Friday, October 5, 2012

The Disney Renaissance Part 5: The Lion King

This movie was HUGE. Rather than the traditional holiday release, it opened in the middle of summer and went on to be the highest-grossing animated film of its time (a record it held for nearly a decade). Many people would say that the quality of the Disney Renaissance - and maybe all of 2D animation of the last generation - peaked with The Lion King.

Short version? It didn't. Not even close.

Long version? Okay. . .

I'll be straight-up - this one's not actually that great. Why? Well. . .

The Lion King was the first original animated film ever made by Walt Disney, that is to say it was the first feature-length movie of its kind from the studio that wasn't some sort of adaptation. And so it may be appropriate that this movie played host to more narrative permutations and story/script changes than perhaps any other film of the Disney Renaissance. And honestly, it shows. Multiple times they managed to paint themselves into a corner (sorry about the pun) that derails the narrative or undermines character in crucial areas.

The film began it's life in 1988 as a conversation between Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney, and Peter Schneider (another key producer during the Disney Renaissance) during a plane trip to promote Oliver & Company. Apparently the subject of a story set in Africa came up and a film about lions was spit-balled, and the execs ran with it. The film was given several script treatments over the years under various titles (including King of the Kalahari and King of the Jungle), originally with a wildly different premise (including war between lions and baboons with Rafiki as a cheetah). Originally George Scribner (Oliver & Company) was selected as director, but the directing and story team shifted several times during the production, eventually leading to first-time directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers taking the reins. Elton John and Tim Rice were brought in to write songs, and the up-and-coming Hans Zimmer was tapped as composer.

The story combined Shakespeare's Hamlet with reported inspiration from the story of Moses from Exodus. It also shared a great deal in common - both structurally and narratively - with Walt's 1942 masterpiece Bambi. The script itself saw revision after revision, with rewrites happening well into the animation, sometimes with completed scenes being turned in only to be sent back for revision due to changes in dialogue. The animation itself was largely done by newer blood, as much of Disney Animation elected to work on Pocahontas instead, believing it would be the better and more prestigious of the two films (gotta love the irony there). As with Bambi, animals were studied heavily for reference, and the Pixar-created C.A.P.S. program saw some of its heaviest use in this film with the CGI used to create the famous wildebeest stampede.

And while the movie doesn't look quite as arresting now as it did back in 1994, the movie is still visually impressive with some memorable set pieces. Unfortunately, the story behind it kinda buckles under its own weight.

However, before I get too deep into that, I pretty much have to mention Kimba the White Lion.

. . . For obvious reasons.

So yes, for those who don't know there are a wealth of stylistic, character, and scene similarities between The Lion King and the 1960's anime series Kimba the White Lion (from Osamu Tezuka, based on his manga from the 50's). Reportedly, Matthew Broderick originally though he was being asked to voice Kimba - not Simba - in some sort of remake, as he was familiar with the series from his childhood. Disney's official stance is that all similarities are coincidental, and while rumors circulated that Tezuka Productions were paid hush money by the House of Mouse, these have been denied.

Honestly, I see no reason to hold these surface similarities against The Lion King - it has plenty of faults of its own.

Part of the problem with The Lion King is the film's tone - it begins as a sweeping savanna epic, and throughout is trying to emulate both Shakespearean tragedy and the mono-mythic Hero's Journey. But Disney had by this time allowed their "formula" for animation success become a full-blown list of requirements. The pop-culture references and lowbrow humor had helped make Aladdin a smash-hit, so why not add more? Kids had loved the animal side-kicks in previous films, so why not add more? The Lion King has no fewer than six - SIX - characters that exist primarily for comic relief. Combine this focus test-driven approach with the constant changes to the story, and the movie just can't seem to figure out what it wants to be. "Poked in the butt" pratfalls occur during heavily dramatic/tragic segments. The stink of rewrites causes some warped pacing, compressing events that feel like they should be taking much longer to happen, and creates utter confusion in the arcs of the characters.

Who mostly suck.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of The Lion King is that it has one hell of a voice cast. Granted, it takes the practice of stunt-casting celebrities for the sake of them being celebrities to its most egregious extreme (cough*JohnathanTaylorThomas*cough), but having Jeremy Irons and James Earl Jones play opposite each other in the same film as Nathan Lane and Rowan Atkinson should have been a knockout, but most the characters are written very poorly (when they're written as anything more than punchlines at all). Mufasa, who carries a great deal of the film's first act, seems like a barely competent parent thanks to his spoiled offspring. Simba himself is a detestable protagonist pretty much from the moment he starts speaking - a self-centered unlikable little brat (who also has one of the WORST musical numbers in Disney history). He's basically a wolf-bite and an iron chair away from being this jackass:

For the first half the movie, the most interesting character is actually Scar, the scheming brother with his eye on Simba's inheritance. Then after Mufasa's death, even HE stops being compelling, because once he has his goal, the film forces us to sit around and wait for Simba to decide to go confront him. Which is a shame because if the film was cribbing from the Bard, the least they could have done is give Scar the really twisted nature of Richard III or the haunted guilt of MacBeth. He certainly seems to understand the Circle of Life at least as well as the "good" characters considering the way he treats the hyenas (fun fact: the "good" lions are kinda racist).

In the long run, Scar convincing Simba to leave the kingdom - at least for a while - was the best idea anyone ever had considering Simba's early attitude about the throne.

