Monday, July 22, 2019

Disney’s The Lion King (1994) (Movie Review)

     Now that I’ve reviewed two of Disney’s animated jungle adventures, “Tarzan” and “The Jungle Book”, it only figures I close out the month with a review of Disney’s 1994 classic “The Lion King”. This was the studios 32nd animated picture, and … really, this film needs no introduction. “The Lion King” is widely regarded as one of the greatest animated pictures ever made, it’s still the highest grossing traditionally animated movie at the box office, it had more home video sales then any other Disney property of its time, there’s still a huge amount of merchandising for it, a devoted fan base, and its often regarded as one of the cinematic turning points of the 90’s. 
Now, I grew up with this film at the Hight of its popularity, I’ve always liked it, I certainly have nostalgia for it … but in truth, I’ve always found this film a little “overpraised”. It’s definitely a good movie, deserving of its status as a classic, but I’ve always been annoyed that so many other equally great films have yet to escape its shadow, to the point where I’m slightly annoyed by its popularity. I’ve always viewed “The Lion King” as the text book example of a good movie that got spoiled by too much attention. Apparently, I can’t just “like” this movie, I have to love it, and embrace it as something “PERFECT”. Because of that, I find myself analyzing this film closer than I would other Disney properties, and small issues suddenly stick out as problems. I’ve had similar experiences with current movies like “Frozen” and “Black Panther”, which I would have liked a lot more, had they not been overly-praised as some kind of “second-coming”. Now, any problems I have with “The Lion King” are nothing serious, they just keep the film from reaching my own personal ranks of favorites, but it’s still a good movie, and this will sill be a “mostly positive” review. 

    Set in the Jungles of Africa, “The Lion King” tells the tale of a young lion Prince named Simba, who’s destined to one-day rule over the Pride Lands. One tragic morning, his father, King Mufasa is slain by Simba’s wicked uncle Scar. Eager to take the throne for himself, Scar places the blame of the Kings death on the boy’s shoulders, and thus, he’s banished to the outlands. After spending many years with two goofy pals named Timon and Pumbaa, the prince finally returns home to take his rightful place as king, and dethrone his malevolent uncle. 
Unlike the majority of Disney’s animated works "The Lion King" wasn’t based on a direct source material, but it certainly took inspiration from other famous sources. The writers took inspiration from epics like “Spartacus”, and the story of ‘Moses”. In fact, Mufasa appearing in the clouds was inspired by Moses encounter with the burning bush. However, one creative decision changed everything, and it all had to do with the villain Scar. Originally, he was just going to be a rouge lion, but the writers wisely decided to make him a member of Simba’s family. Once his character was changed into Simba’s uncle, it became very clear that the main source of inspiration for “The Lion King” would be William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, and it’s felt all throughout the movie. When Scar kills Mufasa, he chillingly says “Long … Live … The King”, which was meant to parallel Hamlets famous “Goodnight sweet prince … may flights of angels sing the to thy rest”. Also, before the iconic moment when Simba is visited by his father in the clouds, he questions what he’s supposed to do next, which was meant to reflect the equally iconic “To be or not to be”.

      One thing I have to note is that “The Lion King” has been criticized by some as a rip-off of the 1960’s Japanese Anime called “Kimba the White Lion”, as they both feature similar characters, follow identical events, and even share the same themes … the most notable being “The Circle of Life”. In truth, I don’t think any of the animators or screen-writers were aware of Kimba when they went into production, although it’s certainly a huge coincidence. In my opinion, the real source behind “The Lion King” was neither “Kimba” or “Hamlet”, but another Disney movie … a little classic that came out in 1942, commonly known … as “Bambi”. I’m not just saying this as an adult, because even when I was just a little kid, I always viewed “Bambi and The Lion King” as the same story. The only real difference between the two (aside from the obvious difference in animals) is that “Bambi” told its tale in a grounded life-and-times approach, while “The Lion King” was more theatrical and epic in design. Seriously, while the presentation on display is different, both films follow the exact same series of events, to the point where you could actually call “The Lion King” a soft remake of “Bambi”.

