Monday, January 14, 2013

1994 - The Lion King

Happy New Year! That’s… not really an accomplishment? Well, I said I’d do one movie a week, and I’ve done greater than one every two weeks. If you know my usual schedule, that’s a hell of an achievement. So what are we up to now?

Oh boy, it’s Beauty and the Beast all over again. Look, you all know this one, right? You’ve all seen it? You know it’s very good. Great. Let’s move on to Pocahontas. I got a lot to complain about there. Ahhhh, I can’t do that. And I can’t do another Q&A so soon after the last one. I guess I’ll actually have to find things to talk about. So yeah, Disney was riding a wave of unprecedented consistent critical and commercial success, and as we’ve seen, they like to flex themselves creatively when they’re doing well. But this time, they’ve just been doing variations on an extremely lucrative formula. How to deviate from such a profitable norm while still keeping all the aspects people loved about it? Well, a cast of animals seems like a good start. Are you a crepuscular large feline predator found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa? So am I. So kill yourself an antelope, and let’s talk about The Lion King

Oh, this was also when the posters got epic.

I never realized how oddly this fit in compared to all the movies around it until I watched them all at once. Like the others, this one involves a royal figure unsatisfied with hir position, but the way it happens is all mixed up. Prince Simba quite explicitly Just Can’t Wait To Be King, unlike Ariel, Belle, Beast, Aladdin, and Jasmine, who were all unsatisfied in their lives. At the beginning, he’s overconfident and in another film, this might be his downfall, in a reversal of the way it’s been, but he learns his humility quickly and brutally, and abandons his princeship. And his return to it isn’t just some “I am supposed to be king because of who my father was” thing, I honestly think he wouldn’t have returned if Scar was a more competent ruler.

"What's hakuna matata?" "It's like 'yolo', but classier."
The designs are excellent, especially in a setting that represents another stretching out of the Disney comfort zone. This is an all-animal cast in a non-human-based setting, which they haven’t done since Bambi. Unless you count Robin Hood, I guess. But that had anthropomorphisation  (probably not a word) helping it out, whereas this one needs the animals to be animals while still being humanized enough for us to relate to. And they do it marvelously without over-exaggerating features or making them look like humans in animal suits. (Except for Pumbaa and Timon, respectively. But they’re comic relief, so it’s not like you’d notice.)

Voices are mostly well-suited. This is where they really start pulling away from the voice actors and Broadway types they’ve been using and start going for star power, but it mostly pays off. James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons are PERFECT as the noble king and his scheming brother, roles they were born to. As Our Hero Simba, Matthew Broderick is rather less than regal, but given his position, that’s fine. Jonathan Taylor Thomas, as the young Simba, comes off rather better. Simba at both ages suffers from a bad case of Singing Voice, though. Which is particularly odd here, as Matthew Broderick can sing quite well. He’s got Tonys and stuff. Speaking of which, future Broderick BFF Nathan Lane and his other most frequent partner Ernie Sabella do well as the comic relief. Cheech Marin, Whoopi Goldberg, Rowan Atkinson, Robert Guillame, and good old Jim Cummings round out the cast.

Of course, in the real world, Hyenas are competent hunters, and lions are more likely to scavenge. But they didn't have time for biology research. Surely they were studying history for Pocahontas.
With nothing more about the film itself to say that everyone doesn’t already know, I’d like to close out by discussing the film’s influences. Or, as some would say, what it ripped off. See, there was a Japanese series called “Jungle Emperor Leo”, known in the US as “Kimba the White Lion”. And more than a few people have accused Disney of ripping it off wholesale. Now, most of these concerns are fairly groundless in my mind. There’s a lot of “The main character is a prince destined to rule! COINCIDENCE!?” Geez, blame Joseph Campbell for that. One site included in its list of charges the fact that both Kimba and Simba had a girlfriend… WHO WAS ALSO A LION! The name seems like a real smoking gun - except ‘Simba’ is Swahili for ‘lion’, so… yeah.

