After its original 1994 release, The Lion King earned heaps of critical acclaim, went on to be the biggest moneymaking animated feature ever ($312 million, just domestically) and won numerous awards (including a Golden Globe and the MTV Award for Best Villain). Nearly a decade later, The Lion King remains an epic, funny, heartbreaking, entertaining film, if not the great one most people thought it was all those years ago. The transfer to IMAX screens for this rerelease will definitely assist in making it even more enjoyable to the eye.
With visuals brilliant in both colors and ideas, and a script that will affect different age groups in different ways, the Disney studio certainly lived up to just about all expectations back then. But the soft spot in the film about the lion cub who witnesses the death of his father, the king, and is then robbed of the throne that's rightfully his by a deceptive and evil uncle, is more of a black mark now. I'm talking about the music, even though some of it took home some Oscars.
That's not to say the songs aren't good. A couple of them, by Tim Rice and Elton John, are absolute charmers with witty lyrics and catchy tunes. The problem is that in the early days of the Disney animation revival, the placing of a song in one of the films became something of a formula: "Okay, that's enough dialogue, let's have everyone spring into song. And this time, let's have all the animals pile on top of each other in a rising spiral." And, my, does "Hakuna Matata" go on and on. In the years since The Lion King, that problem has been addressed, and songs are now used in a less jarring, less expected way.
But if the only thing wrong with The Lion King is the off-placement of a couple of tunes, the incidental music, ranging from light and bubbly to extremely menacing, is excellent. And on the whole, it's safe to say the film is still lots of fun.
The levels of appreciation are easily delineated. Kids will be delighted by the sights and sounds, the cute animals, the goofy pranks. Adults who haven't been to the past few Disney offerings will be amazed at how hip much of it all still is. The lion's share (uh, sorry) of the script's jokes will go soaring over youngsters' heads but will get older viewers laughing out loud. My favorite sequence in the film is when the guardian bird Zasu (voice of Rowan Atkinson) unleashes a litany of really bad puns about different animals, culminating in the line, "Cheetahs never prosper." Ouch! There are plenty of references to other popular films and in one hilarious instance Disney directs an incredible barb at Disney about a certain song about how small a certain world is.
Performances, beyond the show-stopping Jeremy Irons turn as the villainous Scar, are very strong, with James Earl Jones lending nobility and lots of heart to the role of King Mufasa, and Nathan Lane getting and making great use of most of the plentiful one-liners as Timon, the pesky, loudmouthed meerkat.
The question that originally kept popping up in news reports and interviews with supposedly intelligent psychologists was whether the film's violence or trauma is too much for young viewers. Haven't these idiots seen the likes of Bambi or Dumbo, two of the most beloved animated features in the history of cinema? Or for that matter, any Disney film? They all contain an emotional curve that goes from happy to sad (or perhaps frightening) to happy again. This is nothing new. And the two scenes in The Lion King -- a truly terrifying stampede and the big claw-to-claw fight near the end -- are mild compared to scenes in some earlier films.
Let's face it, kids today are much more sophisticated than these critics and psychologists are giving them credit for. Besides, not only is this a great chance for parents to talk with their kids if it does bother them, it's also only a movie -- and a cartoon at that.
Then again, it could be connected to an incident of life imitating art. There's a scene right at the beginning, in which Rafiki the baboon (looking an awful lot like a mandrill) lifts Simba the lion cub and dangles him over a ledge to the cheers of a crowd of animals way below. Didn't we just see Michael Jackson do the same thing in Germany? Is it possible he's seen this film too many times?