Extended Thoughts on ‘The Lion King’

The Lion King

Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton

They were Skittles. I remember this part distinctly. I was in the front row of the theater on Friday, June 24, 1994, throwing Skittles at the big screen with the other kids I was seeing The Lion King with. I know that my parents weren’t there with me; I was misbehaving, sure, but my parents were responsible enough that, had they been with me, I’d have been in my seat like a good boy. (Of course, for this specific movie, they weren’t responsible enough to be in the theater, instead letting me see the movie with a couple of friends, one of whom was a bit older. But that’s neither here nor there.) Yes, for some odd reason, the first time I saw The Lion King, it did not hold my attention as it should have. I also have a specific memory of thinking to myself after leaving the movie, “I think that movie might’ve been pretty good. I probably shouldn’t have been throwing candy at the screen.”

Suffice to say, I’ve had a lot of opportunities since that summer afternoon to actually pay attention to The Lion King. The movie is one of the most massively successful films Walt Disney Pictures has ever been involved in; it’s made even more money since it was released in 3D for the first time last month, now more profitable than Toy Story 3. Though it’s never been my favorite Disney animated film, either in general or in the Disney renaissance, The Lion King is an achievement that the studio has been trying to replicate for years: it got little boys to see a Disney movie willingly. I’ve discussed this on the show, but most times, when Walt Disney Pictures tries to lure in little boys to its animated movies, it falls on its face either somewhat or completely. See Tangled and The Black Cauldron, respectively. Simba isn’t the most memorable Disney character, but just like Bambi, he’s a compelling lead because his pain and redemption are universal.

That last word is the key that Disney animators struggle to achieve when focusing on male-centric movies. Not every boy recoils from every princess movie; what makes movies like The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast work so well is that the feelings and themes aren’t specific to women, or specific to men. They are universal. We can all feel and have felt the way that Ariel, Belle, or Simba feel. Gender doesn’t enter into it. When Disney movies seem more cultivated to appeal to only one gender, it seems more than clear that marketing is to blame, not creative elements. But then again, we are getting more and more proof that marketing is ruining the movies we cherish so much.

I don’t get 3D. What’s more, I’m frustrated that I have to consider 3D when I talk about The Lion King, a perfectly entertaining movie that’s both rousing and haunting, enthralling and tragic. I’ve said it on the show and I’ll say it in writing here: do not assume that 3D is why people want to see The Lion King in theatres, Walt Disney Pictures. People want to see the old Disney classics in theatres again because they are THE OLD DISNEY CLASSICS. 3D is an added effect that detracts from the movie for most people. How many people these days are crowing about how good 3D looks? Frankly, if the 3D doesn’t look like trash, we might actually be a little more willing to give a movie’s fancy format a pass. The 3D in The Lion King is unremarkable. That’s seriously the nicest thing I can say about it. It could’ve been worse. I try not to judge a movie negatively if the 3D applied to it looks bad; that’s not the movie’s fault, depending on the situation. Some movies aren’t ever intended to be seen in 3D, such as pretty much any old movie that will get the re-release treatment, either from Disney or another studio.

You probably know–OK, I’m willing to bet you already know–that on the heels of The Lion King doing so well in theatres this fall, Disney will be putting Beauty and the Beast, Finding Nemo, The Little Mermaid, and Monsters, Inc. through the 3D treatment through 2013. While I applaud Disney finally re-releasing some of its more recent classics to theatres, as was done back all the way up to around 1990, I don’t get why they don’t just release the movies as they are. Don’t screw with them. Just show me the movie that I saw as a kid. Just show the movie. You don’t always need to make things new; have we learned nothing from George Lucas’s constant tampering with the old Star Wars movies? Sometimes, I like what I like and I don’t need it to change. Change isn’t always bad; it’s frequently good. But this kind of change is just a desperate plea for money that Walt Disney Pictures probably doesn’t need that much.

Again, what annoys me most is that rewatching this in 3D and on Blu-ray (the latter is the better format by a very long shot) made me fixate on the format as opposed to the movie behind all of that. Maybe it’s because so much of the movie is so familiar to us from the opening “Circle of Life” sequence all the way to the final battle between an adult, and finally mature, Simba and his devious schemer of an uncle, Scar. As tragic and sad as parts of The Lion King are, there’s just as much fun to be had. The film’s directors, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, have to balance the dark and the light very carefully here–don’t forget, it’s only a few minutes after Mufasa dies that we meet Timon and Pumbaa and learn about Hakuna Matata. For the most part, they do so with a deft touch, even considering how frequently this movie abandons the naturalstic realism that’s a clear inspiration from Bambi. The movie’s not perfect–the self-referential humor and celebrity voices that are a common cliche of DreamWorks Animation films have their origin here–but it’s crowd-pleasing in a way that most Disney movies never have been.

Both times I rewatched the movie, I walked away with at least one concrete thought I hadn’t ever really considered as a younger man: Jeremy Irons steals this movie without raising his voice. Irons, as Scar, helps create (along with animator Andreas Deja) one of the best Disney villains. Sure, we could criticize the movie for featuring good-hearted characters who aren’t aware of the fact that a fellow character might as well be accompanied by evil music and hisses from audience members. But Irons’ dry, droll performance is yet another reminder that this cool, cold British actor makes just about everything better. Scar isn’t half the character without Jeremy Irons giving him a voice.

In some ways, The Lion King is the quintessential modern animated movie. We get memorable music, from Elton John and Tim Rice, as well as the incomparable Hans Zimmer. We get wacky comic relief. We have a simple yet relatable conflict. And, we have bouncy, eye-poppingly colorful animation. Even though the movie’s creative achievements may not have surpassed that of other Disney Renaissance entries, The Lion King is as epic as an animated movie gets and remains essential viewing, no matter how old you are.

– Josh Spiegel

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