Both movies begin with a gathering of animals, who’ve all come to celebrate the birth of their figurative prince, the one being Prince Bambi of the forest, and the other being Prince Simba of the Pride Lands.     

We’re then introduced to both as children, who are both being led by a single parent on a tour of what will one-day be their kingdoms. Bambi is escorted by his mother, while Simba is escorted by his father, but the principle is the same. They’re both even warned of a dangerous area they’re not supposed to go to. 

The first half of both movie’s focuses on Bambi and Simba as kids, and showcase both the mischief and fun they go through. Unfortunately, something happens in the middle that changes everything …

The transition from childhood to adult hood takes shape when both Bambi and Simba tragically loose a parent. Simba looses his father, while Bambi looses his mother, and both are regarded as two of the saddest moments in film history. Just as a side note, I always felt that Mufasa’s death scene was the more tragic of the two, as it actually showed Simba trying to “wake-up” his father, as opposed to disappearing off-screen.  

Both of these tragic events are followed up by an up-beat song number. For “Bambi” it was "Let's sing a gay little spring song", and for “The Lion King” is was “Hakuna Matata”.

As the second halves of both movies proceed, both Simba and Bambi have become young adults, and the tone of both films as noticeably matured … as if to say the time for fun and games is over.

The first major event in both their adult lives is reuniting with a woman they previously knew as kids. Bambi reunites with a grown-up Faline, while Simba reunites with a grown-up Nala.

Instantly upon reuniting with both girls, our two prince’s fall in love, and both pairs prance off into the night, with a romantic song playing over the event. Bambi and Faline’s romantic evening is set to “I Bring You a Song”, while Simba and Nala’s is “Can you Feel the Love Tonight”.

Both Bambi and Simba then have their first triumph defeating an enemy in single combat. Bambi duels with Ronno, while Simba duels with Scar. Also, both villains are defeated the same way, as both Bambi and Simba hurdle their opponents over a cliff-side.

During the climax’s, both Bambi’s and Simba’s respected kingdoms are set on fire. Bambi’s forest is engulfed in flames, as is Pride Rock.

Yet, from the ashes, a new king emerges. Bambi’s father steps down from the hilltop, and the former Prince Bambi steps in, as all the animals look up on high at the new King of the forest. Simba likewise walks to the top of his late father’s ledge, where all the others look up to him as the new and rightful King.

At last, both movies close with an epilogue that parallel where each movie had begun, with a gathering of animals, the birth of new children who will becomes airs to the throne, and life has now come full circle.

   It’s a common criticism (or annoyance from YouTubers) that many current films aren’t original enough, as they borrow from familiar sources. Both 2009’s “Avatar” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” were heavily criticized for containing familiar story beasts from previous works. Well, with that lengthy comparison to “Bambi”, I wanted to make an example of how two iconic motion pictures could share the exact same chain of events, yet both are viewed as classics in their own right, both game changers in their own way, and despite the obvious parallels … they both can stand on their own. Personally, I love both “Avatar” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” even more than their original counterparts, even though I acknowledge both their predecessors as important classics too. I feel the exact same way about “The Lion King”, as I genuinely like it more then it’s predecessor “Bambi”, but I still view the former as an important achievement.

    Actually, “Bambi” brought its animation to life on a grander scale then any of Disney’s previous works, and submersed the audience into an atmosphere that made viewers feel like they were right there in the film’s authentic nature setting. “The Lion King” works the same way, by presenting its animation on a broader, and more epic scope than any previous Disney film. While many early Disney movies of the 90’s had both scope and size, this truly was epic. It goes without saying that the animation in “The Lion King” is extraordinary, as its pre-dates the digital age of animation, and highlights what an artist can accomplish with hand-planted brush strokes. It also utilizes figurative camera techniques, like dolly shots, rack-focus, pan-around and others which had commonly only been utilized for live-action. This film also has some of the richest atmosphere of any Disney movie to date, as it captures the spirit of Africa, but it feels magical. A lot of that is due in part to Hans Zimmer’s and Lebo M's extraordinary music score. The acoustics, the rhythm, the African chants, the energy … it’s simply one of my favorite instrumental music scores ever put to film. Still to this day, I own the album “Rhythm of the Pride Land”, which contains music cues that couldn’t even fit in the movie. 

