What can you say about The Lion King? It’s one of the most successful animated films of all time, got great critical acclaim, an even spawned a long-running Broadway show. But how well does it hold up? I re-watched the film after having not seen it in a while, and thankfully I can say King holds up quite well.
Part of this lies in its story, which gets to the conflict right away. That conflict comes in the form of Scar, who is plotting to kill lion king Mufasa and his son, Simba, successor to the throne. Through the use of coy deception, he’s able to convince the trusting Simba to do something he’s forbidden to do, such as visit an elephant graveyard, and later to wait in a valley for a surprise that turns out to be a deadly stampede, the highlight of the film. The first half hour or so does a great job at covering a lot of ground while still moving briskly. When meerkat and warthog duo Timon and Pumbaa enter the picture to take the exiled Simba under their wings, things slow down a tad, but not enough to lose my interest. And an old childhood friend, Nala, re-enters now-adult Simba’s life and gets the ball rolling again for an inner conflict about whether or not he should return to the valley and reclaim the throne from Scar, who’s let things go to pot. The plot takes inspiration from numerous sources, and it works nicely in the new African setting.
I also still dig the look of the film, which is practically a travelogue of Africa. The varied landscapes and color schemes mean no two scenes look alike, and the animation has the usual professionalism we come to expect from Disney. There’s some fine facial and body acting from all characters, but I particularly liked Scar’s lanky body and the undignified (and when it comes to his interactions with Mufasa, disrespectful) way he carries himself. The direction is also solid, with plenty of memorable sequences, such as the aforementioned wildebeest stampede (seamlessly aided by the use of CGI), the iconic opening where all the animals come to pay respects to the newly born Simba while a powerful chorus chants, and the final battle between Simba and Scar, with the valley on fire and everything bathed in a reddish hue.
The songs are also some of the best Disney’s done, with “Hakuna Matata” and “Be Prepared” memorable for different reasons; the former for its instantly hummable melody, laid back feel, and gorgeous lush jungle visuals to go with it, and the latter for its menacing nature and not-so-subtle allusions to Nazi Germany with Scar’s goose-stepping hyena henchmen. “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is lightweight but fun too. I’m not really much of a Hans Zimmer fan, but his orchestrations to these songs and the background music capture the majesty and grandness that is Africa.
Now let’s talk the Blu-ray set, which comes in a couple variations: A 2-disc set (Blu-ray on disc 1, and DVD on disc 2, which is what I’m reviewing), and a 3-disc “3D” set (Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copy). The Lion King on Blu-ray looks and sounds gorgeous, but that’s to be expected for a Disney animated release. Special features are fairly modest in number, and there isn’t a second disc specifically devoted to special materials, as is the case with some Pixar sets. However, what we do get is acceptable and provides a good idea of the film’s production. Things begin with a vintage 1995 audio commentary featuring producer Don Hahn and directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers. The track is at its best when the participants reveal unused ideas (such as a song between Mufasa and Simba!), and also offers some insightful production details, mostly when it comes to visuals. It’s worth a listen.
Besides the commentary, you can watch the film in “Disney Second Screen” mode, which from what I gather is a way to view concept art and galleries while the movie plays. You can also view the movie with sing-along mode, which is probably of more interest to the kids in the room.
Next is roughly three minutes of bloopers, which are of the Pixar variety; that is, new animated footage where the gag is that the characters are actors flubbing their lines. They’re mildly amusing, but nothing had me howling.
The meat of the material comes in the form of two documentaries: “Pride of the Lion King” and “The Lion King: A Memoir – Don Hahn”. “Pride” runs 38 minutes and is essentially a 17-year reunion in various venues where cast and crew members recall various aspects of the production. The documentary also ties the movie in with the successful stage play by Julie Taymor, which I thought was a nice touch. “Memoir” is a nearly 20 minute documentary with a unique approach of showcasing vintage 1994 clips with more recent voiceovers. It works nicely and provides more of a “behind the scenes” feel than “Pride” does.
Fourteen minutes of deleted scenes are also available, with all of them in storyboard/voices form.
“The Morning Report”, a song added to the 2003 re-release (featuring Zazu singing his morning report to Mufasa instead of speaking it), is an extra here, not available as part of the main feature like before. Having not bought the previous DVD release, it was nice to finally see this, though for others this will be old news.
Rounding things up are some Disney trailers and a brief video where Timon and Pumbaa describe Disney 3D. The video was basically made to shove items into your face, but since I was without the necessary 3D glasses, it didn’t do much for me.
The Lion King is not quite my favorite Disney animated film (that would still go to either Aladdin or The Emperor’s New Groove), but it’s definitely in the upper echelon, thanks to its timeless story, excellent presentation, and the effortless way it manages to balance serious moments with comedic ones. And it remains a lot of fun even as an adult. When a movie can succeed with multiple age groups, you’ve got something special.