Saturday, February 11, 2012

Tandem Movie Review: The Lion King

Jo: Disney classic The Lion King was recently back in theaters with a 3D makeover. For our first tandem review, Chandler and I are discussing the finer points of the film, what’s been changed, and what’s as great as ever.

We were born in 1988, so we were the perfect age to enjoy Disney’s streak of awesome in the early 90s. The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty & the Beast, and The Lion King all came out within a few years of each other and taught us what a children’s movie is supposed to be: visually stunning, musically brilliant, and hysterically funny while managing to teach serious life lessons without being preachy or boring.

Chandler: “The Lion King” always stood out to me. It could be because “The Lion King” is the highest ranked, non-Pixar Disney movie on IMDB’s Top 250 (as of 2011) or because it won Best Original Score and Best Original Song at the 1995 Academy Awards.With that said, you can see why “The Lion King” is not only a great movie, not only my favorite Disney movie, but one of my favorite movies of all time, so excuse me if my part of the review is a little biased.

I mean, I understand that “The Lion King” is essentially Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” with lions in order to appeal to kids, and I’m well aware of the “Kimba the White Lion” controversy (J: I don’t know what he’s talking about.), but I just wanted to point these things out to show I’m not so in love with this movie that I couldn’t acknowledge its criticism.

I’m now free to praise “The Lion King” unhindered.

Jo: So, with Chandler’s conscience clear, let’s begin.

This movie’s a veritable Smith Island cake it’s so richly layered and delicious. I think writers are severely under-appreciated in today’s cinematic… atmosphere?... whatever you want to call it. When a movie does well or turns out well-done people are so quick to credit the director and actors, but without the story there’s no story. Couldn’t be more simple than that.

And if any movie is well-written, The Lion King is. Really, any age can enjoy this movie because it’s not written just for children—watching it again now that I’m older I realize I only got about half of the jokes, if that, and I’m pretty sure the entire “Be Prepared” song went over my head. And the complexities to be found are astounding and the life lessons are priceless from so many angles.

Relationships: There’s the parent/child relationship, of course, but it covers both angles from parent to child and child to parent, up through adult child to parent and parent to adult child. At the beginning of the film, Simba is every little boy ever: a precocious fuzzball of energy, desperate to grow up and certain that his father is Superman. When he gets into serious trouble it terrifies Mufasa, and he needs to explain to his son what courage is, what power is, and what, ultimately, life and death are. After Mufasa’s death Simba runs away and tries to forget his problems—but of course they come back and he has to face up to his father’s memory and what he meant to him, and who he is now. Then he has to go home and face his mother again, this time as an adult.

The movie also handles sibling rivalry in the relationship between Mufasa and his brother, Scar. Mufasa is the perfect, handsome older brother that younger brother Scar could never live up to. …Granted, Scar is criminally insane and this leads to his eventual murder of Mufasa, but goodness knows we all have that sibling or cousin that’s the golden boy or the favorite that we’re, deep down inside, jealous of—and that that’s completely natural…just don’t kill anybody.

And like every Disney movie, The Lion King also deals with friendship in all of the usual ways— take care of each other, stand up for each other, and be there when your friend needs your help. But it also deals with dating, and what dating means to your other friends. As far as dating, The Lion King clearly is a fan of being friends first having Simba and his best friend from childhood, Nala, ending up together—which I think is a good bit of advice as good relationships do usually stem from good friendships.

But within that dating subheading there’s also, in Timon’s pre- and post-“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” dialogue, that when your friends begin dating or fall in love that you lose them—which clearly isn’t the case. It can seem like the end of a friendship, as what is a friend compared to raging hormones? It’s a small note, but as the battle and sequels show, nothing really changes after Nala comes along.

Also featured is our relationship to nature, our places in the Circle of Life. Mufasa tells Simba that when he is King he’ll be in charge of protecting the delicate balance of nature, just as children will be in charge of protecting the Earth when they become adults. And when everything is going wrong in the movie, the delicate balance of nature is compromised and everything alive suffers. You can’t deny the power of that.