       My favorite scene of the whole movie is the opening “Circle of Life” sequence, which to this day is one of my top 3 favorite opening sequences to any animated movie. Like, everything from the distant sounds of animal’s herd over a black backdrop, to that magnificent sun-rise, to the sweeping shots of animals crossing the plains of the pride Lands, to baby Simba’s presentation … all leading to that awesome title card … it’s just an extraordinary sequence. My second favorite scene is the Wildebeest Stamped, which is easily my favorite action sequence from a Disney movie that’s not a part of a climax. I love the build-up, as nothing scares me more than seeing a danger from a distance, which then descends upon you before you know it. Something like Hercules battling the Hydra was cool, but this stamped was intense, it had me on the edge of my seat, and even as an adult, it still gets me riveted. The blending of CGI with traditional animation has also held up very well after all these years, far more then the previous CGI effects used in either “Beauty and the Beast” or “Aladdin”. I especially love all the details on display, like the dust getting kicked up by the stamped, which is gradually creating a thick dust cloud.

      The characters here have often been regarded as some of Disney’s most iconic, but speaking personally … there are only two characters in “The Lion King” that rank among my absolute Disney favorites. The first is Simba’s father Mufasa, who’s brought to life flawlessly by the great James Earl Jones. Not only does he give Mufasa a sense of leadership and dignity, but he even has a little mischievous side, which I like. When Zazu is giving his morning report, he doesn’t scold Simba for leaping around, or not paying attention, and instead plays along with his son … “let a pro show you how it’s done”. He’s like the greatest parent character from any animated movie I grew-up with. Even when I watched this movie as a kid, I always wanted Mufasa to be the main central character, and maybe Simba could be like the boy from “Shane” who’s the one observing all the events that unfold. That would put the mother Sarabi in the role of tragic loss, but then again, that would only serve as a sad scene, and wouldn’t be an advancement in the story, the same way Mufasa’s death was. Just as a side note, I love the final conversation between Simba and Mufasa, as it starts off intense with the dad rightfully chewing out his son for his actions, yet the conversation gets more relaxed, and eventually ends on a positive note. The tones in this conversation are reflected through the animation, as it starts with a harsh sunset, yet as the scene calms, the colors get more relaxed and cooler. It’s just beautiful film-making all around.  

       If there was any other character I loved as much as Mufasa … it would have to be Rafiki, who’s likewise voiced brilliantly by Robert Guillaume. Rafiki is like the Yoda of Disney characters, in which he’s the wise guru, with all the best morals, yet he’s also the funniest character, with all the snappy lines. Every time he’s on screen, there’s just this warm smile on my face, and … oh, I wish he had a bigger role in this film. Actually, “The Lion King” would have a secure spot as one of my favorite Disney movies if they just changed one detail in the story. Have Rafiki be the one who rescues Simba from the desert, and takes him on as a sergeant son. That way we’d still have our comedic relief, but we’ll also have someone teaching Simba the values of life, and even teach him how to be a proper ruler. How awesome would that be if we got the privilege of watching Rafiki mentor Simba all through the years, and we see the evolution of him growing into the King he was born be. Maybe we could still have Pumbaa as a local animal that lived under Rafiki’s tree, supplying the film with some extra charm, as he’s always been a perfectly lovable character. Zazu likewise worked as a colorful comedic side character, and even the wicked Hyenas had their enjoyable moments. However, I’ve always hated Timon, as he was way too ego driven, and just didn’t have enough of a heart under the sass. I love Nathan Lane, he’s a great talent, but Timon just never clicked with me.             

