THE LION KING: Blu-ray (Walt Disney Pictures 1994) Disney Home Video
Despite the claim made by Disney’s artisans, that their main source for narrative inspiration is derived from ancient African folk tales with only a slight afterthought paid to Shakespeare, Disney’s 32nd animated feature, The Lion King (1994) is so transparent in its retelling of the bard’s Hamlet it is embarrassing to avoid its comparative similarities. Thematically – yes, the film stands on more liberal interpretations. It makes queries about the individual within the greater 'circle of life', while reflecting on the major impact a single person can have on a whole community. There is also a very sincere thread, introspective and dedicated to ownership and responsibility for one’s actions, a minor 'earth day' plug for preserving the delicate balance of our planet, an honest reflection on coping with life after the death of a parent, and finally, a supremely haunting reference to where blind totalitarianism can lead us…lest we forget. Still, and despite these competing thematic elements, at its heart – The Lion King is Hamlet for the kiddies with a hefty mane of fur. The concept for the movie began its lengthy gestation in 1988. Multiple drafts followed, with final screenwriting credits going to Irene Mecchi, Johnathan Roberts and Lindsay Woolverton.
But the aegis for its inception grew from a casual conversation between Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy E. Disney and Peter Schneider while on a trip to Europe to promote Oliver & Company. The idea was then pitched to Creative Affairs VP, Charles Fink; Katzenberg, guiding the process by adding a few autobiographical touches while sheepishly confessing, “It’s a little bit about me.” By late November, 1988, ‘The King of the Kalahari’ already had one draft by Thomas Disch, centered on a battle royale between lions and baboons. While character names would remain true to this original draft, many were shape-shifted to other animals in this wild kingdom; Scar, initially a baboon, to become an effete lion, Rafiki, from cheetah to baboon, and so on. By 1990, the working title for the project had changed several times, from King of Beasts to King of the Jungle and finally, The Lion King; producer, Thomas Schumacher coming on board. At this juncture Oliver & Company’s director, George Scribner joined the team, followed by Roger Allers (lead story man on Beauty and the Beast), and Brenda Chapman, later to take over as head of story development. Alas, after only six months, Scribner elected to step down, citing creative differences with Allers and his producers who had, by then, decided to transform The Lion King into another animated musical.
Allers’ replacement, Rob Minkoff joined producer, Don Hahn in taking over the creative reigns; Schumacher, stepping into the executive producer’s position following his promotion to Vice President of Development for Feature Animation. To his credit, Hahn began to distill the disparate elements of an unfocused screenplay into a concentrated ‘coming of age’ story with Allers, Minkoff and Chapman doing a virtual rewrite of the screenplay in a mere two weeks; the primary location changed from the jungle to the savannah. By 1992, The Lion King had added two more crucial names to its creative roster: screenwriters, Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts, whose impeccable construction not only tightened the plot, but also resolved a lot of uneven and dangling subplots. At this point, lyricist Tim Rice stepped up to the plate, his contributions on Aladdin (1992), after the untimely passing of composer, Howard Ashman, proving his own mettle in writing big, bold and brassy show tunes uniquely situated to the requirements of an animated feature. For The Lion King Rice would pair up with pop icon, Elton John.
Interestingly, The Lion King’s production coincided with development plans for Pocahontas, then considered the more prestigious property in Disney’s creative hopper. This proved something of a back-handed benefit, as most of the company’s lead animators opted out of The Lion King, affording those with a genuine passion for its’ story-telling to emerge; Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, Aaron Blaise, Anthony DeRosa and Tony Fucile among the more than 600 artists, animators, and technicians, ultimately to make The Lion King one of the company’s most visually arresting masterworks. As was done on Bambi (1940), the studio brought in real wild animals to cull and refine the animators’ inspiration: in this case, under wrangler, Ron Magill’s authority from the Miami MetroZoo; background artwork reproduced from photographs taken of an earlier trip to Kenya, conducted by Allers and Hahn and, later to find their way in Hans Bacher’s epic sketches and final painted layouts. Employing a 3D simulator for the wildebeest stampede meant that only several distinct creatures need be rendered using traditional hand-drawn art, multiplied into infinity in a computer and thus saving innumerable man hours to keep costs down while still achieving a staggering amount of scope and realism to this sequence.
