Its original title may have been ‘King Of The Jungle’, but it started out much lower down the food chain.
In pre-production in 1991, The Lion King was just a National Geographic-styled animal tale, so much less prestigious than Disney’s rival production Pocohontas that its crew of mostly junior animators jokingly described themselves as the ‘B-team’.
“Does anyone really want to see a movie about a lion cub that gets framed for murder?” producer Don Hahn muses in his home-movie styled memoir, part of the hearty Backstage Disney extras.
The Making Of bursts with footage of animators seeking realistic animal moves on a Kenyan safari, or drawing live lions visiting the studio, suggesting that this was strictly an enthusiast’s project.
But when the sinuous, resentful head of villainous lion uncle Scar takes shape under the fingers of master animator Andreas Deja, you get a whiff of greatness. And another, watching Hans Zimmer work with Lebo M and his African choir, to get that uplifting ‘Circle Of Life’ opener just right.
What’s striking looking through the extras’ plump production history are The Lion King’s innovations in the traditional feature animation formula.
It sets out the key ingredients of today’s blockbuster animations: chart-proven songwriters Tim Rice and Elton John (who balked initially at a song starting ‘When I was a young warthog’); famous, non-comic actors like James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons for central characters; and Hans Zimmer’s big-movie bombast score to give an epic feel.
But there are, too, some rather un-Disney qualities. Singularly lacking in the catchy, lyrical fairytale romance of other Disney renaissance titles like The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast or the quickwittedness of Aladdin, it’s basically a simple fable.
The filmmakers borrow freely from Hamlet (and even more freely from Bambi) for the story of little lion prince Simba, framed and exiled for his father Mufasa’s death by his wicked uncle Scar until he can find the courage to take his father’s place and rescue the Pride Land kingdom. Straightforward? Sure, but it’s got a darkness at its heart that surprises you on re-viewing.
Alongside luscious landscapes, and the romping-with-Daddy playfulness of ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’ there’s the violent death of a parent, betrayal and guilt, not to mention a hyena march past for the coup-creating Scar in ‘Be Prepared’ that’s like something out of Leni Reifenstahl.
Yet the film balances this by creating a big emotional range which deftly marries the Shakespearean morality tale with a gentle love story, rollicking songs and a terminally flatulent warthog.
These elements aren’t always flawless (the Simba/Nala love scenes are overshadowed by his bigger issues, and ‘Hakuna Matata’ or ‘Circle Of Life’ apart, surprisingly few of the songs are classics), but the mix is masterful.
And there’s one unofficial Disney maxim that it does observe: the comic characters and the villains have a vitality that eludes the goodies. However moving King Mufasa’s moral teachings and Simba’s misery, their characters seem as uncomplicated as their sleek visual design.
It takes Jeremy Iron’s sarcastic, self-pitying Scar, his voice winding around Simba like a silky net, to inject tension and drama into the opening act.
Meanwhile, Nathan Lane’s mouthy meercat Timon gives the second half a welcome comic shot in the arm, freely admitted by co-directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff (who snaffled him and Ernie Sabella, who voices Pumbaa, as the savannah slackers, on the basis of improv they cooked up trying out for roles as hyenas).
The extras package is long on this kind of cosy anecdotage and detailed production history, but needs a separate feature rather than snippets on the creation of the spin-off stage show, seeing how it’s grossed $4bn to date.
Stampede of approval
If you haven’t seen The Lion King since that scratchy VHS played during wet school playtime, the high-definition Blu-ray will rock you back on your heels, showcasing the film’s supremely cinematic qualities: stunning colours in the ochre landscapes and 40-shades-of-green jungle, dynamic camerawork in the action set-pieces, and the gooseflesh moment of Mufasa’s ghost emerging commandingly from a maelstrom of cloud.
But will the 3D Superplay version of Disney’s brand new retro-fit trample on your childhood dreams? Relax. Restraint is the watchword for this careful post-production job, so the 3D is used sparingly to amplify rather than overpower well-loved sequences (no Ice Age-style ‘coming at ya’ items harpooning your eyes).
Show it to a first-time viewer, especially a small one, and watch them gawp at the wildebeest stampede, which roars out of the screen, rolling rocks and all.
The film’s stylised 2D animation is a good fit for 3D refurbishment, though its multi-planes give a pop-up book look that’s initially disconcerting.
Thankfully, though, the original colour palette has been preserved from the customary muting. What the 3D re-fit does magnificently is restore that feeling of wonder that enveloped you on first viewing The Lion King.
Watching the beefed-up opener, where the flamingo fly-past looks like it could land right in your lap, your jaw drops and your spine tingles just like old times. Now, that’s the circle of life.