     I’ll even give some credit to the villain Scar, who could have almost been one of my favorite Disney villains, but just didn’t quiet make it all the way. Let’s look at the positives first … Jeremy Irons … holly cow, what a deliciously wicked performance. He is great in this role, and has that perfect rang between over the top theatrics, and a legit threatening presence. My favorite traits of Scar’s are his witty, dead-pan remarks ... MUFASA: “He is your future King” SCAR: “Oh, I Shall practice my curtsy”. 

More than anything, Scar accomplishes more then any other Disney villain, and has the longest lasting victory over our heroes. When previous villains like Ursula and Jafar achieved their ultimate goal to gain power, it was always at the very end. Scar’s victory of killing Mufasa, banishing Simba, assuming the throne, and taking over the Pride Lands accurse at the half way point, and his rule lasts for several years. Even if the hero’s eventually win, everyone in the Kingdome is still going to need a butt load of therapy. So, as plain Disney villains go … Scar is great, one of the best … so why doesn’t he rank among my personal favorites? Well, I didn’t need any previous Disney villain to give me more then what the story required, but they were also fairy-tales, while “The Lion King” is channeling Shakespeare. Because of this, I have higher standards set for what I’d like to see from Scar, rather than just an evil villain. Let’s add some layers to this guy, lets make him a little more complex, and maybe even give him a sympathetic side. Say what you will about Frollo from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, there was at least an attempt to make him more complex, layered and interesting, while still being very threatening, and getting away with a number of cruel deeds that surpassed previous Disney villains. Also, there’s a noticeable point in the middle of the film, in which Scar just gets less cool as the movie goes on. At the end, he just felt like a pale imitation of the once menacing and imposing foe we started the movie with.  

      Of course, Scar also has one of the all-time greatest villain songs, which comes in the form of “Be Prepared”. It looks amazing, it sounds intense, and it’s still one of Disney’s absolute greatest villain moments. On that note, the song selection is about as classic as they get, and three of them even got Oscar nominations. Now personally, I’ve never been a fan of “Hakuna Matata”, as it always seemed at odds with the very moral of the story. 
Plus, it always seemed to steel the spot-light from my childhood favorite song, which was “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”. I replayed that song all the time as a kid, I knew the lyrics off by heart, it was upbeat, colorful, had a unique design, and still holds up as a genuinely fun song to this day. One song I have to mention is “Lion Sleeps Tonight”, which was only briefly sung by Timon and Pumbaa, and the song itself originally came out back in 1961. Yet, a whole generation of people associate this song as originating from “The Lion King”, which is hilarious. I’ll admit, whenever I hear that song, I instantly think of this movie too. Also, I loved the novelty of an animated Disney movie calling out its own company on just how annoying the song “It’s a Small World After All” is. In 2004, there was an extended cut of “The Lion King”, which inserted a deleted song called “Morning Report”. It was a common trend during the decade for special additions of classic Disney movies to insert previously deleted songs into their DVD transfers. However, unlike the inclusions in “Beauty in the Beast” or “Pocahontas”, this song really added nothing to the experience. I suppose it gave the pouncing lesson scene … a little more bounce … but that’s it.

     Now, I should note that I was a child cradled by the music of Elton John, or perhaps I should say … my parents had his music playing throughout the house all the time when I was just a toddler, and thus, I’ve always had a nostalgic bond with his music. His Oscar winning rendition of “Can you Feel the Love Tonight” has always stuck with me as his most timeless pop song of the 90’s. Yet, the song itself as presented in the movie did absolutely nothing for me. It was a boring sequence in the film, it’s still just as boring as an adult, and I don’t even think it sounds that good. Truthfully, I don’t think Simba and Nala are an interesting couple at all, so if I’m not engaged in the relation, why should I be interested in their romantic song number? I’ll admit that I liked Simba and Nala as cubs, as their childhood chemistry felt natural, but their adult romance just felt forced. Even as a kid, I always felt that Nala could just as easily been Simba’s sister, and it wouldn’t change the movie at all … with the small exception of the epilogue, and the new born cub. Still, Nala was just there to be the love interest, and I find her completely forgettable beyond that. Heck, Simba’s daughter Kiara left a bigger impact on my child hood then Nala ever did.   

