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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Lion King


Title: The Lion King

Year of Release: 1994

Date Viewed: September 20th, 2011

MPAA Rating: G

It was hard not to be in a state of disbelief while walking along the carpet interior of the multiplex with a Lion King ticket in hand. Less than a week prior, the film was re-released to theaters sporting a new 3D look and once again claimed top honors at the weekend box office seventeen years after its first run of glory. I was there for it then too. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The success of The Lion King's 3D run came as a great surprise to many film followers including myself. It came at a time when 3D's drawing power was on a steep decline. Most cynics insist that the general public was tired of paying top dollar for an "inferior" screen format. I think it's because they were tired of paying top dollar period. Whatever the case may be, a large number of them made an exception to see The Lion King on the big screen again. Enough for the film to earn more than all the new films opening that weekend combined.

I remember spending a lot of time over the preceding weekend thinking long and hard about why the film is considered a modern classic. It had been too long ago to understand how it became such a huge box office hit in 1994. But there had to have been a reason why it continues to appear high on the favorites lists of the Walt Disney studio projects. I eventually came to conclude my own personal reasons for thinking fondly of it, but decided there was nothing definitive about them. That in turn reveals the true answer. The movie has something for everyone.

Since a musical number is what opens the film, allow me to discuss those first. We've got an establishment song: Circle of Life. Featuring the bellowing voice of South African musician Lebo M and the thundering percussion of composer Hans Zimmer, we're treated to a series of establishing shots of the African pride lands; home to its animal residents and royal family of lions. The newborn future king is being honored by a ceremony similar to the Christian tradition of baptism. Cue the finale and the title card. Feel your heartbeat. If there's no strong pulse, try removing the blindfold and ear plugs.

The second song is more bouncy and fun. The future king is naively professing his desire to lead the pride lands into the next era. But mostly just so he doesn't have to listen to parents anymore.

Because no Disney musical epic would be complete without one, the show-stealing villain number is there to trigger both chills and foot taps. Be Prepared is the title and the warning. Just how evil is this villain? The real-life persona he's most often compared to is Adolf Hitler.

Hakuna Matata is there purely for comic relief. It appears right after the dramatic turning point of the story. In other words, perfect timing. The lyrics are cheesy enough to risk embarrassment getting caught even humming it in public. A stress-free life like the song describes is mankind's universal wish. I suppose the trick is to keep reinforcing that dream until the mind is tricked into believing it as reality. It works on the main character but we soon learn some inner demons are too strong even for life's simplest philosophy. My third-grade teacher loved this song so much that she asked the class to write an essay detailing our ideal personal Hakuna Matata. This proved to be difficult for yours truly because a school assignment overrides any hope of realizing Hakuna Matata.

And then there's the love song; wisely converted from comical to mostly dramatic at the insistence of songwriter Elton John. The male demographic vote reduces it to least popular status but I'm apparently not manly enough to agree.

The plot should be vaguely familiar to anyone who survived university literature courses. The basic outline from William Shakespeare's Hamlet is borrowed with the story expanded by a prologue to set up how and why darkness has seized control of the land. The exiled future king Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick) is summoned back to his homeland by the ghost of his father and deceased ruler Mufasa (voice of James Earl Jones.)

Never to be denied the chance to give guidance even in death, Mufasa makes it clear that the only way for Simba to fully cleanse the guilt of the past is to accept destiny and lead an uprising against his Uncle Scar (voice of Jeremy Irons): the wrongful heir to the throne. Simba's rebellion is essential not just for the liberation of the Pride Rock population but to preserve all the wisdom that his father passed down. Among the life lessons is the definition of bravery, respecting nature and the food chain, keeping power and responsibility in balance and understanding why nobody is nor should be immune to fear. As far as fictional wild animals go, one couldn't ask for a better role model than Mufasa.

What makes the villain so frightening is the ugly personality disguised under the ugly face. With brains even stronger than the brawn, Scar is the Cain to Mufasa's Abel. His sharply written dialogue themed with manipulation makes it hard not to feel some rage burning under the skin. I was eager to see him receive comeuppance long before any heroes realized the full reach of his corruption.

Need breaks from drama? The Lion King has it covered. Continuing the trend of the 90s (arguably Disney's golden age) the sideshow characters do everything from breaking the fourth wall to dissing their own production company to referencing pop culture. (Taxi Driver anyone?) Entertaining but startling and uneven when presented in the same film stock as a major character getting killed off at the start of act two.

For a film that was never intended to be screened in a three-dimensional format, the added effects created for the re-release are outstanding. The sunrise over Pride Rock never looked better. Zazu's flight to the top of the mountain never felt better. The action sequences were never more thrilling, especially the stampede scene. And the best moment tricked me into believing Scar was leaping directly toward me, leaving my defenseless 3D glasses to be disintegrated from the claws. There are more 3D conversions to come courtesy of the Walt Disney vault but there was a reason this film was chosen first.

Allow me to recap what The Lion King offers.

- Catchy and effective musical numbers and score
- Spiritual overtones
- Reimagining of a classic Shakespeare narrative
- Lovable heroes
- Frightening villains
- Valuable lessons of morality
- Credible voice work
- Sharp dialogue
- The "page turner" effect
- Breaking of the fourth wall
- Pop culture references
- James Earl "My voice is freakin amazing" Jones
- A shocking tearjerker
- Effective 3D effects (where applicable)

I like to think of the Lion King as a legendary traveling circus embarking on a big comeback tour. The metaphorical reason? Not every act appeals to everyone but there is something for everyone.

"And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life."

Rating: 8


  1. asdfghjkl; *spazz*

    I was so glad that this movie held up as well as it did. Yeah, some of the effects don't look as sharp as they used to (kids in twenty years are gonna look at the stampede and cock an eyebrow), but that doesn't mean that I loved it any less. The five-year-old in me rejoiced.

    Speaking of Disney, I got a link you might like, Mr. Film Music: Enjoy.

  2. One of my all time favorites! I'd like to see the Broadway Play based on this movie.

  3. Me too. My sister was lucky enough to see an off-Broadway performance. She had reservations but ended up loving it.