DVD - Image A Sound A Extras B+
BD - Image A+ Sound A Extras A-
screenplay by Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton
directed by Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff
by Bill Chambers The day The Lion King came out, during the summer of Gump, I bought a ticket for Wyatt Earp instead, convinced that I would be more satisfied by its three hours than by The Lion King's hour and change. Nobody remembers this now, but back then, the trades were counting on the reunion of Silverado collaborators Lawrence Kasdan and Kevin Costner to deliver the sleeper hit of the summer; although back then everybody involved in the production tried to pawn off the film's failure on the growing cult of Tombstone, the fact is that Wyatt Earp is, if not the most boring movie ever made, perhaps the second-most. Still, even when a friend rolled up his sleeve for me a few weeks later to reveal four fingertip-sized bruises he sustained from watching The Lion King with his girlfriend (she white-knuckled her way through the wildebeest stampede 'til his arm went to sleep), I remained unconvinced that Disney's latest blockbuster cartoon, which had grossed over $200M by that point, was worth the price of a ticket, having been taken for a ride by the prestige surrounding the dreadful Beauty and the Beast.
So I never did see The Lion King in a theatre, though I meant to when it was re-released on IMAX screens in 2003. I suspect it's always failed to grab me by the throat in part because at home it's not occupying my periphery: in a cinema, the aforementioned stampede, executed with brilliant attention to depth using a mix of old-school multiplane camera techniques and CGI (making it a natural for its recent 3-D conversion), must catch a little of the lightning that caused audiences to duck during a silent film that showed a train barrelling towards the camera. Sans scale, I'm left with no less handsome animation, irritating songs, trite pop-culture references, and some ripe symbolism--everybody got up in arms up over a cloud in the movie that dissipates into the word "sex" (yet another subliminal discovery made by people with apparently so little to do, they should be forced into public service), but the parade of hyenas goose-stepping in high Triumph of the Will style passed completely without controversy--to appreciate. (I guess you have to literally spell things out for people.) The film has its subversive moments, the inspirational opening number " Circle of Life"--which has always reminded me, as Pauline Kael once remarked of the enchanted meeting between two churches in The Color Purple, of a fire drill--immediately followed by the smushing of a mouse and the villain, Scar, purring in Jeremy Irons's inimitable rasp, "Life's not fair, is it?" The mouse lives, alas. Anything else would be anti-Mickey.
Like the majority of Disney's animated features, The Lion King bills two directors, but this is the first time it feels as though there were irreconcialiable personalities at the helm. The picture's tone pinballs more wildly than usual from tragic to manic, its art from naturalistic to expressionistic, its palette from wheat tones to garish Vegas hues (colourist Chris Sanders, future helmer of Lilo & Stitch, took his inspiration from splashy African textiles rather than the landscape of the movie's setting, the Serengeti plains), its narrative from pure drama to pure comedy... Even the Elton John/Tim Rice tunes veer from gospel hymn ("Circle of Life") to shower jingles preaching blissful ignorance ("Hakuna Matata"), a sense of the dogmatic their only throughline. Scar, too, falls prey to a certain conceptual schizophrenia: Machiavellian schemer one minute, hapless schlemiel the next. It's a miracle not that the film achieves unity (it doesn't, actually, though it's so formulaically plotted and allegorically sound that it coheres), but that the incongruent elements, charming enough on their own, don't trample one another--although the Greek chorus of Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabello), with their vaudevillian riffs on Carmen Miranda and Travis Bickle and (gulp) Arsenio Hall, eventually break whatever spell the film has cast whilst paving the way for intrusive topical references in subsequent kiddie fare like Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Lion King's huge take unfortunately bronzed its blunders along with its charms.
The third DVD in Disney's "Platinum" line (after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the unworthy Beauty and the Beast), a work-in-progress that will allegedly total ten titles when all's said and done, The Lion King deserves all the fanfare it's been getting for the quality of its THX-certified audio-visual presentation. Through seamless branching technology, you can choose to watch either the original film or its extended edition, which, like 2002's IMAX re-release of Beauty and the Beast, augments the film's running time by one ditty, in this case the inconsequential "The Morning Report." (In the meantime, invoking a statute of limitations on grief, it scraps a pre-logos dedication to the late Frank Wells in favour of a redundant title card appended by the phrase "Special Edition.") A note on the sensational anamorphic widescreen transfer, windowboxed at 1.70:1 (we measured ourselves): it was struck from elements enhanced for The Lion King's "large format" engagement, thus there are times when the original cels did not stand up to scrutiny in IMAX and had to be rephotographed, digitally scrubbed, or, controversially, reanimated altogether.
