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THE LION KING
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Matthew Broderick, Moira Kelly, Madge Sinclair, Robert Guillaume, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Jonathan Taylor Thomas
Directors:  Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff
Audio:  DTS HD 7.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  90 Minutes
Release Date:  October 4, 2011

“Where’s Simba?”

“He’s not here…the king has returned!”

Film ****

The Lion King has roared onto Blu-ray in one of the most spectacular home video presentations I’ve ever experienced.  More on that further down.

It’s been almost twenty years since this movie first hit theatres and captured the imagination of the entire world.  It represented a couple of bold new steps for the Walt Disney Studios animation department.  One, it was an original story and not based on some popular book or fairy tale.  Two, it was completely devoid of human characters.

Perhaps because of those two aspects, Disney actually regarded The Lion King as a B-list project…in fact, if you can believe it, the film they considered their A project at the time was Pocahontas! 

That made it a daunting task for the filmmakers assigned to the project…even more so was the fact that this film was coming on the heels of Disney’s great animation renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and come to fruition with Beauty and the Beast in 1991.  That’s even more ironic in hindsight, because The Lion King not only duly followed those films in Disney’s resurgence, but also seemed to cap it as well.  Apart from the great Pixar computer animated features, Disney has yet to return to the glory apexed with The Lion King.

It’s not what I’d call a perfect film, but it’s a film where what’s great about it more than makes up for what might be iffy.  It’s a great story with a wonderful lesson about the “circle of life”, the characters are striking and memorable, the animation, backgrounds and computer generated effects all make for a startling visual experience, and the cast of voices, for the most part, were perfect.

The opening sequence is something I’ve seen countless times (it actually ran in its entirety on screens months before the film came out as a promotional clip), but it always captivates me.  The simple concept of showing the presentation of the young lion cub Simba (voiced in youth by Jonathan Taylor Thomas) was taken to beautiful, glorious extremes with the pulsating music of “Circle of Life” and incredible animation effects that simulate among other shots a rotating camera and a rack focus between ants on a tree branch and galloping zebras in the background.  No animated film has ever been set up so perfectly.

Simba is heir to the throne of his father Mufasa (Jones), but the subject of bitter jealousy by his uncle Scar (Irons).  Scar can never be king now that Mufasa has a son.  Or can he?  If king and prince were out of the way, it would clear the path to the throne.  And the villainous hyenas (the main three voiced by Goldberg, Marin and Cummings) would certainly benefit from Scar’s wicked designs.

The film’s most cited sequence is a CGI enhanced wildebeest stampede, which runs the gamut very quickly from eye-popping spectacle to unimaginable heartbreak.  In a scene that never fails to bring me to tears, young Simba loses his father, and soon, his whole world as well, as he blames himself and runs away.

Lost and alone, he soon makes two unusual friends in Timon (Lane) and Pumbaa (Sabella), a meerkat and warthog, who instill in little Simba their “no worries” philosophy (the song “Hakuna Matata”).  Simba grows from cub to strapping young lion (voiced by Broderick) as he grows accustomed to life with his new friends.  But something inside him remains unresolved.

The appearance of an old childhood friend Nala (Kelly) alerts him to the horrible plight of the lions and the pride land under the tyrannical rule of Scar.  And the priest-like Rafiki (Guillaume) helps Simba realize that his departed father lives on inside of him, and points him toward the destiny he could never escape from.  

This all leads to a tremendous climax in which Simba challenges Scar for the kingdom.  It’s expertly done, and always impressive to me how it manages to walk the line between sheer spectacle and drama to outrageously funny bits of slapstick that always emerge at the right time to keep the spirit of the scene alive.  My favorite line in the piece comes from Pumbaa:  “They call me MR. Pig!!!”

This is a story with tremendous heart and passion, and as mentioned, its strong suits greatly outweigh its few weaknesses.  One minor drawback is the inconsistency of the voice casting.  Some are superb, from the regal, rich voices of James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons and Madge Sinclair, to the comically energetic turns from Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin.  Robert Guillaume brings warmth and balances humor with dignity as Rafiki, and Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella have made their characters into indelible Disney franchises.

But not every actor can do voiceover work successfully; it’s an entirely different animal (so to speak).  I like Matthew Broderick, but he brings very little life to the adult version of Simba.  Same with Moira Kelly as Nala.  And while young Jonathan Taylor Thomas brought vim and spunk to young Simba, it begs the eternal question of why every ‘kid’ in Disney animation sounds like a young American brat, even when the story takes place in Africa?

The song score is decidedly mixed, too.  The tunes by Elton John and Tim Rice range from the epic and memorable (“Circle of Life”) to the mundane and uninspiring (“Be Prepared”).  “Hakuna Matata” is silly and vaudevillian.  “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is sweeping and majestic during the end credits when Elton John sings it, but rather silly when performed in the movie by the characters.  It won an Oscar, so I guess that isn’t too much of a complaint.