Death: Death is a huge theme in TLK (yeah, I said “TLK”), and, really, what the whole movie is based around: the death of Mufasa. TLK came out in the summer of ’94, so I was six when I saw it in theaters…with my father. I cried like a baby. I still get a little misty. Little Simba is all alone in this gigantic gorge, his sad little voice echoing…yeah, I was…am…a mess. It’s a interesting thing, though, off the top of my head this may be the first Disney movie to show a child finding his dead parent which, tragic as it is, is a reality of life. Simba then runs away, literally and figuratively, but ultimately has to face his past just as we do in life. You can’t run forever, like the scene where Rafiki hits adult Simba over the head with a stick-

Simba: I know what I have to do. But going back will mean facing my past. I've been running from it for so long.

[Rafiki hits Simba on the head with his stick]
Adult Simba: Ow! Jeez, what was that for?
Rafiki: It doesn't matter. It's in the past.
Adult Simba: Yeah, but it still hurts.
Rafiki: Oh yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or... learn from it.

Even if you’re running from your pain, it comes back up somehow, it always does. If you haven’t dealt with it properly things are going to keep coming up that remind you of it, until you do what needs to be done. What an incredible lesson to begin being taught young.


Yeah, that’s right. You heard me. Politics. If you didn’t know about my WWII obsession-

A.) Where have you been? (The Lost Life of Eva Braun by Angela Lambert, Hitler’s Love Life, and Swallowed in the Sea)


B.) You’re hearing about it now. See posts above.

Now we all know the hyenas are doing the Nazi’s signature “goose-stepping” march past Scar during “Be Prepared”, (minute 2:07, over a grid no less, which is a nice touch there, Disney). But Scar also spends most of the song mocking how dumb the hyenas are, which makes an interesting comment on those that follow blindly. It also serves as a warning against the super-ambitious and power hungry—they aren’t to be trusted. Dictators are too thirsty for power to take care of anything else, and that Iron Fist is what ends up destroying the Pride Lands. Some kids’ movie!


This movie is hilarious. Truly. And is so no matter what your taste in comedy is, it’s all represented:

Wordplay (you know [or should, or will] I love it: My Guiltiest Pleasure):

Disney makes killer puns like no other!

“The buzz from the bees is that the leopards are in a bit of a spot…I told the elephants to forget it, but they can’t…”- Zazu

“Boy, have you got your lions crossed!” – Timon

That’s funny stuff.

For those that appreciate the more British-type, Monty Python-ish, what I call “Ludicrous” humor, there’s Timon’s exclamation of, “What do you want me to do?! Dress in drag and do the hula?!” before he does just that. And Rafiki, drunk with joy that Simba’s alive, greets the adult Simba with a rousing chorus of “Asante sana Squash banana, Wiwi nugu mi mi apana!” which, according to Rafiki (and IMDb) means, “You are a baboon…and I’m not.” Later, during the epic battle at the end, Rafiki busts out some killer karate moves and takes on several hyenas at once. How an African baboon learned karate I’ll never know, but the result is still hilarious.

And there’s always the pie-in-the-face type slapstick (a hyena, for instance, goes off of a ledge into a large patch of thorns) with a healthy dash of children’s finding the butt hilarious without being too obnoxious about it, I think. Chandler, however…

Editor’s Note: The following should be read in a posh English accent with your pinky raised.

Chandler: My only gripe, if any, with this movie is a minor one and based solely on personal preference. I have somewhat of a distinct taste in comedy and I can’t stand toilet humor. I feel that the use of flatulence with Pumbaa is a bit lowbrow for an otherwise very mature children’s movie. I understand that kids find that kind of thing funny but the only thing it elicits from me is an unamused eye roll. I must say, though, they don’t go over the top with this humor and keep it tolerable. One other thing I found odd, even when I saw the movie the first time in theaters as a kid, was the one line in “Hakuna Matata” where Timon says “Not in front of the kids!” again, in conjunction with Pumbaa’s flatulence. I found this brief breaking of the fourth wall jarring, and it momentarily took me out of this completely immersive world that they spent 45 minutes constructing and made me realize that I was only watching a movie. Again, I know the line refers to Simba, but the fact that Timon says “kids” instead of “kid” when only talking about Simba shows that the fourth wall breaking was intentional and makes me wonder why they chose to do that. On another note, Pumbaa was the first flatulent Disney character so I guess that’s something.

