Sunday, October 17, 2010

Our Feature Presentation (2/49) -- The Lion King (1994)

As I mentioned in my Atlantis piece, I was a child of the 90’s, and you’d better believe The Lion King was everywhere when I was a kid. It sold jillions of copies on VHS, had a spin-off TV show (a fate that many of its successful contemporaries shared), and sparked Hakuna Matata as a way of life. AFI recently placed it near the top of their 10 Best Animated Features list in 2008, and it was a staple for millions of boys (and probably girls) who grew up during one or both Clinton administrations.

But enough with the accolades, let’s get to the damn movie. The plot (as if you didn’t know) centers around Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), a young lion cub who was born to be king of Pride Rock, the local pride of lions, and basically the entire Savannah. He thinks this is pretty sweet, but his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) would rather have the throne for himself. In that nice fratricidical pattern that accompanies most programs about royalty (or royalty in general), Scar orchestrates the death of present-king Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and attempts to do-away with Simba. Simba escapes, however, and finds himself wandering through the desert (think Exodus, but less Promise Land).

Simba nearly dies whilst desert-spelunking, when he befriends meerkat and warthog duo Timon (Nathan Layne) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), two outcasts whose motto is in essence “when the world’s got a problem with you, eff ‘em.” This leads to a sojourn of ramblin’ man years where Simba grows into adulthood (and is now voiced by Matthew Brodrick), all while Pride Rock goes to hell in a hand basket under the reign of Scar. Simba is sought out by his childhood friend Nala (Moira Kelly), who tells him he needs to reclaim the throne and give Scar the ol’ what’s-what. Simba recoils at first, but soon comes to his senses, returns, and steps up as the one true king.

Oh hell yes.

You already know that. Of course you do. If you are reading this blog, there is absolutely no way you or someone you know hasn’t already seen this. Hell, my little brother’s about six and a half, and he still watches it on the same VHS that my mom bought for me when I was his age (ironic for a movie whose primary theme is the Circle of Life). As such, I will dispatch with any complex theme analyses, Hamlet comparisons, and conspiracy theories (controversial dust-letters and anime plagiarism are two glasses of Kool-Aid I do not drink from), because, let’s face it, you’ve already heard them. No, instead I’ll be talking about what jumped out at me from my most recent viewing.

The biggest thing I noticed about The Lion King was how incredibly GORGEOUS this movie is. I’ve always balked at the flossy effects-animation in the Don Bluth movies, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the flossiest movies in the Disney canon in terms of effects, visual tricks, and flat-out looking pretty. The movie’s opening scene sets the tone for what’s to follow; we’re greeted with shadows, dust clouds, water splashes, depth-of-field shots, and that awesome, sweeping camera movement as we follow Zazu (Rowan Atkinson) over the pride lands and gawk at all of the animals below. This high bar of non-pretentious “We put more into our effects animation budget than you did into your whole movie” mentality carries throughout the entire experience, culminating with a climactic fight on a burning Pride Rock (check out the ash floating around!) and Simba’s ascension to his throne amidst the rain and steam. This movie gets released onto Blu-ray next fall, and watching it will probably trigger something that was mentioned in a Lonely Island song.

Pretty doggone impressive, if you ask me.

The second thing that I really appreciated was how the film sets up Mufasa and Simba’s relationship from early on in the movie. Mufasa is a noble, strong character, but he still is able to be warm and caring with his son; many kudos go to Jones for being able to command such respect with his voice, then softening it the very next moment. Simba basically acts like a regular kid from the 90’s; JTT plays him straight, with no forced cutesiness, making him easy to identify with, especially for someone who remembers what it was like being a regular kid in the 90’s. Between the two, they create a very real, very touching father-son relationship, making Mufasa’s death later in the film that much more tragic (Simba trying to wake his father, then hopelessly curling down beside him is way more affecting now that I’m older).

