Disney’s decision to bring The Lion King 3D to the cinemas may or may not be tied to the recent release of the blu-ray version, but there’s little else going on with the franchise – nothing special is happening with the musical, and the 20th anniversary isn’t for another two years – so I will say it’s the blu-ray. Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome chance to revisit the classic that first awed me as a primary school kid back in 1994.
First things first: the added 3D effects are so slight that they do make you wonder why Disney bothered. The fact that they’re not obnoxiously in-your-face is always appreciable, but there’s barely any discernable difference from the original and it simply serves to buttress the notion that only films that are prepared with 3D in mind from the start really justify the additional cost cinemas charge for the privilege of wearing the annoying glasses. With that out of the way…
The Lion King opens with what I can confidently say is one of the greatest opening five minutes not just in animation history, but the whole of cinema itself. I think it’s up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey in sheer majestic, hair-raising impact. It’s not only the stirring ‘Circle of Life’ – the African vocals that explode from the start as the sun rises are a ballsy statement of intent that this movie is going to be something else – and neither is the utterly sumptuous animation the whole story; it’s that the two have been written, drawn and synchronized so brilliantly as to deliver the kind of knockout audiovisual effect that most music videos out there can only dream of. The sequence is also notable for ending the way it began: with a bang. The way the title screen hits your eyes like a punch from a heavyweight boxer, just as Carmen Twillie finishes singing, shows so much confidence and cojones that it’s a little puzzling to find Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, the co-directors, haven’t done squat since (OK, so Allers was responsible for the musical, while Minkoff directed The Haunted Mansion and The Forbidden Kingdom, but still).
No film can hope to sustain such excellence throughout the runtime, and The Lion King is no exception, but it justifies its classic status with a number of scenes that come close. The wildebeest stampede is rightly celebrated, and really was one of three or four moments in the early Nineties – along with the first T-1000 morph in Terminator 2 and the brontosaurus in Jurassic Park – that dropped jaws with Hollywood’s nascent use of computer graphics. But there’s also the lush beauty of Timon and Pumbaa’s oasis, the desolate horror of the elephant graveyard, and haunting grandeur of Mufasa’s ghost and Simba’s redemptive ride back home, that are equally deserving of our admiration. The savannah allows Disney animators to go all out in delivering breathtaking vistas (all the more surprising since work on the movie started as a kind of skunkworks project to Pocahontas’s more mainline production), and there’s a real sense of appreciation and respect on their part for both Africa’s natural environs and the animals that inhabit them.
While The Lion King can sometimes feel like a series of eye-popping sequences with little to engage the mind in between, it makes up for its slight story with no-frills approach to narrative progression and effortless segues into musical numbers. The Lion King’s soundtrack was the only one of the Disney Renaissance greats (the others being The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin) not to have its score done by Alan Menken, and although the Tim Rice – Elton John collaboration was immensely popular at the time, their more immediately accessible sound displaces the timeless grace of Menken’s music. The prevalence of male characters in the film admittedly necessitates a more muscular, less intimate sound, and there’s also no doubt that The Lion King delivers the catchiest tunes in ‘Hakuna Matata’ and ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’. What’s more, they’re integrated into the animation with greater panache than ever before (or since, sadly).
At 87 minutes long, The Lion King’s running time is about the same as other Disney films of the era, but it’s so action-packed – less a musical and more a traditional adventure movie with songs – that the whole thing just flies by. More so than even Aladdin, this was a story that appealed to boys, and the frequency with which fights, chases and general excitement occur on screen makes The Lion King highly approachable for dads, boyfriends and teenagers. If there is one weakness in the film, then it’s that Simba’s growth is highlighted so cursorily: his physical maturation happens in less than a minute, while his tortured psyche, battered self-esteem and sense of guilt are all kind of passed over in the narrative’s rush to get to the finale. The Lion King would have been a deeper, richer experience had Simba’s personal struggles been highlighted more, but I suppose that would then have resulted in a very un-Disney work, and there’s always Kenneth Brannagh’s 4-hour version of Hamlet if you wanted a more extended take on an introspective prince brooding over father’s murder.
So, is The Lion King 3D worth seeing? Absolutely, but not for the 3D. See it again just because it’s a truly incredible cinematic experience, one that really deserves to be seen on the biggest possible screen. It’s Disney at their best, and one of Hollywood’s best counter-arguments againt the TV and home theatre. See it also for arguably the best (and incontestably the most prestigious) lineup of voice-actors in Disney history: the trio of James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons and Rowan Atkinson (as Zazu) lend The Lion King a ridiculous amount of quality early on, while Nathan Lane and Eric Sabella take the baton in the second half and assure Timon and Pumbaa’s place in the Disney hall of fame. See it, finally, because The Lion King is American animation’s last masterpiece before the advent of Pixar: a year after its release Toy Story hit the screens, and both the industry and Disney haven’t been the same since. What we gained in deeper, more mature storytelling, we have lost in sheer awe-inspiring spectacle, and The Lion King remains the last word in that department.