So much of The Lion King’s success is owed its score, the contributions of Tim Rice and Elton John, briefly mentioned earlier, deserves more consideration here and now. Rice and the late Howard Ashman’s partner, Alan Menken, had set a new standard for Disney musicals with the debut of The Little Mermaid (1989), their stature as tunesmiths in the great tradition and legacy of the Walt Disney Co. carried over – and arguably, never better utilized than in Beauty and The Beast (1991). Ailing during production of Aladdin, Ashman would succumb to complications from the AIDS virus, leaving a bereaved Menken to carry on with Rice. Now Rice, unable to secure Menken’s assist on The Lion King, turned hopeful to the legendary Elton John for collaboration; the two endeavoring to write “ultra-pop songs that kids would like (and adults would) get as much pleasure out of them.” All five of the Rice/John songs composed for The Lion King (Circle of Life, I Just Can't Wait to Be King, Be Prepared, Hakuna Matata, and, Can You Feel the Love Tonight) would become immediate classics in the Disney cannon, the soundtrack album becoming the fourth-best-seller of the year and the top-selling soundtrack; certified as ‘Diamond’ by the Recording Industry Association of America.
As scripted, after a series of startling and impressionistic wide shots of the savannah awakening to a new dawn, we arrive at the Pride Lands of Africa where lions rule over the animal kingdom. The benevolent King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones) is celebrating the birth of a son, Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas); presently blessed by the shaman, Rafiki (Robert Guillaume). As a child, Simba cannot wait to be king. But Mufasa reminds the cub that in order to be a good ruler he must learn to administer with a noble heart as well as a mighty hand. Mufasa's younger brother, Scar (Jeremy Irons) covets the throne. Mufasa’s nobility is an anathema to his own greed to possess the throne. And thus, an insidious plot to murder Mufasa and Simba in this un-natural succession begins to form. Scar tricks Simba and his best friend, Nala (Moira Kelly) into exploring a forbidden elephant graveyard where the hyenas in league with Scar, Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg), Banzai (Cheech Marin) and Ed (Jim Cummings) are lying in wait for an ambush. Mufasa, however, is alerted to the threat by his frenetic majordomo, Zazu (Rowan Atkinson) and thwarts the attack. Determined to succeed at all costs, Scar lures the impressionable Simba into a gorge, ordering the hyenas to incite a devastating wildebeest stampede from above, surely to crush the cub underfoot. Once again, Mufasa springs into action. Alas, while he is successful at rescuing Simba from certain death, his own life is sacrificed.
Scar now insidiously convinces Simba he is responsible for this tragedy. Already fearful and devastated by his father’s passing, Simba flees the Pride Lands. Now, Scar orders the hyenas to strike. Mercifully, they are only successful at exiling Simba beyond the borders, believing the desert heat will eventually claim the cub. Time passes and Simba is adopted by two new friends, the warthog, Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and wise-cracking meerkat, Timon (Nathan Lane). As Simba grows to adulthood he is rediscovered by Nala, who presses him to remember his duty to the inhabitants of Pride Rock. Since his exile the kingdom has fallen on very hard times, thanks to Scar’s mismanagement of its natural resources. Still unable to accept his father’s death, Simba resists returning home. Shortly thereafter he is visited by Mufasa’s spirit, and finally, Rafiki, who encourages Simba to take his rightful place as the new king. Aided by a distraction from Timon and Pumbaa, Simba sneaks past the hyenas and confronts Scar into a confession of murder before the counsel at Pride Rock. Ordering his uncle into exile, Scar attempts to lay full blame for his actions at the hyena’s altar. He then attacks Simba atop a steep cliff. At the last possible moment, Simba manages to toss the cowardly usurper from this narrow precipice. And although Scar does survive this fall, the hyenas now exact their revenge for his betrayal of them. His enemies vanquished, Simba and Nala are reunited – presumably to become the future king and queen of the Pride Lands. Thus we have come full circle in this ever-evolving circle of life.