One of my favorite aspects of The Lion King that has drastically improved over time is the music. Yes, everyone loves “Hakuna Matata,” “The Circle of Life” is probably one of the coolest ways to kick off the film, and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” went on to become one of the most ubiquitous love songs of the 90’s. Now that I’m grown, however, and listen to more film soundtracks (makes concentrating on writing easier), I have a newfound appreciation for this score. There are many things that can be said about Hans Zimmer’s composing style, but I think it works perfectly for a movie of this grandeur. It sweeps when the movie needs sweeping, excites when the movie calls for excitement, and steps back when the movie wants us to goggle at the animation. In particular, I love the African-inspired touches, like certain unusual percussion instruments, or that wind-flute thing that the main theme is played on. Also, can I give a shout out to “Be Prepared” as one of the most fun villain songs of the Renaissance?

The ambiance the music adds to scenes like this is something else.

I would also like to call attention to the casting in this movie. If you’ve read the parentheticals in this entry (and you could probably chop your reading-time in half if you skipped them), you’ll have noticed a few big names. Oh heck, let’s just reiterate them: Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Nathan Lane, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopie Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jonathan Taylor Thomas (eight seasons of “Home Improvement” say he’s a big name, okay?!). You’d think with all of this talent, this movie would turn into a Shark Tale-esque game of I See What You Did There With The Voices, but the one thing that always fascinates me about Disney is that their celebrity stunt-casting never sounds like celebrity stunt-casting. Each star brings their considerable talents (yes, even Nathan Lane) without sounding like an actor behind a microphone, and the characters shine because of it.

In particular, I must give props to Irons’ performance as Scar. Cool, calculating, but with a hint of a smirk, the guy is just plain bad. The “oh s@$#” moment that stood out for me this time is how he capitalizes on Simba’s sorrow after Mufasa’s death. Simba is reeling from the shock of seeing his father killed, and Scar steps up to pin the blame solely on him; “Simba, what have you done?” he demands, with mingled horror and gravity. He tells Simba to run away “and never return,” then when Simba takes off, he remorselessly and without expression tells his hyena protégés, “Kill him.” So cold.

"Long. Live. The king."

A few key scenes, then I’ll wrap up. I still love the scene where Mufasa appears in the sky to Simba, with distant thunder rumbling and the outline of the once-mighty king appearing in the clouds. I also now think that the wildebeest stampede is one of the most thrilling animation sequences I’ve ever seen; the timing, the animation, the music, and the outcome all come together in one sublime and exhilarating ride. Lastly, I appreciate the ending shot of the coronation of a new king, as if the movie is saying, “This is where we came in.”

The Lion King has received its fair share of hype (and, as such, its fair share of haters) over the years, but I truly think it is one of Disney’s best. The animation quality, the characters, the music (two words: Lebo M), and the story help make this a complete, excellent package, and well-deserving of the praise it has garnered since its release.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. Be Prepared
  2. The Circle of Life
  3. Hakuna Matata

Favorite scene:

  • The wildebeest stampede (and aftermath)

Favorite character:

  • Scar

The Jar Jar:

  • Zazu

How I Watched It:

I picked this up in 2008 at The Movie Dungeon in Bozeman (formerly Bad Taste Records), well after it was out of print, and running me a tab of $28. It was pretty damn worth it, however, as the thing looks absolutely gorgeous on a decent TV (all the better to view the flossy effects animation). It also has a commentary from directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, as well as producer Don Hahn (I double-taked when I read that; this guy obviously has a flare for the epic). The commentary is pretty insightful, and it’s fun to listen to all three banter back and forth about the different scenes.

The Lion King was the third in Disney’s Platinum series of DVDs, and as such it’s chock-full of bonus features (though they’re scattered all over the second disc, making watching them less of a casual viewing and more of a dedicated procedure). Most of these are on the second disc, but the first disc has an alternate cut of the movie, with a new song “The Morning Report” (it goes in the place where Zazu is making that series of animal-related puns in the form of a news story). The song’s okay, but because I’m up my own ass about nostalgia, I generally opt for the theatrical cut.

As I mentioned above, this DVD set will run you a pretty penny, as it went back in the moratorium way back in 2004. However, Disney has announced that they are re-releasing The Lion King next fall on Blu-ray and DVD, so if you can stick it out for a year, I would do so.

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