     Now we come to my most mixed aspect of the whole film … and it’s Simba himself. First of all, whenever I think of this character, it’s always child Simba that comes to mind first, as that’s the version of the character who always left a memorable impression on me. I’m not even a fan of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, but his vocal performance in that role is one of the most iconic and genuine vocal performances from a child actor. Grown up Simba on the other hand has all the personality of a cucumber, is voiced by a one-note Matthew Broderick, and never engaged me the way a lead hero should. Also, most leading hero’s have one central character arc that flows through the narrative of the story … while Simba has two. He has a self-contained arc and lesson learned in the first half, then a completely different arc and lesson as a grown-up. Once again, his childhood arc is told much better, as he learns that being brave doesn’t mean he should seek out danger, and it feels like a proper stepping stone for his character growth ... right down to that unforgettable image of him stepping in his father’s foot print. His arc as a grownup solely revolves around him discovering that he wasn’t responsible for his father’s death … which really doesn’t prove any of his worth as a king. There’s a saying that "Crowns are inherited, but kingdoms are earned." … and while Simba certainly inherits his crown, what did he really prove of himself to earn his Kingdome?   

     We have that terrific speech from Rafiki that you should learn from your past, but when Simba run’s off and arrives at home … he just lets the villain walk all over him, at least until Scar stupidly spills the beans to Simba. We then get that admittedly fun brawl, but it lacks the urgency or even excitement of the previous Stamped. The final hero versus villain showdown also lacks any emotion, as Simba at this point has done nothing to impress me, and Scar got less cool then when he started. In my view … this is how the climax should have gone down. 
It begins with Simba calling out the Hyenas on weather or not they’ve approved of Scars rule. Things get a little intense as the Hyenas are still loyal to Scar, but even they’re not overly impressed with his current state of leadership. In the heat of this, Scar challenges Simba to a battle of strength, and we get that awesome slow-motion duel with the exciting music, and the flames in the background. However, amidst the fighting, Simba notices the fire getting out of control, and puts a stop to the fight in order to protect and evacuate the animals of his Kingdome. After an exciting sequence with our hero’s working together to save the animals, we see Simba is the last to escape, and he’s carrying with him a Hyena cub that he just rescued. Scar at this point is eager to finish their fight, but this time the Hyenas come to his defense, noting that he put the lives of these animals first before his pride, and even saved one of their own despite being enemies. Then the Hyenas all turn and bow to Simba, who’ve they’ve now accepted as their king, followed by the lions and all the other animals, miring the moment of his birth. Then Simba approaches Scar and says “Run away and never return”, and the last we see of Scar is him walking off with his tale between his legs. Had the movie ended like this, I would have no problems with its status as a “perfect film”.      

     In the end, I may have some issues reserved for “The Lion King”, and I think its popularity is a bit much … but it’s still a great movie all these years later, and I can understand why it’s maintained its general appeal after all these years. It’s a movie that’s grand and epic in design, yet simplistic and can easily entertain a wide variety of different viewers. I find the characters mixed, but still memorable. The songs are still timeless, and the instrumental music is still just as stunning as they get.

I feel the most important thing to take from “The Lion King” is its story behind the scenes. At the time, Walt Disney Animated Studios were putting all their chips on “Pocahontas” as their big magnum opus, and assigned the A-Team to work on that project, while the B-Team was sent to work on “The Lion King”. Yet, it was with the simple ambition to make a genuinely good movie, that this small, but dedicated team of writers, and animators created a modern-day classic, with a legacy that’s expanded through all forms of media. That is such an important story, and lesson for our current film industry, as so many studios are eager to resurrect popular titles for a quick buck. I may not worship “The Lion King” as one of the greatest films ever made, but it is an important example of how originality, mixed with inspiration from other classic sources, can forge something timeless, and has resonated with viewers for years to come.  

I give Disney’s 1994 classic “The Lion King” … a strong 4 stars out of 5.