring and mannerism differences to make them easy tell apart from one another, save Nala and Sarafina (at least once Nala is an adult). The rest of the animals are distinctive enough that they can be easily recognized, though in the action shots, it is pretty difficult to tell which of the three hyenas is which. The Lion King is very easy for children to follow, then. The film largely focuses on Simba and his character arc from young and eager to disillusioned (in what would be his teens) is decent and he is likable throughout, even though a more complicated character arc is not forthcoming. Supporting characters like Rafiki and Zazu are distinctive, smart and funny enough to make Timon and Pumbaa unnecessary.

Thematically, there is little to draw children to the film and part of the problem with the movie is how Disney and the twenty-nine credited writers try to make it into more of a young adult film as opposed to keeping it as an adult fable. The maniacal quality of Scar is unlikely to truly upset children these days and directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff show most of the brutality of Scar and the hyenas off-screen.

The vocal acting in The Lion King is universally exceptional. James Earl Jones makes Mufasa come alive with his deep, distinctive voice and Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick help Simba evolve well from a child to an adult. Robert Guillume give an interesting performance as Rafiki and Jeremy Irons brings his predictable power to his performance as Scar. But the real surprise for me was how Rowan Atkinson dominated the role of Zazu, Mufasa's advisor. Atkinson has a wonderful voice and in addition to having amazing comic timing, he is great at seriously conveying information as Mufasa's advisor. That Atkinson is so seldom associated with the film is unfortunate as his performance is original and homogeneously entertaining.

On Blu-Ray, The Lion King truly comes alive with so many bonus features that viewers will spend far more time on them than the actual film. The movie has multiple commentary tracks and a handful of deleted scenes with the co-directors discussing just why the scenes were left out of the film, which is both interesting and informative. Other bonus features include sing-along subtitles in the film and a production gallery with notes on how the characters were designed. For those looking for a thorough knowledge of how the movie was developed, The Lion King delivers a great number of bonus features that are actually worth the money.

Ultimately, The Lion King succeeds because what it has in it is not only universal, but presented in a way that maintains its universal qualities. The film does not make dated references and the songs are a safe brand of pop-rock that makes them easy to enjoy and listen to. In other words, were it not for the film trying to be trendy and formulaic, The Lion King could have truly lived up to its potential as a timeless movie.

For other Disney animated films, please visit my reviews of:
Toy Story 3
A Christmas Carol
The Incredibles
Monsters, Inc.
The Little Mermaid
Lady And The Tramp
The Sword In The Stone
Sleeping Beauty


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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