Whether this means that colour and composition generally vary from the 1994 theatrical version remains unconfirmed by Disney and other sources, but it would certainly make for an interesting case study. Astoundingly, the DVD's sound is even more dazzling than its picture, specifically the Dolby Digital "5.1 Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix," which is--according to re-recording engineer Terry Porter elsewhere in the package--fairly representative of the audio stems that were prepared for the IMAX re-release. Though calling the film's original 5.1 track "conservative" (as Porter does) might seem absurd to owners of The Lion King LaserDisc, long the demo of choice for those with AC-3 systems, there's no denying that the '94 mix (included on the DVD for posterity) is enfeebled by comparison to Porter's handiwork. And don't think that Porter sacrificed nuance for pyrotechnics, either: the intense rumble that announces the onslaught of the wildebeests gradually eases up as the herd closes in on us, a fantastically logical decision if you possess a rudimentary understanding of how sound travels.
Although Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Sleeping Beauty DVDs are two of the format's major highlights for 2003, The Lion King continues the "Platinum" tradition of having drab supplements arduously arranged. Disc 1 houses the film, a shockingly bland commentary with producer Dan Hahn and co-directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff exclusive to the theatrical edition, and a smattering of add-ons. Under "Grasslands," find "The Making of Morning Report" (3 mins.) and "The Lion King Personality Profile Game." "Tree of Life" umbrellas a horrid rendition of "Circle of Life" by Disney Channel's Circle of Stars, the making of that abomination, and access to a sing-along track, while "Jungle" is where you'll locate the remaining set-top games: "Timon's Grab-a-Grub" and "Pumbaa's Sound Sensations." The "Elephant Graveyard" patches us through to three very brief conceptualizations for deleted scenes or abandoned concepts, one of which is Pumbaa warbling "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?". A text index, a preview of the second platter, trailers for The Lion King 1½, Brother Bear, Sleeping Beauty - Special Edition, George of the Jungle 2, Finding Nemo, The Santa Clause 2, and the Mary Poppins Special Edition, and a commercial for "Walt Disney World" round out the first disc.
Disc 2's bonus material falls under continental and film-themed categories with little regard for where any of it actually belongs. Let's break this down in the order that's intrinsic to the main menu--over which Scar provides instructions, by the by.
Leaps of Fantasy (4 mins.)
A cursory glance at Garth Fagan's choreography for the hit stage show based on The Lion King.
Multi-Language Reel (4 mins.; with 1-minute intro)
Rick Dempsey, "Senior VP of Creative Disney Character Voices," sets up a montage of "Hakuna Matata" carefully dubbed in a variety of languages. Click on the sunburst icon when a new country's name appears and you'll leapfrog to that nation's favourite scene from the film in the appropriate tongue. Best not to consider how much time each country took deciding on their most cherished moment from The Lion King.
International Release (4 mins.)
The challenges of overhauling an English-language movie for a foreign audience are given lip service; isn't the subject of universality vs. cultural specificity--something that has intrigued me since it was broached on the Spirited Away DVD--worth a few more minutes?
"Stage Musical Publicity," "International Soundtrack Covers," and "International Large Format Release" galleries cap off our trip to Asia.
Music: African Influence (4 mins.)
Lebo M. asked what the movie was about, and then wrote his legendary opening chant in a matter of hours. We also learn that most of the film's musical talent--John and Rice excepted, of course--came directly from John G. Avildsen's apartheid drama The Power of One.
Audio Sequel (4 mins.)
A nice clarification on the purpose/motive behind "Rhythm of the Pride Lands," a Lion King album rife with selections that were fresh to the film's fans.
Production Research Trip (2 mins.)
The animators reminisce about their two-week getaway to Africa, a research trip they continue to celebrate with anniversary parties.
- Mufasa (1 min.): Animator Tony Fucile on creating the character for which he was responsible.
- Simba (2 mins.): Mark Hann made incorporating the facial gestures of Young Simba's pipes-lender Jonathan Taylor Thomas into his rendering of the character a priority, a road less traveled except by Alex Kupershmidt, who transparently modelled his hyenas after the actors vocalizing them.
- Scar (2 mins.): Andreas Deja, one of my favourite Disney animators, raises the dilemma of giving expressiveness to a character without hands.
