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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 31 - The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King (1994; Walt Disney Studios)
Directors: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff
Writers: Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts
Starring: Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones

The Lion King is Disney’s telling of Hamlet.  That’s it.  Well… Okay, the story follows Simba, a young lion who is the heir to an undefined “kingdom” in Africa called the Pride Lands.  The story is “adapted” from a number of sources including the works of Shakespeare, the Bible and an anime from the 1960’s from Japanese Animation pioneer Osmau Tezuka titled Kimba the White Lion.  The various sources of the film, with the exception of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, were not properly cited when the film was originally released (as is unfortunately typical with Disney).  This led to some notable controversy surrounding the film.  With all that, is the Lion King still a quality production?  Well, yes.

Despite the stolen premise and the disingenuous way in which it is presented, The Lion King is a strong production that set the standard for animation for years upon its release.  The film follows Simba, a young lion cub who, after witnessing the murder of his father, the king Mufasa, flees and lives his life in exile from his homeland.  There, he befriends two layabouts named Timon and Pumba, who act as the obligatory comic relief of the film but also as a parallel to Simba’s real responsibility to his homeland.  When Simba meets up with his childhood friend and promised future mate Nala, he learns of Scar’s overthrow of the crown, and his oppressive and destructive rule.  It is now Simba’s duty to return to his home and face the usurper of the throne to face his true destiny.

The story is a rather simple one, really.  It is about denial of one’s true self, and about the ideas of reason and responsibility.  Shakespeare, being a playwright for the people, often depicted the ruling class as slovenly or lazy to an extent and this story reflects that trope.  Simba, as an adult, starts off absorbed into Timon and Pumba’s laissez faire lifestyle, forgetting his roots and role in the world entirely.  The arc is his facing of adulthood.  It is a strong character shift and a well done part of the film.  It all culminates in a climax where Simba squares off against the evil Scar in the wasteland that was once his home.

Production-wise, everything about this film is top-notch.  The animation is some of the best of the studio’s history, the music is quite good, despite a few slightly annoying numbers that go on a little too long, and the story is big in scale yet it is told very accessibly for all audiences despite its source material.  The voice acting is also very good, especially Jeremy Irons as Scar.  I do love Irons as an actor and here he is funny and intimidating as Hell as one of the best movie villains ever, right down to one of the best damn musical numbers in the history of film “Be Prepared.”

As far as the rest of the music goes, it features some powerful moments.  Much of the film’s music was composed by one of my favorite artists, Elton John, and his contribution is notable.  It is a much more sophisticated soundtrack for the time.  The Disney Renaissance was littered with “kid-friendly” musical moments and for every “Part of that World” or “Be Our Guest” there was an over-silly and rather schmaltzy number like “You’ll be in My Heart” or this film’s contribution to bad Disney Music, the reason for the creation of the Mute and Fast-Forward Buttons, “Hakuna Matata”.  Still, there is one moment in this movie that hits me to the core every time I see it. The film ends as it begins, hence the film’s theme, “The Circle of Life”.  It plays as Simba’s son is presented to his subjects and the film ends on a triumphant pound of the drum.  It is a fantastic use of exposition-free storytelling and is one of the most powerful moments in cinema.

All-in-all, this was definitely the best animated film of the period, and I am not the only person to say so.  Disney was on a roll with hits leading up to this film and yes, I do like The Little Mermaid, and I am not ashamed to say it.  I think it’s a lovely story told quite well with likable characters and top-notch production value.  Beauty and the Beast was good, but not great, and Pocahontas was a successful little piece of shameless revisionism with a nice coat of paint, so take that for what you will.  However, this period also gave us Hercules, a film I most certainly did not like (except for James Woods as Hades, because Woods is a badass no matter what he does.  He wins forever.)

The Lion King has also been the subject of much accolade since its release.  Its music and score was nominated for and won multiple Oscars, it won best Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes, it currently ranks at #57 in IMDB’s Top 250 and is a common fixture in books and lists of “Greatest Films of All Time”.  It is a memorable, nostalgic and vibrant work and, despite its flaws, it is a classic movie that I think will become one of the principal staples of the best of modern cinema that will be remembered, preserved and revered for generations to come.

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