Sunday, August 21, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #32: The Lion King.

When it comes to Disney Animation, everyone is inevitably going to have a favorite among their lineup. For some it's Beauty and the Beast, for some it's Fantasia, for others - including myself, it's The Lion King. Yet despite that now iconic status that it has earned, it didn't initially start out that way. When the film went into production, it was initially seen as the B-picture alongside what was seen as Disney's more prestigious production, Pocahontas. Given the choice between the two films, many of Disney's most talented crew members and story-men jumped ship to the flashier subject matter, while others decided to take on the seemingly lesser entry as a chance to prove their abilities.

To everyone's surprise, especially the executives of the studio, not only was the film a gargantuan success - essentially becoming the Frozen of its day, it far eclipsed Pocahontas in critical word and audience appreciation, and remains the much more fondly remembered film, as well as one of the greatest success stories in Disney's legacy, as well as one of their most epic and sweeping emotional spectacles.

Believe me, when I say epic, I mean it. In one of the company's most inspired marketing decisions, when it came time to cutting together a trailer for the film, the studio decided upon using the entirety of the film's "Circle of Life" opening. It was a gamble that paid off spectacularly, as this sequence alone is perhaps the single finest moment in the studio's entire history. Showing off the glorious skills of the animation and art departments, the film immediately felt like it had transported you to the African Savannah, and buoyed by the fabulous songwriting of Tim Rice and Elton John, took on a tall order to establish the majestic scope of the film, enough to where this threatened to be where the film immediately ran out of steam.

Obviously that wasn't the case, as the rest of the film still maintains that epic feeling while aiding it with some of the studio's most top notch writing. It's certainly no coincidence that with a story as epic as this one, with a great focus on familial betrayal and personal tragedy, that it would share more than a few things in common with Shakespeare's Hamlet. Much like the Bard's definitive play, The Lion King's main strength in story-writing comes from its effortless ability to build emotions from the ground up, becoming the studio's most graceful blend between drama and comedy. Perfectly paced and seamlessly established in world and characterization, a great deal of personal connection has also shone through on the part of the filmmakers, particularly in how it addresses those issues of loss and acceptance.

I dare not say why for fear of spoiling the film for those few who have yet to experience it, but much in the same way of Bambi, it's a similarly upsetting and tragic moment built of great empathetic understanding, meant to allow its viewers to confront events they might have experienced, and perhaps provide new enlightenment of those experiences. What I feel makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch is the pure, initial denial of the aftermath, and the moral dilemma in whether to accept the situation, or deliberately choose to run away from it. Even when the film moves into a highly comedic song sequence later, those subconscious thoughts are still there beneath the surface, and not so easily discarded by main character Simba. While Simba himself may be the least interesting character in his own movie, his dilemmas and conflicts are still deeply engaging material, especially in regards to his natural growth and maturation from cocky kid to noble leader.

But every Hamlet needs his Claudius, here represented by Jeremy Irons' devious Scar, for my money the finest villain in Disney's history. Brought to life through the most Shakespearean movements and inflections, Scar instantly becomes a scene stealer every time he makes an appearance, a bitter and resentful master manipulator drunk and obsessed with power over others, but also built with a natural calm and sophisticated personality, preferring to take a behind the scenes role to his schemes, relishing in having his lackies carry out his bidding while calculating his next moves and card plays, even drawing comparisons to the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. This is all made even more engaging thanks to the terrific voice work of Irons, dripping with venom, sinister trickery, as well as a dark and sardonic sense of humor, and making for a genuinely powerful and tyrannical mastermind.

The rest of the supporting characters are each as memorable and engaging as the last, and its to the screenplay's credit that their balance of drama and comedic moments are just as naturally implemented within the overall massive and dramatic tone. These include James Earl Jones' grand, ferocious, and tender King Mufasa, Nala, a young lioness just as headstrong and adventurous as Simba, until maturing into a much needed voice of reason for him, and Rafiki, the one character finally able to knock some sense into Simba, and managing to powerfully evoke the mind while also getting great laughs across. Laughs also come courtesy from Scar's hyena lackies (voiced with equal intimidation and silliness by Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings), but the true breakouts are the laid-back duo of Timon and Pumbaa, next to the Genie as the best comic relief characters in Disney's animation lineup, particularly thanks to Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella's delightful chemistry.

