Movie Review: The Lion King 3-D
In an age where two-dimensional animation is no longer the theatrical draw it used to be (pun intended), finding its viewership in (often times crudely-drawn) Sunday evening prime-time comedies or late-night cable network shows, leave it to Walt Disney to reinvigorate the genre by theatrically re-releasing one of their most successful hand-drawn creations…ironically, cashing in on the 3-D craze in the process. Yes, the 1994 animated feature The Lion King is getting a two-week engagement, starting September 16th. And to be fair, this is an opportunity not to be missed; 3-D or no, this is Disney at its very best, a film that has not lost any impact with time and remains a hallmark of visual brilliance.
To mention the plot and the actors of the 17-year-old film almost seems redundant; it’s hard not to see evidence of its success, from merchandise to a long-running musical playing around the world. Mufasa and Sarabi (James Earl Jones and the late Madge Sinclair) give birth to cub and heir to the throne Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas). This does not sit well with scheming brother Scar (Jeremy Irons), who seeks the throne for himself. Plotting with a trio of hyenas (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings), he successfully gets Mufasa out of the picture, scares the young Simba into self-exile, and takes over. Simba meets up with outcasts Timon & Pumbaa (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella), grows up to be a lazy slug (becoming Matthew Broderick on the way), and only when his childhood friend Nala (Moira Kelly) returns is he confronted with the rashness of his actions, and that a true king is one who accepts responsibility, no matter how difficult it might be.
Granted, the story never really goes very deep, and all our lessons are taught by talking lions, windy warthogs, and a half-crazy baboon (or mandrill; nobody seems to agree on what he is, exactly), but then, it’s a family film, and it knows how to push all the right buttons. Timon and Pumbaa are cute enough comic relief for the young ones, and Irons gives a sinister and, at times, downright hilarious portrayal of the villain that will keep the adults entertained, all aided by the quality of the animation.
And this is where 17 years makes all the difference. The Lion King was not the first Disney film I saw in the theater (I vaguely remember the 1988 theatrical re-release of Bambi, the 1992 re-release of The Great Mouse Detective, and the initial release of Oliver & Company), but it was certainly the most memorable. Although as a kid I was never a fan of the musical numbers, the opening “Circle of Life” was among one of the most powerful scenes I had yet seen in the theater…and it still remains one today. Really, the only disappointment upon viewing the 2011 version was the theater’s sound system, unlike most of the movies I’ve seen recently, this one wasn’t loud enough. But viewing it through the eyes of an adult rather than a child (and an animation buff as well), it’s awe-inspiring to see what a true labor of love this film was/is. There is the remarkable stampede sequence (while not the first instance of CG in an animated Disney film, it is one of the finest early examples), that still looks authentic years later. And a later scene where Simba is pacing back and forth is so fluid and convincing that it’s hard to believe it all started as a series of drawings. The time the team put into studying real lions obviously paid off. The brilliant color schemes, the visual cues, the character designs…they all still hold up. Even the songs don’t sound dated…not even the ones with the slight 1990s synthesizer in the background (if you listen carefully). And unlike the kid who saw The Lion King in the theater all those years ago, I found myself humming almost every single one of them the rest of the day.
But, really, what it comes down to is, how does one take a two-dimensional film and make it 3-D? At least with live action 3-D conversions, you’re still working with objects that have well, dimensions…these are drawings, objects that never had depth. Well, the verdict is in: it’s actually quite good. Since much of 3-D conversion deals with separating various aspects of the picture into “planes,” the fact that most traditional animation starts with multiple cels stacked on top of each other works to the process’s advantage. Added depth is gained with tweaking the various parts of the separated elements, say, “yanking” on a snout to make it pop out of the screen, or “pushing” the edge of a rock backwards to make it appear rounded. There are limitations to this (most notably Mufasa’s muzzle, where the “rounding” is obvious as computer-aided trickery), but as a conversion, it is leaps and bounds better than a lot of other conversions (and shows exactly what a monumental hack job the work on Conan the Barbarian really was). If you’re a purist, you will not like it no matter what. But know that the process was executive produced by John Lasseter. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, know that he’s pretty much the man responsible for most of Pixar’s productions. And no matter how you feel about Cars 2, they’re not exactly a company known for their shoddy computer work. I, for one, found it pleasing enough. Is it necessary? No. But it doesn’t detract from the film and it gives hope that, if Hollywood feels it necessary to convert each and every last film into 3-D, that it can be done without looking like the film was dragged kicking and screaming through the grinder.
When it is all said and done, however, using the 3-D effect as an excuse for a limited re-release gives the film something that is desperately needed in animated cinema: a look back on the power of hand-drawn animation. While I do not despise computer graphic films in any way, the last two classically animated films from Disney were The Princess and the Frog in 2009 and this year’s Winnie the Pooh…one of which was quite successful, the other almost ignored in the summer blockbuster rush, despite both garnering high critical praise. Having built its legacy on films such as these, that only two of the previous six Disney releases have been animated in this style shows a great loss in a changing world. Movies like Up are strikingly beautiful films…but they are a medium, and for traditional animation to be considered obsolete is as silly as saying that the creation of art through painting is obsolete because we can sculpt statues. The Lion King may be aging, but it has lost no fangs, and should its limited release prove successful, it may just convince a whole new generation of fans that not every animated production needs to be a silly half-hour cartoon or require the latest in computer technology to be enjoyed.
The 3-D conversion aside, go see The Lion King 3-D, even if you have to set aside your glasses and watch two blurry images onscreen. Even knowing that in October the dreaded “Disney Vault” opens once again and the film sees its Blu-ray debut, see it in the theater. Here is where the film’s true glory lies, in its sheer spectacle and dazzle. Whether it is a film you are too young to have seen on the big screen, or haven’t watched since you were a child, or if you’ve watched it countless times, it is still worth the price of admission.