Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Lion King

There is a point in every child's life when they are too old for Disney cartoons.  That has more to do with kids wanting to seem grown-up than with the quality of Disney animated films.  I hit my teen years right around this time, so while I did (against my better instincts) enjoy Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid, The Lion King held absolutely no appeal for me.  I was too old for kids movies, and I had moved on to more sophisticated types of entertainment, like Saved By the Bell reruns.  As is often the case with the choices I made as a teenager, it turns out that I was an idiot.  I was eventually dragged to see the movie with my little sister, and I loved it.  But I didn't grow up in a family that hoarded Disney movies when they hit the home video market, so The Lion King eventually became a faint (albeit fond) movie memory for me.  To celebrate the super-deluxe BluRay release of the film, Disney put The Lion King back in theaters (in 3D, of course), and I went with my wife and, apparently, every five year-old in town to see it on the big screen.
Dangling baby scenes were made for 3D

The Lion King stands out amongst Disney's animated films for many reasons, especially its plot.  This is not an adaptation of a fairy tale or book.  This is a completely original story, and any similarities you see to Hamlet, Biblical characters, or a long-running anime are absolutely correct imagined by you.  Little Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is the sole child and heir to Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the lion king.  It appears that this story follows the logic of lions being the king of the jungle, so the lion king is actually the king of all animals, as far as the eye can see.
"Come on, son.  Let's eat one of our subjects."
Mufasa is a well-liked leader and the land around his home base, Pride Rock, is flourishing.  The only one that isn't a Mufasite is his brother, Scar (Jeremy Irons).  Scar isn't as big and strong as his brother, but he's an awful lot more ambitious and clever; he knows that, if something were to happen to Mufasa and Simba--- say, an unfortunate "accident", painstakingly planned by him --- Scar would be the next in line for the lion throne.  What's a little fratricide/regicide between brothers?  Phase one of Scar's plan works like a charm; Mufasa dies and scars the childhoods of all the kids too young to have been scarred by Bambi.  Phase two has a little hitch; Simba survived the initial "accident."  Not wanting to dirty his own paws, Scar approaches the grieving cub and blames him for daddy's death.  Scar convinces Simba to leave town and never come back; as soon as Simba has started to run, Scar sends his hyena underlings to kill the lion prince.  They fail, but Simba leaves with a heavy heart and a ton of guilt.  Sure, he'll live to sing another day, but will he ever be able to live up to his father's legacy?
Yeah, he looks guilt-ridden

One of The Lion King's most famous attributes is the soundtrack, which featured songs written by Elton John, with lyrics by Tim Rice.  Personally, I usually overlook the songs in most Disney movies --- they're okay, I guess, but nothing I'd put on my iPod --- but this soundtrack was hugely popular.  It's actually the only animated movie soundtrack to become Diamond certified by the RIAA.  So, how is it?  Pretty solid.  Despite my normal aversion to Elton John, I have to admit that I enjoy "The Circle of Life" and "Hakuna Matata;" the rest of the songs are fine, but those are the standouts to me.  Even after all this time, the African chants that start "The Circle of Life" (and the film itself) still sound pretty cool.

The Lion King followed the immensely popular Aladdin, and (perhaps inspired by Robin Williams' popularity) featured the highest-profile voice cast of any Disney movie to date.  The booming voice of James Earl Jones was perfect as the regal Mufasa.  Jeremy Irons was even better as the dastardly Scar.  This is one of my favorite villain performances (animated or otherwise) because Irons makes Scar seem so happy to be evil.  It helps that he murders his brother and, in a masterly stroke, puts the blame on a child, but the fact that he obviously loves being a class-A jerk is what separates him from other ambitious killers.
Actor name anagram game: Jeremy's Iron
Jonathan Taylor Thomas is okay as little Simba, and so is Matthew Broderick as adult Simba.  But they're just okay, especially compared to the stellar work from Jones and Irons.  Honestly, they might be the worst celebrity voices in this cast.  I liked all the hyenas; Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin were solid, while experienced voice actor Jim Cummings was hilarious as Ed.
Guess which one was funny?  That's right, neither professional comedian.
I normally only tolerate Nathan Lane, but I rather enjoyed him as little Timon.  There are always comedy relief characters in Disney movies, but Timon and Pumba (Ernie Sabella) are some of the more enjoyably over-the-top that Disney has to offer.  Hell, I even liked Rowan Atkinson in this movie, and I don't think I've ever even thought that sentence in any other context.  My favorite character in the film (after Scar, of course) is definitely Robert Guillaume as the idiosyncratic monkey.  He doesn't fling his poo, but he is as infuriating as I imagine monkeys should be.

Direction in animated movies is a little strange, since it seems to be more of a leadership role than a singular artistic vision.  Whatever the case behind the scenes, co- directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff did a very good job blending the bleak, dramatic story with kid-friendly humor and songs.  Do you really need more than that from the directors of your Disney animated movie?  I think not.
If Simba remembered "The Circle of Life," his friends would be dinner

There are some odd aspects to The Lion King, though.  Yeah, I understand that this is a children's movie, so we won't be seeing Simba disemboweling Dumbo.  Still, there are a few times where the lions reference eating other animals, even after we've seen anthropomorphized versions of the animals on-screen.  That's an unusual amount of cognitive dissonance for a cartoon.  I am also frequently amused by how nature responds positively to the heroic carnivores in this film, and so very, very negatively to Scar's team.  After Pride Rock becomes a barren wasteland, what exactly does Simba do to turn it back into an Eden-like paradise?  At a glance, I would assume the area needed new topsoil and irrigation, neither of which are in the wheelhouse of most lions.
No offense, kid

But who really cares about any of that?  The Lion King is arguably the best late-period Disney movie, but it is also unarguably the line in the sand for the company; after this point, Disney animated films would lose their power and stature, while digitally animated films would rapidly ascend to the artistic levels (and beyond) of this very enjoyable kid's movie.  Oh, and in case you were wondering, the 3D effects were okay --- fairly innocuous background stuff, mostly --- and the child-filled audience was pretty damn adorable to listen to.  I don't know if I needed a singalong to "Hakuna Matata," but it's hard to get upset at so many fully engaged kids.


  1. Using words like "cognitive dissonance" and "innocuous" while reviewing a kids movie? GOLD!

  2. Okay, I'm a jackass. Honestly, though, they're just the words that popped into my head. My children are going to be obnoxious.

  3. This is without doubt my favourite disney cartoon. You can't help but love this animation. every sense of the word!