- Rafiki (1 mins.): James Baxter on humanizing a mandrill, the freakiest of all baboons.
- Timon & Pumbaa (2 mins.): "They're like George and Lennie from The Grapes of Wrath," say Mike Surrey and Tony Bancroft. Should someone tell the pair they meant Of Mice and Men?
- The Hyenas (1 min.): See above.
Art: African Influence (4 mins.)
The African influence was gradually weeded out of The Lion King's visual style, the filmmakers concede.
Instructional videos on lions (3 mins.), meerkats (3 mins.), warthogs (3 mins.), and hyenas (2 mins.) labour to de-fictionalize the habits of The Lion King's Mufasa, Simba, et al. Meanwhile, the Multi-Language Reel and International Release featurette are recycled, and the galleries receive an addition in the form of "Film Character Design." The video for "Hakuna Matata" rounds out the Africa section.
Here, the funny trailer for The Lion King 1½ (in DD 5.1) as well as another portal for the galleries.
Landmark Songwriting (3 mins.)
The Lion King , we discover, was not initially a musical. Perish the thought!
The Multi-Language Reel, International Release featurette, and galleries again, plus videos for "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" and "Circle of Life."
Who knew that North America consisted of Disney's four outposts of operation?
Disney & Animals (6 mins.)
A vacuous recap of Disney's history with talking animals.
DVD Sound Design (5 mins.)
See DVD details.
Reflections (5 mins.)
Disney prez Thomas Schumacher speculates that child viewers of The Lion King in 1994 will now foist the movie on their own kids. Finally, an upshot to teen pregnancy!
The International Release featurette is also contained herein.
Find glorified commercials for Disney's new theme park ("Animal Kingdom" (4 mins.)) and resort hotel (the "Animal Kingdom Lodge" (2 mins.)). Oh, and "Disney & Animals" reappears here.
Musical Origins (4 mins.)
The roots of The Lion King's compositions.
Screen to Stage (3 mins.)
Give Michael Eisner credit--Schumacher does--for having the loony inspiration to transform The Lion King into a live-action, night-on-the-town spectacle.
Musical Texture (3 mins.)
How the ethnicity that was squeezed out of the film got restored for Broadway, a means of giving the play some bourgeois legitimacy.
Setting the Stage (2 mins.)
Julie Taymor's breathtaking puppetry paraded before our hungry eyes.
"Leaps of Fantasy" returns, as does the Stage Musical Publicity gallery.
Production Design (2 mins.)
Production designer Andy Gaskillon more or less aims to justify the picture's aesthetic disunity, arguing that the whole picture has scope. That it does, that it does.
Storyboard Process (2 mins.)
Circa '94, Allers and Minkoff discuss what goes on in the storyboard room.
Computer Animation (4 mins.)
You can tell this one's pretty old, too, from Scott F. Johnston's protest that "almost everything we do is still drawn by hand." The fascinating program he demonstrates, which 'taught' digital wildebeests not to bump into each other, would become the basis for the battle generators Peter Jackson used on The Lord of the Rings.
Storyboard to Film Comparison (4 mins.)
For the "Circle of Life" sequence.
Déjà vu: "Stage Musical Publicity," "International Soundtrack Covers," and "International Large Format Release" galleries, in addition to the Multi-Language Reel and International Release featurette.
That's it for the continents. Now, onto:
Story Origins (5 mins.)
Surprise, surprise: myth, Shakespeare, the Bible's Joseph--all credited as influences on the narrative. The TV series "Kimba, the White Lion"? Not.
Timeless Themes (4 mins.)
An expansion of the previous segment, wherein "responsibility" is credited as The Lion King's key theme. Unfortunately, only the production team engages in critical analysis; had they asked Christopher Vogler or others like him to participate, perhaps this could've come off as less self-congratulatory.
The Story Comes to Life (3 mins.)
Allers remembers that his father passed away at the start of the production, a resonant tidbit indeed.
Origins (6 mins.)
At last, the existence of Jeffrey Katzenberg is acknowledged! (In an oh-so fleeting shot of the über-producer toe-tappin' to an unheard beat.) This is where we hear that The Lion King was thought of as B filler to the "A" picture Pocahontas.
The rest is rerun fodder: "Production Research Trip"; "Art: African Influence"; "Reflections"; "Storyboard Process"; "Production Design"; "Character Design"; "Computer Animation"; and the "Film Character Design" gallery.
The "New York" branch of the "North America" section, whole-cloth.