The Lion King is perhaps the last bona fide ‘classic’ (I hesitate using ‘that word’ too liberally or prematurely) in the short-lived post-Walt renaissance begun with The Little Mermaid. In retrospect, it remains the perfect blend of story, character-driven animation and song, unleashing its lithe artistry and even more elusive magical pixie dust: qualities in Walt’s best endeavors, long since to have derived their longevity as touchstones of our collective childhood. Clearly, the artists involved here were 'touched' by their African experience, bringing intensity and passion to their work. For its imaginative flare, there is nothing to touch the buoyantly staged ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King;’ or the disturbing symmetry evoking Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’ Nuremberg parades, brilliantly reconceived as Scar’s wicked enterprise, ‘Be Prepared.’ The stark natural beauty of the Dark Continent, rendered throughout, is superbly celebrated in the film’s emotionally stirring opener – ‘Circle of Life.’ When The Lion King premiered it was universally hailed as a masterpiece. There is really no room for debate here. While the narrative remains thinly disguised ‘cartoon road company’ Shakespeare, the art of animation is pure vintage Disney at its zenith. The irony is, of course, that what was perceived within the organization as just a 'little film' has since become the most successful animated feature in the company’s entire history – easily surpassing the merits of Pocahontas on virtually every level of artistry.
Well, here we go again: another re-re-re-issue of a beloved Disney animated feature; re-branded as a ‘Signature Edition’. We should point out that the Walt Disney Co. these days is very much in the habit of merely resting on its laurels and giving us re-releases at the expense of virtually ignoring all of its’ live-action catalog on Blu-ray. There really is no point to this release, despite Disney Inc. having deigned to offer up a few ‘new to Blu’ extras while systematically removing some of the older disc features and relegating others, now only accessible via the digital copy. Dumb, silly, pointless marketing! The transfer on this edition of The Lion King is identical to the Diamond Edition Blu-ray from a decade ago. It remains a truly sumptuous and visceral experience with majestically rich and eye-popping colors, superb contrast and razor-sharp detail with not untoward DNR applied. The audio is a 7.1 DTS with aggressive acoustics that have not dated.
The lion’s share of extras is divided thus: we lose the ‘second screen option’ – a picture-in-picture commentary, also the making of ‘Pride of The Lion King’, the interactive gallery and virtual vault. Carried over: the audio commentary from Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff and Producer Don Hahn, deleted scenes, the outtake of the song ‘Morning Report’ and a few choice bloopers, along with an isolated sing-along mode. New to Blu is a little more than 30 min. of footage devoted to Visualizing the Villain, the recording sessions, story room conversations, and a piece devoted to the shaping of Timon and Pumbaa’s characters. On digital only, we get a lot of snippets and sound bites to augment these aforementioned extras. These play almost as outtakes themselves. Personally, I am not in favor of all this fragmenting of information. Disney Inc. used to produce comprehensive ‘making of’ documentaries for their classic animated features; far more engrossing and invaluable than these chop-shop, truncated bits of business. There is a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ stuff to sift through here, but none of it goes beyond the 5 min. mark and, frankly, it’s a little disheartening to toggle through it all without context or comprehension. Bonus footage boils down to mere seconds of run time, while Cast and Crew outtakes are little more than one or two sentences of add-ons to a conversation gleaned elsewhere in this cacophony of dumbed down extras. Bottom line: The Lion King was already given one stellar Blu-ray release via the Diamond Edition. If you already own this edition, then pass on this rather pointlessly reassembled ‘Signature Edition’.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)