This week, we're taking a look at one of the most iconic films in the Disney lexicon, and one of the more recent. Strap on your safari boots (and, if I were you, get some traveler's checks), its time to go check out:

The Lion King (1994)

Soundtrack/Score/Music: 8

Story/Screenplay/Narrative: 7

Characters/Characterization + Voice Acting: 8.5

Art Direction/Design: 9

Themes, Archetypes, and Artistic Interpretation: 10

From RM:

It's hard to find fault in this movie. In fact, it took us a long time to find and nitpick stuff that we could have issues with to keep an impartial eye in this project. Especially since this was the first film so directly associated with our childhood. As you can tell by the title, my biggest issue with this film is it's completely bogus comparisons with William Shakespeare's Hamlet, but more on that in a moment.

The Lion King is the story of Simba, the young prince of The Pride Lands, an unspecified territory somewhere in Africa ruled by Mufasa, his father. Mufasa's brother, Scar, was the heir apparent until Simba arrived, and from early on it's clear his goal is to take the throne for himself. Scar succeeds in killing Mufasa, and scares off Simba, who is convinced that it is his fault his father is dead. After hiding away in the jungle for many years, Simba is inspired by a vision of his father to return to Pride Rock, confronting Scar and his past, and assuming his rightful place as King.

This exempts many of the timeless characters, such as Zazu, The Hyenas, and of course, Timon and Pumbaa, who are also invaluable contributors to the film.

The only problems from my reckoning of the film were these: the film has only five original songs, fewer than any of the subsequent musicals Disney created until they stopped making "traditional" musicals, and one of the songs the iconic "Can You Feel The Love Tonight?", isn't really all that necessary and is sung by a disembodied voice rather than an actual character. There are plot and archetype issues as well, but I leave those to my esteemed colleague.

My beef with this film is the "Hamlet" references. Let it go. The Lion King is unique in that it doesn't rely on any particular source material, but rather on a familiar "myth" or story archetype of the prodigal son. Some people have equated this to Hamlet, and it isn't entirely implausible. There are some similarities, including a conniving uncle, an indecisive prince, and two wise-cracking friends. However, those friends are not agents of Scar and are not killed by Simba, Nala doesn't go insane and kill herself, Sarabi doesn't sack up with Scar after Mufasa's death, Zazu has no son named Polonius, and there isn't a Thompson's Gazelle named Fortinbras skipping around. Many more people live at the end of this than Hamlet. And if you say "Well, it's a Disney movie...", this one wasn't afraid to go dark, let me tell you. But I save that for my esteemed colleague.

From Wiry:

You know how The Lion King begins. You can mock-sing those African words with the best of them. And you do get a bit choked up when every animal from aardvark to zebra bows to the befuddled cub we will grow to know and love. While most other Disney movies start slow, gently easing us in, this one commences in sheer confidence. Quasi-African music for Western ears? Okay... Sweepingly beautiful visuals? Drumbeat-title? These are the actions of confident filmmakers. And lucky us for that.

I mentioned the quasi-Africanness of the movie. I think it's important to note the strong distinction between the cultural references here versus, say, Aladdin (yes, I know we haven't gotten to it yet but bear with me). Some might look at Aladdin and see a bunch of negative Arabian stereotypes... but really, what I see is a more parodic Orientalism. In other words, let's do Arabia as Victorians would have seen it, that Arabia that is written about in children's books by people who've never been there. Even the music bears this out - there are traces of influence there, but it's about as Middle Eastern as The Hootchy Kootchy Song. With The Lion King, however, you can tell they're going more for representing Africa as it is (well, except for the whole human being part) - they take great pains to do the natural elements and fauna in ways that, though often still very Western, pay far more respect to the African cultural setting. And it's all very pretty.

I only wish this was the case with the music too, which (unlike the Broadway adaptation) lifts only barely from African music. I actually found myself enjoying Zimmer's instrumental bits from the film more than some of the sung numbers, mostly due to the negligible lyrics and pop sensibility of the latter. Do we really need to feel the love tonight? Especially since this isn't really a love story? I'm not going to bitch too much, but I could have stood for more African, less pop.

I found myself most struck by the themes and archetypes of this movie while watching it this time around. From a more adult perspective, it's easier to see the film as Simba's journey from a spoiled brat to an irresponsible bachelor to a complete, regal (family) man. Marketable as they are, Timon and Pumbaa are not meant to be endorsed - "Hakuna Matata" may be charming, but gnawing roaches all day with your mates can't be a permanent solution to a troubled past. I don't mean to seem pretentious by invoking the stories of King Arthur, Moses, and Joseph, or Henry IV, Richard III, and Hamlet in talking about The Lion King, but it does seem as though they stretched past fairy tales and into an archetypal realm from which many such stories spring. It's quite fascinating, though I think it somewhat carries the danger of predictability. "What Disney movie isn't pretty predictable?" you might ask. A good point to raise, but I'd argue that the taking of an already-established tale and re-envisioning it (as in the fairy tale films) gives more imaginative wiggle-room. The Lion King is grand, but I do feel as though the increased freedom in scripting the film, coupled with several models in mind, actually resulted in some "we know what's going to happen" issues. For example, we know the whole film that Simba wasn't responsible for Mufasa's death, so... all his self-torment isn't all that interesting to watch. And Scar's final reveal at the end is something we've known for a good hour. Not a huge squabble, but there ya go.

Also, I know this is a boy's kind of story (just look at Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat... or don't, whatever), but you know things are bad for female characters in Disney flicks when Nala makes Jasmine look important and interesting by comparison. Yes, Disney has issues with the love interests of its main characters (see also Disney Personality-less Prince Syndrome), but it's especially an issue in this story that's really not about romance for a change. At least they made Rafiki a woman for the Broadway show. And, to close with a question: what IS the deal with Rafiki?

Final Grade: A-

Final Rank:
1.) The Lion King
2.) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
3.) Fun and Fancy Free

2 comments:

I believe the filmmakers themselves have alluded to the fact that they based elements of the story off of not only Hamlet, but Richard III as well-- as a matter of fact, I believe they consulted someone as to how to incorporate elements of Shakespeare into the script.

As Mr. Merrill and I have already argued, The Lion King is not Hamlet. However, it seems to me stubborn to patently ignore that it borrows heavily from that particular text.

Anton's remarks about the disconnect between Zimmer's score and Elton John's songs, however, I entirely agree with.

July 6, 2008 at 11:11 PM  

I have to disagree on the voice acting. I mean, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, the guy from Benson as the high on LSD monkey (That's whats up with him)... This is an ALL STAR cast.

Plus, I still cry when Mufasa dies. Still.

August 27, 2008 at 1:39 PM  

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