Sunday, March 10, 2013

Let’s Review a Movie: The Lion King (1994)

Last year when I reviewed Disney’s 101 Dalmatians I mentioned that it was my favourite Disney film until a certain film from the Disney Renaissance came along; and this is that film.  The Lion King claimed the throne as my Disney favourite movie when I was a kid and all these years later it still reigns supreme.

Now I am a big fan of cats so that is certainly something that gives this film a big edge, but it isn’t the only reason I like it, love it really.  I mean I was literally obsessed with this movie as a kid.  I had stuffed toys, games, those annoying push and play books, and more; in fact I now own four copies of the film.  The original VHS version, which has horrible cover art.  The special edition, that has awesome cover art, and the re-mastered DVD and blu-ray editions; that have okay cover art.  Or at least the individual covers do.  I actually bought the box set of all three films in the so called trilogy and it looks great; even if the other films in the set are less than stellar.  But I’m getting ahead myself we’re looking at the great film first. 

And a great film this is just by looks alone, especially with the re-mastering.  The film has never looked better.  The picture is clear and crisp and the detail is amazing.  I’m noticing movements and background colours I never have before because it’s now so clean looking.  I love that this film has such size and scope to it.  They really used the story to show off a lot of different landscapes.  We have deserts, jungles, the elephant graveyard, pride rock and more.  And I like that they have a lot of great contrasting colours with all the locations.  The bright sprawling pridelands and the dryer cramped look for the gorge during the stampede, also the scene has some great shadows and angles when Scar is doing his menacing walks along the cliffs as Mufusa tries desperately to save his son.  The bright reds and yellows in the climax when Scar and Simba face off.  The nice dark purples and blues for the night time scenes.  I also love the image of Simba stepping into his father’s paw print and the shot of the size difference, showing the great shoes he will have to fill one day.  The creepy purples of the elephant graveyard and how it shifts to eerie greens as Scar sings about his plan to assume the throne; and of the course the Nazi imagery in the Be Prepared song.    

The characters in front of the gorgeous backgrounds are also really good.  I won’t even go into the animation, it’s Disney the character animation is wonderful as usual, but the personalities truly match that great animation.  Mufusa brings a great balance as a dad who is personal with his son while also being wise, a great acting job from the legendary James Earl Jones.  Scar is an interesting character as a villain to me because he succeeds in his plan for the most part.  He does get to become king, he does kill his brother, most villains don’t get to be anywhere near that successful.  He also has a nice design and great voice, and a good villain song too.  Timon and Pumbaa are fun side characters although the flatulence stuff with Pumbaa is annoying, but not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the film.  

Simba is still wonderful to watch and is one my favourite Disney characters.  He’s a fun kid with room to grow and I think that growth works; partly because his good traits are shown as a cub along with his bad ones.  Yes he is reckless when he goes off to the elephant graveyard after being told not to, but he also goes back for Zazu when the hyenas capture him and he goes to help Nala too.  Showing that he does care for others, even when he thinks Zazu is an annoying banana beak.  When he goes back for Nala he shows that he is brave because he is willing to run back and whack Shenzi across the face to help his friend even though he is scared.  So we see the good in him even as we see the brash bratty kid that he has to grow out of being.  He starts off with the idea that being king will be all about what he wants, and I like that Scar mirrors that.  He is Simba’s viewpoint taken to the extreme and we see the consequences of that.  That the circle of life is broken and must be fixed and to do that Simba must take responsibility for his actions and grow beyond his self-centered world view.  To learn that you can’t turn your back on the world and that you have to worry about the past even though you can’t change it, because it affects the future and you can learn from it.  Simba has to take his place as king not because he really wants to, but it’s for the good of others that he does so.  What I think I like most about his conflict is that it’s personal and that it doesn’t just go away in an instant.  When he slumps against the rocks after telling his friends the story Mufusa told him as a kid about the kings of the past watching over him.  When he yells at the stars that his dad would always be there for him and he is not you can see that Simba is still wounded from his father’s death. Unlike my complaint about James T. Kirk in my Search for Spock review you can see that he is still hurt from this, it’s clear in his actions and his words.  This role even gets a great voice performance out of Matthew Broderick and that is no easy feat.  I also like that Simba is a lot more pro-active than his counterpart Hamlet who doesn’t get his act together until he is being carted off to England.  Simba realizes he must face his past when Mufusa’s ghost appears to him and then does so.

While we’re on the subject of comparing source materials I will say that I will not being doing any comparisons between this and Kimba the White Lion.  I haven’t seen that show in forever and then it was only clips.  The only things in common I’ve noticed so far are that the main characters both lose their fathers and have a journey to reclaim their kingdoms.  Also they have similar names but Simba is a real Swahili phrase, meaning lion, so I’m willing to bet they got his name from there rather than taking Kimba’s name and switching a letter.  While I may do a comparison at a later date right now I don’t have enough familiarity with Kimba to give an opinion on whether I think The Lion King is an homage to it, a rip off, or if it's all just a big fat coincidence.

Getting back to this film I have to say that the music works wonderful here too with Elton Jones songs and the mixing of the African vocals.  The Circle of Life is unforgettable of course and sets the tone for the picture beautifully.  The orchestra just by its self is awesome too.  Who can ever forget the theme to the wildebeest stampede or the final battle for pride rock?  And personally Can You Feel the Love Tonight is one of my favourite Disney love songs, both the theatrical version and the full version Elton John sings.  I even like the romance between Simba and Nala.  Could it have been developed a bit more?  Sure, but the romance wasn’t really the driving force of the story, it was a point in which the story could be driven forward by Simba having to confront this person from his past.  Also the cliché of best friends falling in love with each other later was as old as dirt that even as a kid I knew it was going to happen so that never bothered me, and I think it works well enough because Nala doesn’t change drastically when she becomes the romantic interest instead of just Simba’s best friend.  She’s still a great fighter, she’s still feisty, and she is still funny like when she quotes Simba’s line from the elephant graveyard back to him.  So the love song works and I think the romance works.  There is only one song that I didn’t think worked at all was The Morning Report song.   The special edition of the film had the addition of this song along with new animation.  Well the animation is pretty good the song isn’t.  In fact it is my least favourite song from the Broadway version of the film.  For me the scene really never worked because the song is comedic and I don’t think it fits the tone of the rest of the scene properly or the movie for that matter.  We have Mufusa talking about their place in the circle of life then Zazu coming in all formal for the report, and then he starts it with a song that basically adds nothing to the story.    I Just Can’t Wait to Be King is also bouncy and fun, but it’s serving two purposes, one is to distract Zazu so the cubs can get away and second is to showcase Simba’s self-centred idea of his role as king that he will have to mature out of over the course of the film.  Also Zazu keeps his stuffy no nonsense attitude in that song which he utterly loses in The Morning Report and it’s jarring as all hell.  All in all I’m glad that song was cut out again in the later releases.  

To conclude this film is still my favourite in the whole Disney canon.  It’s gorgeous in all ways.  The animation is wonderful, the backgrounds are lush and grand, and the colours are striking.  The music matches the broad scope with the African theme and vocals.  The story works, the characters are diverse, interesting and fun, both in their animation and their voices.  I love how good it looks and sounds.  I love that it deals with a personal struggle of grief and blame and loss and that it carries on throughout the piece.  I truly think it’s a great film and deserves its place among Disney’s best works.

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