The Lion King (1994, Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff)

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The unquestioned peak of the Katzenberg regime at Walt Disney Animation Studios, The Lion King may be the only film ever covered here whose production I (among millions of others) can claim to have partially witnessed. A few sequences were being worked on at MGM Studios in Florida the first time my family visited, with animators visible behind glass on the studio tour putting finishing touches on various shots. (I recall that a lot of animators were out to lunch at the time, their computers fixed on the old Windows bouncing screensaver, replaced with either the Lion King or Pocahontas logo.) What’s strange about this is that despite being fascinated by Disney’s animation output for virtually my entire life, I managed to completely miss this particular movie’s cultural moment. I was only ten years old when it was eventually released, but for one reason or another we did not go and see it and never caught it on video. The first and only time I saw it as a child (in English) was during downtime in fifth grade after we’d finished a test. I wasn’t terribly impressed with it. I’d remembered it as serviceable and not much more.

But for someone a few years younger than me — my girlfriend, for instance — The Lion King has the cachet and nostalgia factor that comes from a movie that opened things up to you. Beauty and the Beast was the Disney moment for me; it hit at the perfect time and I was crushingly disappointed to discover as an adult that it had lost so much of its luster. Yet The Lion King now looks like a rather impressive — if disjointed — achievement, likely the best of the so-called Disney Renaissance pictures. Misgivings about the things it cribs from Bambi and The Jungle Book are tempered by one’s awareness that the entire existence of Disney’s films in this era was meant as a conscious bid to return to the artistic prowess of those earlier works from Walt Disney’s own lifetime. Katzenberg is no Disney, but he does at least have some respect and understanding for what made the best of the namesake’s films work so brilliantly. The Lion King had been in development since the nadir of the ’80s animation recession, the rare Disney picture to have no official source material (Kimba the White Lion, a ’60s Japanese series that was infamously claimed as having been plagiarized by the Disney team, notwithstanding). After a juggling of directors, with Oliver & Company‘s George Scribner thankfully sidelined, the film became the directorial debut of Beauty story head Roger Allers and future Stuart Little director Rob Minkoff.

The Lion King‘s central idea is to translate a Shakespearean tale of tragedy, bloodlines and brotherhood and all that and translate it, really quite convincingly, to the African plains and jungle. From its first, shatteringly gorgeous frames of a lovingly rendered world welcoming a newborn prince (Simba) to nearly the midway point, Allers and Minkoff and story head Brenda Chapman have the wisdom and trust to take their own story seriously, which makes all the difference in comparison to a flat, busy mess like Aladdin. There’s plenty of humor in The Lion King — much provided by side characters like the meerkat Timon and the perpetually exasperated hornbill Zazu — but from the central conflict between the evil, slack motherfucker Scar and endlessly calm and well-controlled King Mufasa, later Simba, the stakes feel higher than they do in so many children’s pictures that talk down to their audience. Not only does genuine suspense and concern for the characters result, there is — aesthetically and in the relative simplicity of the storytelling — a sense of appreciation for beauty, something that would quickly fall by the wayside in future Disney features.

The emotional maturity is matched in other areas. Inevitably, because I’m an early-Disney kid, I see everything here through the prism of their ’30s and ’40s films. In comparison to most of the post-Walt material, the major coup here is the character animation: even though a creature like Scar, animated by modern-day maverick Andreas Deja, calls back explicitly to older Disney villains, he’s a really brilliant piece of design that has weight and personality. Equally impressive is Tony Fucile’s stunning work on Mufasa, and James Baxter’s on the mandrill Rafiki; these characters have a real feeling of life to them. The only major stumble here in visual terms — the film is also magnificently well-composed — is that Simba doesn’t grow very organically, and we only know he is his own adult self because we’re told via montage.

The story gradually becomes a little more problematic, inheriting a few problems from the Richard Williams school: the complexity of the double-antagonist structure (Simba et al. vs. Scar vs. a pack of nefarious hyenas) busies up what should be an elegant narrative, and elegance is what the Disney studio has mostly had trouble with since 1942 or so. And the directors overcorrect on pacing — because the film never flags for even a moment, because everything that happens in it must apparently be crucial to the story, there’s little actual character development and even less sense of rhythm. It’s nice that the film is economical, and it certainly is on the right track with that (Dumbo and Bambi each barely run an hour), but when we leave it something seems missing, as if we’ve never had a moment to breathe with these animals.

But the film is nearly impossible to carp with in two departments. As so often in the Disney Renaissance films, the music is extraordinary — I’m not normally a fan, but Elton John brings a quick-witted pop sensibility and makes the songs a joyous series of peaks rather than distractions that stop the narrative (as in, say, Oliver & Company, which Billy Joel puked all over much as he pukes all over everything). In The Little Mermaid, the brilliant songs so upstaged the narrative itself that it created an uncomfortable dichotomy, but here everything seems conceived as an organic whole, even if thanks to John and Tim Rice the film peaks early with Simba’s wonderful number in the first act. Secondarily, the Disney studio stands out even in this period because they have no fear of big, uncompromised emotional highs and lows. Not even Pixar usually tackles death, family estrangement, fear and joy with such unfettered directness yet surprising absence of easy sentiment.

It’s not stupid, in other words, and you quickly discern what separated the studio even in this era from the likes of Don Bluth: as Michael Barrier has pointed out, they are habitually unafraid of difficult and uncomfortable events and emotions — death and grief most commonly — which they approach not with Bluth’s maudlin tearjerking but with a real attempt at human dissection and exploration. The highest compliment one can pay to The Lion King is that it feels like a huge, consequential story about large themes, and despite the possibly excessive comic relief, it has a solemnity and grace that allow it to at least respectfully approach the truly great storytelling of films like Bambi and Pinocchio.

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