Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Lion Roars - The Lion King

Disney animation got a nice kickstart in 1989 with "The Little Mermaid". It brought back some hope that American animation could be something more worthwhile than endless reruns of "Smurfs" and strange Japanese hybrids like "Transformers" and "GI Joe". For a while Disney kept releasing top class animated efforts based on their successful model with: "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin" and climaxing with "The Lion King".

In a way "The Lion King" was the most experimental of the new style Disney films. It wasn't based off a fairy tale (and seemed to be based on a Japanese anime by the name of "Kimba the White Lion" but that can be disputed either way). It was scored by a man who worked primarily on film scores: Hans Zimmer. Instead of using a full blown Broadway style to the film, they chose to use a more pop oriented sound, supplemented by Elton John. In addition, this movie was to use more computer animation than the previous installments, especially in the climactic wildebeest sequence.

The result was one of the most successful Disney animated films of all time. The music was on the radio constantly, and Lion King plushies were in every house. I was working in the video store at the time of it's release, and I can tell you we sold a ton a Lion King tapes and Laserdiscs. Many declared it the best Disney film ever, and while I was quick to dispute that, I was willing to admit it was top notch Disney.

It had been a few years since I'd seen the film, probably back when it first came out on DVD. I was interested to see where it fell in the pantheon of Disney films, now that we've seen where Disney ended up heading (into the realm of "Hercules" and "Chicken Little") and where Pixar took us (with "Toy Story" up to "Wall-E"). Would "Lion King" still be on its high perch or would it be deposed?

Upon my recent viewing of the big four ("The Little Mermaid" through "The Lion King"), I think that my ratings have fallen into pretty much the same place they fell before. I think "Aladdin" trumps "Lion King" in overall entertainment value and as a complete experience. I think part of that falls into the fact that Disney really hit the perfect balance with their model in "Aladdin". The "Lion King" as conventional as parts of it are, is really pretty experimental for a Disney film.

Even if the film is based on "Kimba: The White Lion" it is also based on the same basic story as "Hamlet". In this case we get to see how the good king, Mufasa, interacted with his family and subjects, instead of hearing it all second hand. We also get to have Hamlet be a cute little lion cub in these sequences, which helps enormously when the king is killed. Another twist in the tale is that Simba feels responsible for the death of his father and runs away. So instead of a brooding introspective Hamlet, we get a carefree but guilty Simba. Of course things have to get down and dirty with the finale, and "The Lion King" doesn't skimp too much - lots of fire, rain and stark landscapes as Simba and Scar battle it out. It's actually pretty hellish and reminded me of the feel of "A Night on Bald Mountain" from "Fantasia". It ends with Scar being torn apart by his hyena lackeys. Yeah, pretty gruesome for Disney, even if it shown in shadow.

What is also interesting is the use of music in "The Lion King". While "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin" all used the Broadway musical format, and had the songs actually move the story forward - the songs in the "Lion King" are more decorative. "The Circle of Life" contains one of the themes of the film, but the actual song itself doesn't have anything to do with the plot. Compare this to the opening numbers of "Beauty" and "Aladdin" and you have songs that present the main character and their world, marrying the animation and words of the song - just like a musical. In fact the only song from "The Lion King" that really fits the mold of a musical is "Be Prepared", Scar's song about his plan for pride-domination.

The flip side is that we get a full blown film style score from Hans Zimmer. As good as Menkin's score music is for "Aladdin", Zimmer is able to actually capture the power of the story in his score. He fuses ethnic sounds, his traditional muscular synthesizer sounds (which will echo his future work on "Gladiator" and "Kung Fu Panda") and a great use of voices to elevate the scenes and accent the action. Zimmer's work is consistent and is much different from what Disney had tried before. They would get a similar type score when they hired Jerry Goldsmith to work on "Mulan".

But enough about music, how about the cast. Nearly every main voice in "The Lion King" was some kind of film or television celebrity. Compared to "Aladdin" where the biggest celebrity voice as Robin Williams, this was a big turn around. Here we can see the birth of the use of an all celebrity cast, and it works for the most part. Much of the animation even managed to capture the look of the actors and fused it well to the animals (Jeremy Iron's facial expressions translate well to Scar's furry mug).

However some of this casting robs the picture of it's effectiveness because you are immediately presented with an actor's voice that you know well. Suddenly Mufasa becomes Darth Vader or worse, Thulsa Doom from "Conan the Barbarian". Does Mufasa enjoy cannibal orgies? For me, Robin Williams worked as the genie, because the character was a magical being, one that was capable of "phenomenal cosmic power". It would make sense that he was a over the top and filled with antics. Since his voice was the only real recognizable one, it didn't detract.

"The Lion King" doesn’t' feel as smooth in this department. In fact, it works better to cast unrecognizable voices (celebrity or not). The only real condition should be acting skill. Check out Pixar's work in "Ratatouille". There were some big names lending their voices to that movie, but I only recognized Peter O' Toole and only at the very end (the character looked nothing like him and that helped).

Of course part of the reason "Lion King" works well is that the basic story is solid and its execution is well done. Who would have thought that Disney would attempt a story dealing with fratricide and revenge - but here you go. In addition, these elements aren't blunted. Mufasa's death at the hands of his brother is horrific (not graphic, but visually potent). Simba's reaction to the death and the way Scar twists the guilt knife are done very well and allow us to truly hate Scar and sympathize with Simba. If Disney had softened these moments with comedy or a song - it would have robbed the power of the finale. Thanks to the set up, when adult Simba climbs Pride Rock (with the help of Zimmer's score) we feel that Simba has redeemed himself, saved his family and his people and brought justice back to the world.

In the future Disney would attempt to tackle such weighty movies as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and deny the darkness of the story, injecting humor and songs where they were not needed. They would tackle history with "Pocahontas" and create a muddled narrative with some seriously bizarre choices that make the film an oddity. They would tackle "Hercules" and made what should have been a rollicking adventure story into an inspirational sports film!?!

"The Lion King" was an experiment that worked. It has some weak points (and they were exacerbated in future Disney films), but as a whole it's a solid film. It's interesting to see what Disney did and didn't learn from this film. Eventually many of the good points were utilized by Pixar in "Toy Story" and it wouldn't be long before the idea of creating a story first and building the film around it would allow Pixar to push to the top of the heap in American animation.

What do you think of "The Lion King" and it's place in the Disney cannon of animated films? Do you think that the Disney renaissance of the early 90's was a fluke? Do you think that traditional cell animation (like "The Lion King") is a relic and that Pixar dominates because of its amazing computer animation?

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