It was a story that brought out the best in everyone, including the many animators that were assembled. The aforementioned "Circle of Life" sequence was impressive, hair-raising, and completely flawless in setting the stage for the rest of the film, which met the same high standards in regards to majestic imagery and dazzling colors. Much like Lady and the Tramp, the animation team have gone to great pains and lengths to capture the vast and eclectic nature of African wildlife, particularly when it comes to the painstaking realism of the animal movements and their ability to express their emotions. The Savannah and jungles feel beautiful, imposing, breathtaking, dangerous, and almost effortlessly you feel like you've been transported there, almost as if you were in these places yourself. It's immersion like this that particularly enhances the great sights and action of the film, with the heart-pounding Wildebeest stampede being the single most terrifying sequence to come from the studio.

And what would any Disney musical be without excellent music, provided here by Tim Rice and - most unlikely of all - Elton John. An unusual pairing for such a project, but in execution give us what I dare say are the best Disney songs ever recorded, as Tim Rice continues to prove a clever and witty lyricist following Aladdin, while the inspired selection of Elton John with his roots in rock forms a great chunk of the movie's unique soul. Opening with the goosebumps of "Circle of Life", the duo continue to hold up the momentum with a great sense of fun and scale, although John's end credits rendition "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" has always been a deeply sentimental favorite of mine. Honestly, to rank any of these songs is futile to me, as each of them are amazing in their own unique ways.

But songs are only as good as a great orchestral score, and The Lion King thankfully has one of the greatest ever recorded. You see, before Hans Zimmer decided that foghorns and pounding were his favorite new gimmicks, he was once one of the most definitive and prolific film composers of all time, with efforts like Crimson Tide and The Thin Red Line to his credit. But never, even with The Prince of Egypt, did he ever recreate the same success as his magnum opus here, with the African landscape proving a natural fit for his massive aural soundscape and touch of synthetics, but what made it all the more special was his ability to restrain himself for quieter moments of tragic introspective, the hair-raising collaboration with Lebo M and his Swahili choir, and perfect development of his own themes, as well as seamlessly lacing in the works of John and Rice.

All in all, I consider The Lion King to be absolutely perfect... but if I had to cite any nitpicks I had with it, it would be one scene halfway through the film in which we see the effects of what has happened since Scar's rise to power. The scene is not enough to ruin the movie for me, and I do enjoy it fine, but I've always taken issue with how it lessens the impact of Simba seeing what has become of his home. Not only that, but every single piece of exposition given out during the sequence is all reiterated later on in the movie, making it pointless even in that regard. In the end, it only exists as an excuse to give Scar something to do before the climax. I guess you could argue that it gives the audience incentive to root for Simba to go home and take his rightful place back, but even that doesn't hold up to me. Wouldn't it have been more noble and triumphant to not show that scene, and let Simba come to his decision on his own? In that case, we could have felt just as horrified at what the Pride Lands had become as he was.

Still, I don't hold it against the film, and the greatness of the film far, far, far outweighs any minor hiccup imaginable. Again, this easily makes it my favorite of the Disney Classics, as well as one of my top twenty favorite movies of all time. A glorious exercise in spectacle and deeply affecting storytelling, few animated movies have ever matched its standards, opening with a bang, and keeping the staggering momentum going without a boring second in sight. The film has even been re-released several times since its original debut, in 3D in 2011 (when I finally got to experience it on the big screen), as well as in IMAX in 2002, accompanied by a new song called "Morning Report". If you really want to know my thoughts on that song, let's just say that I'm happy Disney gives the viewer a choice over which version they like the most, and doesn't make it mandatory for all prints.

After twenty-two years, Disney has yet to make another feature that comes close to The Lion King, and despite their always impressive recruited talent, I don't see them ever making one on the same level again. It's the mightiest of them all...

***** / *****

Thank you once again for joining me, folks. This was a long one to do, but next week, I'll be back with another group of two reviews for you, as we continue down the Disney Renaissance with Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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