Again, I stress…these are minor quibbles.  They aren’t capable of disrupting the momentum of this juggernaut of a story, no do they take away any of its spirit, warmth, humor and drama.  The opening and final notes are absolutely perfect, and most of what goes on in between is, too.  It’s no wonder this film became an instant classic compared favorably with even the great offerings of Disney’s illustrious past.  The phenomenon spread to a long time box office record for an animated film, a still standing one for home video sales, other movies, television, and a huge Broadway hit musical.

But it all began with one infant cub who grew up to take his place in the circle of life.  This is a timeless story superbly executed…you can’t wish for more.

Video ****

Wow…simply stunning.  Disney’s digital remastering of this modern classic is a work of absolute beauty resulting in probably the finest looking presentation of traditional animation I’ve yet seen on Blu-ray.  The colors of Africa are brighter, richer and more vibrant than ever.  Every tone is lively and distinct, and colors play against each other without bleeding or fuzziness.  The more natural looking shades serve nicely against the expressionistic ones in the fantastic sequences like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”.  No grain or compression artifacts mar the experience, and the level of detail the animators brought to the overall vision is amazingly realize here. 

I opted for the three disc set that includes the new 3D presentation of the film.  While I have to say, I don't feel a strong sense of approval when classics start getting 3D treatment that they never had before, this offering is possibly the most outstanding and beautiful use of the technology I've yet seen at home.  I really can't grumble much, because I always felt that with the sweeping panoramic spectacles and intentional depth of image, that had 3D been available at the time with this clarity, the filmmakers might have opted for it.  They were definitely going for that kind of look.  Here, the images are just eye-popping and engaging from start to finish with an absolute eye for perfection.  I may be damned, but...this is exciting stuff.

Audio ****

If the video represents an apex for a traditionally animated film, I was absolutely bowled over by this new DTS HD 7.1 remix.

Every sound is clean, clear, and strikingly distinct.  The bass channel is stronger and more constant:  listen to the sound of the waterfall in the opening, or especially the wildebeest stampede.  The latter is so real and powerful, I actually noticed myself grabbing tight to my armrest in unconscious reaction to the intensity.  The songs sound better than ever, with Hans Zimmer’s remarkable score getting a full, open sounding orchestration with every subtle instrument coming through sharply.  The dynamic range is so powerful you might want to start with the volume low.  Dialogue is clean and clear, and the surrounds are active and energetic throughout.

What a remarkable experience…you have to hear this for yourself!

Features ****

The 3D disc, because of the space it uses, doesn't have extras, but there is also a 2D Blu-ray disc of the movie that includes everything.  It starts with a commentary track by producer Don Hahn and directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff.  It’s a great listen, filled with behind-the-scenes knowledge, discussions of the actors and development, reactions and more.  The commentary only runs with the theatrical version of the film, not the special edition.

There are a few deleted scenes and bloopers, plus the added scene (now cut again) of the forgettable song "Morning Report".  There are three interactive games.  “Timon’s Grab-a-Grub” lets you help him catch bugs (one or two can play), while “Pumbaa’s Sound Sensation” lets you match sounds to animals.  A “Personality Profile” game asks you questions, and based on your answers, you’ll find out which Lion King character you most represent (for me, it was Rafiki). 

A sing-along track lets you sing along at home with your favorite songs.  The first disc rounds out with with a pair of music videos:  Elton John sings “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, and the Disney Channel stars do one for “Circle of Life”.  It’s so atrociously bad I had tears coming out of my eyes and diet soda shooting from my nose!  A “making-of” for the video doesn’t help.

The segments Film Journey, Music Journey, Animal Journey and Story Journey each contain multiple behind-the-scenes featurettes that bring you up close with the development, presentation, and ultimate world wide phenomenon of the movie.  We get close to everyone involved except the voice talents, which is a shame.  But you still get to look at the computer and traditional animations, the background, the music, the animals, Julie Taymor and the Broadway show, and much more, including storyboards.

The fun feature is “Timon & Pumbaa’s Virtual Safari”…an interactive adventure that takes you with your favorite sidekicks on your choice of a jeep or boat trek through Africa where you get to pick the paths.  There’s danger and fun galore, and every time you play can be different…they end with “photos” from your tour that are good for an extra laugh!

Lastly there's a bonus digital copy disc.

Summary: 

It may not have been made in 3D, but the folks at Disney have provided the best example yet of the medium on Blu-ray.  The Lion King is not only one of this year’s best releases, but one of the best of all time.  Don’t wait and miss your chance…this deserves a place of honor in your library.

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