Editor’s Note: Pinkies at ease.

Jo: I totally agree, though I mock. I’m not a fan of toilet humor, either. And even though I didn’t know what it was at the time, I too found the fourth-wall breaking jarring—I remember being confused and upset, not knowing who they were talking to or why.

Chandler: The thing that stands out the most for me in “The Lion King” is the casting. Voice acting is something I take great interest in to the point where I can almost consider myself somewhat of a connoisseur. Nothing grinds my gears more than a well written or well directed animated movie with subpar or poor voice over work (which, unfortunately, is becoming more and more prevalent in animated movies nowadays). This couldn’t be further from the case with “The Lion King.” Take Mufasa, for example. Try to imagine him with any other voice. You can’t. James Earl Jones is Mufasa. His voice resonates with the regal commanding force of a king yet can be gentle and reassuring when comforting his son Simba. Jeremy Irons plays Scar with the perfect balance of charisma, elegance, and ruthless aggression. In his first scene, Scar catches a mouse to eat, yet before killing it, he muses to it melodramatically, lamenting about how he will never be king. Clearly, Scar is the “bad guy” of the film with his dark colors and menacing scar over his eye, but you can’t help but hang on every word that he says. Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella’s voices are such a contrast from each other yet they blend so well together. Rowan Atkinson (whose voice I had the hardest time believing coming out of Mr. Bean’s mouth) is great as the stuck-up, stick-in-the-mud Zazu. The eclectic mix of Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings form the cackling trio of hyenas. I can go on raving about each performance but what it comes down to is choice casting. This is why I think Disney movies are so great: they seek out actors who embody the characters they play rather than the most bankable stars. The actors aren’t doing any over the top voices, however, they aren’t just speaking into a microphone. They are playing the role the same way they would if they were on stage or in front of a camera. Couple that with the perfect casting choice and you’ve got probably the most overlooked reason why Disney movies are so successful.

For the longest time, the only casting choice that I thought was weak was Matthew Broderick as Adult Simba. Every other character was so defined yet Matthew Broderick sounded so awkward and unsure of himself. Then I stopped looking at him as just the voice of the character to the character as a whole. Simba’s a young adult who lost his father and now must take his place as king. That’s when it hit me: that’s exactly how someone in that sort of situation would sound. He witnessed his father die first hand when he was young and has spent most of his life growing up in exile. It’s only a natural response to be conflicted when his childhood friend (who happens to be female) shows up to essentially tell him to grow up. It’s this fridge brilliance that makes this movie enjoyable for all ages.


Dana: The lights go down, and this woman with a voice like thunder-- this woman, she summons all the animals of the jungle to appear and honor the birth of the new lion king. She summons the animals with her voice, and do you know - do you know what happens next?

Isaac: The animals appear?

Dana: The animals appear!

- Sports Night

Another thing about me: Aaron Sorkin is the beat of my heart. Trust there is much Sorkin in our futures. That being said, the above is an exchange from his dead-before-its-time first show, Sports Night. The funniest thing about the above is that one Robert Guillaume, the voice of Rafiki in the movie, played the character Isaac. True story.

What I’m getting at is The Lion King punches you in the face with its music immediately—deep basses, pounding drums, soaring melodies, and African influences abound—and it doesn’t let up.

And the song lyrics? Written by Elton freaking John. By turns they’re moving and hilarious, exhilarating and tragic. The music matches the movie pitch-perfectly and, I think, is one of the best movie soundtracks ever made.