For the kids, mostly, and hosted--in voice only--by Timon and Pumbaa.
Musical Inspiration (3 mins.)
Self-explanatory, I hope.
Orchestral Color (4 mins.)
Composer Hans Zimmer illuminating his central weakness: "I never do any research, I just rely on my imagination."
Scoring Emotion (3 mins.)
Zimmer on the challenge of "scoring for animals."
Full Circle (2 mins.)
Elton John on winning an Oscar, about which he is as enthusiastic as ever.
The featurettes "Landmark Songwriting" and "Music: African Influence" return here, positioned next to videos for "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?", "Hakuna Matata," and "Circle of Life."
Nothing new here save an introduction from Roy Disney in which he marvels at the hand-carved, 14-story (!) "Tree of Life" at Disney's Animal Kingdom. It looks surprisingly diminutive on camera.
This DVD sells itself--shame that philosophy is evident in a lacklustre batch of extras, but you couldn't ask for a better-looking/sounding DVD in the pre-HD era. Also available in a gift set with five lithographs and a book. Originally published: October 6, 2003. (Revised: October 3, 2011.)
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Disney brings The Lion King to Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D in a Diamond Edition that drops "The Morning Report" from the body of the film (it shows up as a supplement under the heading "Music & More"--"more" being a sing-along feature) while retaining the other changes made for the movie's 2003 IMAX conversion. It is, then, effectively a third, heretofore-unseen version of The Lion King, but as it wasn't met with any controversy when it played in 3-D to full houses across North America last month, who am I to complain? We received the regular Blu-ray + DVD combo-pack for review, which presents the picture in a stunning 1.78:1, 1080p transfer. The image is not a filmic one, per se, but it does preserve the idiosyncrasies of hand-drawn animation, from fluctuations in the line work around Mufasa's glorious mane to negligible schmutz trapped under cels. Naturally, the colours have broader range and better definition than they ever did in SD, with the infernal reds of the climax resolving properly for the first time on home video. The attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA track is similarly impressive; Lebo M's voice extracts reluctant goosebumps as it pours out of every speaker during the opening "fire drill," while lossless audio honours the wildebeest stampede by reproducing the individual hoofbeats typically nullified by the white thrum of bass. Vocal acoustics are excellent throughout. (The Disney Enhanced Home Theater mix returns in lossy DD 5.1. It can't really compete.)
Extras new to this release begin with "Disney Second Screen," the usual dodgily-synched laptop slideshow of graphical ephemera. I'm not exactly sure why Disney bothered with this gewgaw again, especially since this disc also includes a Java-based interactive gallery showcasing Character Design, Visual Development, Storyboards, and Layouts & Backgrounds. Meanwhile, "Bloopers & Outtakes" (4 mins., HD) proves that the only things more painful than real bloopers are the staged kind. The real zebra meat begins with "Pride of The Lion King" (38 mins., HD), a retrospective making-of that devotes half its running time to the Broadway musical based on the film--which is OK by me: at this point, I believe the play is the superior work. Former studio execs come out of the woodwork, and I loved Michael Eisner, seemingly humbled by age and experience, admitting not only that he had no idea who Julie Taymor was when she was pitched to him to direct the musical, but that he pretended he did to save face. This is a wonderful look back in many ways not cancelled out but rounded out by the companion piece "The Lion King: A Memoir - Don Hahn" (20 mins., HD), which expands on topics gingerly broached in the previous featurette, such as the influence of Jeffrey Katzenberg's political career on the project and the departure of director George Scribner. (It also reveals that the reason Lebo M disappeared for months to the consternation of composer Hans Zimmer was to vote in South Africa's first democratic election.) The latter, unlike the former, is a found-footage doc held together by voiceover, but that doesn't make it any less worth your time. Co-directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers take turns introducing "Deleted Scenes" (5 in all/14 mins. in toto, HD), none of which I found qualitatively different from material deemed worthy of the final product. (There's a Mufasa song here that might set the Disneyphile's heart aflutter, notwithstanding the thumbnail animation and lack of James Earl Jones.) Except for the Hahn/Allers/Minkoff commentary, accessible through the "Play" sub-menu, the Platinum Edition's DVD content has been shucked to a "Virtual Vault" for your lo-res streaming pleasure. Optional previews for "Disney All Access", Lady and the Tramp, The Muppets, Cars 2, and Tinker Bell and the Pixie Hollow Games cue up on startup. Originally published: October 3, 2011.