Disney // 1994 // 90 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // October 3rd, 2011
I just can't wait to be king!
From the mid-'60s to the late '80s, few, if any, Disney animated films neared the heights of classics like Lady and the Tramp or Sleeping Beauty. Films like Robin Hood, The Aristocats, and The Fox and the Hound were well done, and certainly had their fans, but they didn't resonate in that "Classic Disney" way.
In 1989, the studio released The Little Mermaid, and a new era of Disney classics was born. Over the next six years, the company released award-winning features Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pocahontas. Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and the first to win the Golden Globe as Best Picture (Comedy or Musical).
The Lion King became the second animated film to win the Best Picture Golden Globe. It is the highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time, and one of Disney's finest achievements.
The Lion King makes its Blu-ray debut with a stunning transfer and a nice slate of supplements.
Mufasa (James Earl Jones, The Great White Hope) is king of a pride of African lions. With his mate, Sarabi (Madge Sinclair, Coming to America), he has just produced a son and heir, Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Home Improvement).
When Simba is publicly presented at a ceremony, all the other creatures eagerly attend to show their respect to both the current and future kings -- all except Scar (Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers), Mufasa's brother, whom Simba has replaced as successor to the king of the Prideland.
Bitter at being passed over by "the little hairball," Scar recruits the hyenas -- the lions' enemies -- for a plan to rid himself of both Mufasa and his young nephew.
A coming-of-age story that draws liberally from Shakespeare's Hamlet and Disney's own Bambi, The Lion King is one of the darker, more complex films to come from the latter-day Disney factory. While it features bright, sometimes majestic, songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, kid-friendly, low-brow comic relief by a meerkat (Timon, voiced by Nathan Lane) and a warthog (Pumbaa, voiced by Ernie Sabella), and the expected happy ending, it's a journey fraught with treachery, guilt, and murder.
The "Circle of Life" sequence that opens the film -- in which the animals come to pay tribute to the newborn king -- has to rank as one of the great moments in the history of animation. From an animation standpoint, it's exquisitely rendered, and Elton John and Tim Rice set the mood beautifully with a song that resonates emotionally without being self-consciously manipulative, both rousing and poignant. Sure, it's a little ironic to see zebras bowing respectfully to a creature who might someday dine on them, but as Mufasa later explains to the young Simba, that is, in fact, the Circle of Life.
In most films, this might be the highlight, but it is merely the first in series of remarkable sequences that work on a number of levels, all animated with a grace and beauty that's near heartstopping.
After the opening, we meet the bitter and evil Scar. No story of heroes can work without a proper villain, and Jeremy Irons' erudite and malicious Scar ranks right up there with the best of the Disney baddies. Irons' voice work is superb, imbuing the character with a kind of refined yet megalomaniacal malice that makes him all the more dangerous. He's obvious enough that young children "get" him, yet with enough layers of treachery to be chilling to an adult audience. Irons drips venom with his every line, his character consumed with madness and lust for power.
While Irons is a standout -- and in fairness, he does have the juiciest role -- the voice work here is uniformly excellent. James Earl Jones brings his authoritative delivery to the role of Mufasa, Rowan Atkinson is sublime as the king's "major domo," Jonathan Taylor Thomas playful and solid as the young Simba, and Matthew Broderick effective as the older Simba, a confused youth who struggles to find the courage to take his rightful place as leader of the pride. Lane and Sabella hit all the right comedic notes as Simba's guides to the African version of the Island of the Lost Boys, a pair of carefree creatures whose catch-phrase -- "Hakuna Matata" -- provides a bright, inventive production number that helps balance all the serious business.
The story is strong and well-crafted, deftly blending suspense, humor, family drama, and tragedy. The film doesn't skimp on violence or scary moments, and very young, very sensitive children might have a bit of trouble with some of the scenes, including the truly horrifying murder of a major character and a fairly terrifying -- if justified -- vengeance killing at the end. For much of the film, Simba has exiled himself from the Pridelands, the result of being falsely accused of causing a tragic death; with Scar in charge, the one-time paradise becomes a bleak and despairing wasteland, and the now-miserable existence of the lions is presented in a mature, straightforward manner.
Serious as the story is, there's still a lot of humor to be found. The script sneaks in a number of amusing references and sly jokes that adults will appreciate more than the children will, and the low-brow stuff is left to Lane and Sabella, whose talented burlesque even make the requisite fart jokes seem more amusing than usual.
Hans Zimmer composed the robust score, and along with the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, the music is flawless. There are but five original songs in the film, and not a weak one to be found. Each song works perfectly, advancing the story, setting mood, giving insight to the characters, and of course, brilliantly animated. Besides "Circle of Life" and "Hakuna Matata" -- which might drive you a bit crazy in that Mary Poppins "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" way -- there's the grim "Be Prepared," with the Hitler-like Scar rallying troops of goose-stepping hyenas; young Simba's charming "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," with its bright colors and frenetic action; and the Oscar-winning romantic ballad, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" (now a staple at weddings), which plays out over the courtship of the grown Simba and his childhood love, lioness Nala. A sixth song, "The Morning Report," was actually written for the award-winning stage production and later animated and inserted into the previous release, the Platinum Edition; it's included here as an extra.
I do not have enough superlatives to describe the technical work on this disc. Of all the studios putting out Blu, Disney's seem to be the most true Blu, and this "Diamond Edition" of The Lion King is no exception. The picture is just ravishing, with gorgeous, bold colors, deep blacks, perfect contrast, and supreme depth. I don't remember the film looking this good when I saw it in a theater. The main audio track is a DTS 7.1 surround, and it's magnificent -- from the opening howl of "The Circle of Life" to the wildebeest stampede to the subtle sounds, this is an outstanding, immersive track.
The disc contains supplements new and old, starting with a brand new commentary with producer Don Hahn and directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. This is an informative and entertaining track that offers plenty of background on the origins of the story, the making of the film, and of course, some fun anecdotes.
Under the menu heading "Backstage Disney: Diamond Edition," there are three features: "Pride of The Lion King" is a new retrospective featuring interviews with various people involved in the production, including Allers, Minkoff, Kahn, former studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg, and others discussing the making of the film, its impact, and the Broadway show;" "The Lion King: A Memoir" is a look back with Hahn featuring lots of home video footage from when the film was made; and plus, there are five Deleted and Alternate scenes with introductions by Allers and Minkoff.
The menu heading "Music and More" offers sing-along mode, wherein all the songs are subtitled (which they are anyway when the subtitles are on), along with "The Morning Report" number.
Along with these, we get bloopers and outtakes; an interactive Blu-ray gallery that offers a look at character design, visual development, storyboards, and layouts and backgrounds; and a BD-Live function (Disney's Virtual Vault) that contains supplements included on the earlier Platinum release.
There's also Disney Second Screen, a feature that entails downloading an app to your computer or iPad. Once downloaded, you have access to galleries, games, and other features to enjoy while the movie plays.
The set also comes with a DVD copy that contains the "Memoir" featurette.
My only complaint about this set is the amount of Internet-required supplemental material. Not everyone has a Blu-ray drive, iPad, or Internet-ready player, and for those who don't, the Disney Vault and Second Screen features are useless.
A film that stands with the best of classic Disney, The Lion King looks better than ever on Blu-ray. The fantastic technical work and worthwhile supplements make this one a must own.
Far, far from guilty.
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Deleted/Alternate Scenes
* Sing-Along Mode
* Bonus Song
* Interactive Gallery
* Virtual Vault
* Disney Second Screen
* DVD Copy