Chandler: I could write an entire article on the music alone, so I’m going to keep this short. Tim Rice, Elton John, Hans Zimmer, and Lebo M. are the creative powerhouses behind the score and it’s nothing short of magnificent. As with all Disney movies, the songs are catchy and fun. If any of the songs were to start playing at any given moment, I’m sure anyone and everyone could sing along flawlessly. I must admit, however, that even though “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is a fantastic song, it’s not my favorite Disney ballad. Although it’s great, without Howard Ashman or Alan Menken, it doesn’t have the same impact that “Part of Your World” or “A Whole New World” has.

(Jo: Chandler likes to reenact “Part of Your World” in his bathtub. Don’t ask how I know that.)

Chandler: Visually, “The Lion King” is a work of art. To this day, I can look at any given scene in the movie and still be amazed that it was drawn by hand. And there’s a reason for that. Several animators that worked on “The Lion King” went to Africa to study animal behavior. I remember watching a preview for “The Lion King” on my “Aladdin” VHS tape and seeing a clip of a live, adult lion being brought in to the animation studio for the animators to get a better grasp on lion anatomy. Even as a kid, I was able to understand and appreciate the level of dedication and attention to detail that the animators were putting into this movie. Right then and there I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up: work in the Disney animation studio.

(Jo: Me, too! To all of that! I thought it was so cool.)

The African influence in the animation is most prevalent in the “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” musical number. Up until that point, the art style has been--aside from the anthropomorphic animals--pretty realistic. Then, in one opening drum beat of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” everything explodes in a beautiful array of shapes and colors. The sky is a bright orange and the colors plants and animals alike range from deep magentas to rich sapphires. Even the way the animals are drawn mimic traditional African art.

I almost see the set pieces themselves as characters; each one is so distinct and evoke such strong emotions. The warm sunrise over the awe-inspiring Pride Rock. The bleak, desolation of the elephant graveyard. Scar’s dark and foreboding lair. The lavish jungle with lakes and waterfalls that is essentially Timon and Pumbaa’s bachelor pad. Even the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots are a treat to look at. These are some of my favorite scenes in the movie and they consist of nothing more than a few seconds of scenery. However, these few seconds of scenery are amazing to look at and it’s even more impressive when you remember that they were all drawn by hand. I recently picked up a copy of “The Lion King” on Blu-ray and I can’t wait to see how these scenes look in glorious HD.

Jo: Continuing on the art, the scenery has all the richness and exemplary coloring of Monet. The scene where Timon shows Simba a view of the jungle where Timon and Pumbaa live is jaw dropping. Even the scenes showing how barren and dry the Pride Lands have become after years of Scar’s rule have a gray, charcoal-y, otherworldly beauty. The artwork is perfect, and even with how brilliant Pixar is it makes me miss the days of hand-drawn animation.

And, of course, there are the “Show Off Scenes”. That’s what I call them, anyway. They’re generally only a few seconds long, but they focus on an insignificant detail to show off how incredibly talented they are, like Chandler mentioned. For example, in Finding Nemo, when Marlin is taking Nemo to school, all of the scenes of the reef and random fish flitting around that are so breath-takingly gorgeous but really have nothing to do with the story. TLK has plenty of show off scenes, and plenty to be proud of- it’s gorgeous, all of it.

But as for the newly added 3D element…Chandler?

Chandler: Unfortunately, “The Lion King” was yet another film to fall victim to the 3D trend. Compared to the original format, nothing was enhanced and almost nothing looked different. Basically, I paid two bucks extra to watch a 2D movie while wearing ridiculously cumbersome glasses. The only scene that looked even remotely 3D was during an aerial shot in “Circle of Life” when Zazu flies over the animals. It’s literally a split second sequence that gained a bit of added depth compared to its two dimensional counterpart. And honestly, unless you were intentionally looking for “a bit of added depth to a split second sequence,” you would have missed it, which I’m sure everyone in the audience (except for me) did. Not worth the additional price or discomfort.

So, folks, there you have it. The magnificent, good, bad, and ugly of The Lion King and our first tandem review! Hope you enjoyed it and hope you enjoy the film.

5 roars out of 5.

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