05 September 2012

Disney Daze: Week 32: The Lion King

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

The Lion King was in many respects Jeffrey Katzenberg's baby. Katzenberg had arrived at the Disney studios in the mid-eighties and was largely responsible for the turning of the animation department's fortunes. While he oversaw the productions of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin from on high as a titled executive, he delved deeper into The Lion King's process than any film before. The initial idea of the film was pitched in a meeting between him, film executive Peter Schneider, and Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney, then head of the animation department. The story, which was one of the few original works developed by the Disney studios, would contain elements of the Bible, Shakespeare, and according to Katzenberg, pieces of his own life. Due to tensions between him and then-CEO Michael Eisner, The Lion King would turn out to be Katzenberg's swan song with the studio. He defected and formed a new media company called Dreamworks SKG with fellow moguls Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. For better or for worse, The Lion King would come to define Katzenberg's legacy at the studio.

The Lion King possesses two truly great sequences that would almost be more successful as standalone short films. The first of these two scenes is the opening prelude set to "The Circle of Life" which shows the entire African savanna turning out for the unveiling of Mufasa the heralded lion king's first child. It is an evocative, moving piece with glorious shots of a mammoth menagerie making the arduous, sun-drenched trek to witness the presentation. The monkey sage Rafiki greets the lion family, bestowing blessings and marking the newborn child in a ceremony akin to baptism. The monkey then raises the baby (soon to be named Simba) to the sky and the animals rejoice in unison. It is a powerful moment that promises an epic cinema scope that the resulting film fails to provide. The sequence--which in many respects echoes the opening section of Bambi--was in fact released separately as the film's first trailer, unedited and ending simply with the distinct red title screen. Its rapturous reception hinted at the sweeping success the finished film would garner.

The second strong section of the film depicts the brutal death of Mufasa by his jealous brother Scar, who throws him off of a cliff and into a herd of stampeding wildebeests. The entire construction of the scene is flawless, beginning with a desolate shot of a lone Simba hearing the rumbling hooves on the horizon, followed by an overwhelming rush of fantastically rendered CGI creatures careening over the hillside. Mufasa's dramatic arrival to save his son and his subsequent peril and perishing tugs genuinely at the heartstrings. The section is most effective because it does not shy away or try and dull the impact of the death. The screen lingers on the fallen, lifeless body of the once great beast, his frightened cub curled up underneath his limp paw. Mufasa's death is one of the single greatest scenes in Disney history.

Unfortunately the rest of the picture fails to maintain such artistry. There is very little story to be had after the devastating demise of the jungle leader. His confused son is tricked into running away as the petty Scar takes over as king of the wild, allowing packs of hyenas to lay claim to the plains. We see very little of the devastating destruction this has on the landscape until much later when Simba returns to regain his rightful spot in the hierarchy. In the interim, we find that he has befriended two outcasts named Timon and Pumba, a meerkat and warthog respectively. Simba's lost years are treated flippantly with barely more than a cloying song to mark the passage of time. His decision to finally return home is handled fairly well as he encounters Rafiki who takes him on a soul-searching, spiritual journey reminiscent of Luke Skywalker's revelations in the swamp forest of Dagobah. (The fact that James Earl Jones has something to do with both films may be clouding one's perception.) Simba soon returns home, a fight ensues, and balance is quickly restored. Nothing much in the film's last half really sticks.

Part of the problem with The Lion King is that none of the characters make much of an impact. Scar is vain and petty but little more, and he is too easily undone at the climax. Although he commits atrocities far worse than many a Disney villain, he fails to possess the infectious scene-chewing malevolence that really defines a classic cartoon evildoer. He can't come close to challenging the supremacy of his most recent company, including Jafar and Ursula, let alone someone as deliciously vicious as Maleficent. Meanwhile, Simba's goofy sidekicks Timon and Pumba are ineffectual doses of comic relief at best.  At worst they are alumni of Aladdin's Academy of Annoying and Bombastic Buffoons. Nathan Lane's Timon shouts every other line as if he were trying to reach beyond the rafters and out to the ticket holders waiting in line for the next show. And while the humor isn't nearly as lowbrow as its immediate predecessor, The Lion King is responsible for Disney's first fart joke, a distinction one fondly wishes remained unclaimed. Even Simba, the star of the show, barely registers. As is the case with Bambi, he grows up in the middle of the film, switching looks and voices, from Jonathan Taylor Thomas to Matthew Broderick (now that's a devil's bargain) which certainly does not help. The best character onscreen is easily the mercurial, majestic sage Rafiki, who is giddy with wonder at the universe and all of the creatures who exist in it. His cryptic confrontation with the wandering Simba is a delight as he giggles his way through a series of nonsensical proclamations that belie a deep hidden truth. 

Another roadblock on the film's persistent quest for greatness is a truly inferior soundtrack. The Lion King marks the beginning of a new Disney tradition of commissioning a set of songs from a pop singer well passed his prime. This inaugural songbook comes courtesy of Sir Elton John, who collaborated with Aladdin lyricist Tim Rice on five tracks for the film. The kernel of John's approach is sufficiently interesting, which he unfortunately manages to completely squander in execution. Taking a nod from Paul Simon's seminal album "Graceland", John attempts to wed traditional African rhythms to Western pop structures and the first few bars of each song hint at the possibilities before completely giving themselves over to pure Hollywood schmaltz. "The Circle of Life", "I Just Can't Wait to Be King", and especially "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" drip with empty platitudes and soaring, boring melodies. "Hakuna Matata", the upbeat song about forgetting about one's troubles, decides to bludgeon the point home by singing the title phrase ad nauseum for minutes on end. Simba literally grows up during the course of the song.

The Lion King is a film not unlike its wayward protagonist. From the start they were destined for greatness but both managed to get a bit lost along the way. The film boldly and brazenly flaunts its potential on a handful of stunning occasions but unfortunately fails to sustain its promise as it stumbles into a series of frustratingly mediocre meanderings. Had the filmmakers dealt with the ramifications of Mufasa's death in a manner as unflinching as the murder itself (instead of running off into a land of singing, farting warthogs) it may have transcended its trappings and become a deep and satisfying work that depicted the real joys and sorrows to be found in the circle of life. Instead it gave us mere glimpses that faded away as easily as the sunset on a verdant horizon.    

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