Some of the charges are a bit more grounded. While the hyenas being henchmen is a pretty easy choice for anyone telling a story in this setting, the wise, eccentric mentor being a mandrill is less obvious. Much is made of a panel from the manga where Kimba sees clouds in the shape of his father, but that’s a far cry from having a conversation with them. And there’s also a famous shot of Kimba’s dad on a dramatic outcropping of rock, which looks pretty damning, but I’ve been watching all of these, and I can tell you Disney REALLY likes dramatic outcroppings of rock. And some of them are, if not made up, at least exaggerated. Many report on Kimba having an evil aunt while Simba has an evil uncle, but as far as I can tell, she was only in one episode, and only pretending to be his aunt. And surprisingly few sites mention the black-maned, one-eyed lion that was the main antagonist, which… Yeah, that’s another big mark against Disney.

Yeah, there is that.

But despite some iffy similarities, I really don’t think there was a ripoff intended. The stories and moods of the respective works really are quite different, and the similarities are mostly quite superficial and can easily be seen as a natural progression from the movie’s setting. If there was a ripoff, it was totally Hamlet. You know, king killed by his usurping brother, prince goes into shame spiral, his two wacky friends try to make him forget his problems, and people die at the end. I’m amazed at how many people I talk to haven’t noticed that.

So yeah, your memory does not fail you, this movie is awesome. Kind of wish I had something more interesting to say on the first day back but… there you have it.


* Oh, music! Um… It’s all good. Yeah, Elton John and Tim Rice, so obviously. Three songs nominated for the Oscar, the worst of them won again.

* Side note to the Kimba thing, apparently Matthew Broderick was a fan of the show as a kid and went around for a while telling everyone he was in the new Kimba movie. So we’ll add to the conspiracy pile “Matthew Broderick is an idiot.”

* While I complimented the movie on its not showing Simba return because he’s the “rightful ruler”, I should note that the movie seems to disagree with me on the issue of the legitimacy of inherited leadership positions. I get this by the fact that as soon as Simba kills Scar and assumes the throne, the drought that had stricken the pride lands ends instantly. Like he’s the damn fisher king or something. But the important thing is that HE doesn’t feel he has some inherent right to rule.


* In a rather odd chapter in my running enmity with Singing Voices, Jeremy Irons does his own singing for Scar, and does an excellent job, but apparently, they got it all on the first take, since he blew out his voice on the line “You won’t get a sniff without me!” and Jim Cummings played Scar for the remainder of the song. It’s kind of super-noticeable when you listen for it (at about 2:15). I mean, he does a really good Irons, but there’s a heavy dose of Darkwing Duck in it as well.

* An additional small controversy arose when this came out that was even weirder than the Kimba one. At one point, a depressed Simba plops down on the ground and a swirl of dust is kicked up, that imperceptibly briefly form the letters SFX, a little signature by the special effects animators who made said dust swirl. Seems some people with WAY too much time on their hands went through the movie frame by frame, and freaked out because they thought it said SEX.

* They were probably on guard though, because they already thought they heard Aladdin say something dirty and grammatically awkward, and they thought they saw a priest’s naughty parts in The Little Mermaid. All of these confusions could be cleared up by watching the films while not being an idiot, but no much chance of that with these guys.

* I’m pretty sure it was Don Wildmon that was doing most of this. I somehow got on his son Tim’s mailing list, and I assure you, he’s keeping up the family’s proud crackpot tradition of yelling at clouds and asking for money.

* Though while we’re on the subject, a fun bonus for anyone who knows anything about lions is that Nala is Simba’s sister. Yaaay?

* Speaking of sisters, when I was a wee lad, my whole family went to see this movie together, and my little sister apparently had a urinary tract infection that started making itself known 'round about "Hakuna Matata",  with the effect being that she went in perfectly fine, and came out ready for the hospital. She's fine, don't worry.

* Scar is animated by Andreas Deja, completing his trilogy of imposing and creepy yet flamboyant villains. The next film also has one of those, but he was doing other stuff.
The Andreas Deja villain. Suave, scheming, and ever so slightly gay.

1 comment:

  1. I am SO GLAD you mentioned the Hamlet connection. I was afraid you would discount it because Simba didn't die by poison.