(Sidenote: this particular story point is one of the biggest problems in the film. Simba's guilt over Mufasa's death being "his fault" makes no sense. None. Not only do kids have one hell of a guilt-displacement complex even when they DID do something wrong (ask anyone who's caught one with their hand in a cookie jar), but the ridiculous way that Scar frames this as Simba's fault falls apart under even the most cursory glance. Mufasa died because Simba was there. . . that's it? Okay, why was Simba there? Oh, that's right, 'cause Scar told him to go there. Then Scar lies to the lionesses about Simba dying with Mufasa, and once Nala finds Simba and discovers this was a lie, no one questions it at all.)

Simba's character in the second half of the film isn't much of an improvement. He never learns anything about not being a selfish twit (he becomes selfish in a different way instead) and this is only made more irritating because he grows up around two of the most selfish characters I've ever been supposed to root for in a children's movie.

Timon and Pumba are terrible. In every way. It's not just that they're a poor, stupid man's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (seriously, you got Nathan Lane in the movie and gave him nothing clever or funny to say?), or that the lowbrow pandering defines their characters terribly (the pig's farting kids - laugh, laugh you little cretins!), but they're awful characters. They only take Simba on to use him (a fact that Timon even brings up again in case the audience had forgotten), and the way they treat him like crap. They're never shown as supportive in any way. . . until they magically decide to fight for his kingdom for some reason. Because that makes complete sense with what has been previously established about these two?

The movie's confused narrative comes to a head with Nala's return and Simba's initial "refusal of the call" (Joseph Campbell again). First off, the love story is rushed and unbelievable and serves no purpose whatsoever other than to try to ape the "Whole New World" payoff from Aladdin (without doing any of the work that film did with its romance). But in addition to that, Nala herself is a pointless character - Simba makes no decisions because of her arrival. It's more to do with his encounter with the "mad old hermit" (Campbell!) that leads to him ultimately deciding to return (though even if you cut Rafiki, you still have Ghost Dad giving Simba a talking to). Take Nala out of the movie entirely and the only thing that changes is that Simba is slightly less of a dick by only putting himself in danger when he went to the elephant graveyard as a kid.

And finally, the reason Simba eventually decides to return to Pride Rock? Because it's "his." Not because he feels any responsibility to stop Scar from hurting the people he loves, but because he was born to be the king and so he should go claim his throne. At any point in the film, have any of his actions shown him to be worthy of this title? Has he done even ONE THING to earn the mantle of king? No. But he's the one true king anyway. Because magic blood. Because DESTINY.

Now, contrary to the tone of most of this, I don't hate this film. I think The Lion King is decent enough as children's films go. It is, however, one of the most frustrating films I've ever seen, because I really wish I liked it the way most other people do. I certainly understand why it's so popular - there's comedy, action, towering emotion. There are moments throughout the film that really do work and that I enjoy, and I wish the entire movie clicked that way. I like some of the songs, even if they're not nearly as good or well-integrated as the ones in Mermaid or Beauty ("Be Prepared" is fun, but tells us nothing we don't already know). I dig a rousing romantic adventure, I adore Hans Zimmer's work in the film, the cast is (mostly) spectacular, and I love the films that The Lion King is cribbing notes from. But it simply has no concept of how to properly set up and pay off character and story beats, and its main character is unlikable for most of the film. That's a damned sour combination.

There's a great story in this movie somewhere, but the film-makers didn't seem to know how to tell it.

This sort of "animated movie by committee" - full of celebrity-voiced comic characters and "clever" pop culture humor - also came to define Katzenberg's approach once he started spear-heading Dreamworks Animation, with the same dubious results (with a couple notable exceptions). Side-by-side, it's rather astounding how much The Lion King has in common with mediocre movies like the more execrable Shrek sequels and Madagascar series, especially in focus on celebrity stunt casting and the way it feels the need to pander to an audience.

Because if there's one thing that movies like Walt's own Bambi proved, it's that this sort of pandering is completely unnecessary.

Yeah, I probably ruffled some feathers with that one. But we're only halfway through. The Lion King was the only original animated movie of the Disney Renaissance, but the studio continued to experiment with where they drew (not sorry about that pun at all) their inspiration. In 1995, they adapted an American legend and created one of the most admirable failures in the history of the studio.

1 comment:

  1. Ok I gotta say there are alot of problems with this review. For one you have GREATLY exaggerated Simba. Honestly he isn't nearly as bad as you make him out to be, he's just an adventurous kid who can't wait to be king, but you seem to interpret being a kid as being a brat. Nala is not pointless, she was meant to be Simba's friend and later love interest. The romance was a call back to the first part of the film as Zazu had told Simba and Nala that one day they would be married, and what do ya know, they were. Now I have to ask, did you pay attention to the stampede scene? at the beginning of the scene, Simba was practicing his roar, and just before the stampede he roared very loud. Because of that he thought he caused the stampede and therefore believed he caused his father's death. Now with Timon and Pumba, they may have first appeared selfish but they raised Simba and developed a friendship. And with Simba's change, his father's death deeply traumatized him, and made him lose alot of his "bratty qualities". Topped off with his new carefree lifestyle, he basicly grew out of his childish additude and almost forgot his royal heritage. And while Simba grew up, Scar became childish to show he was unfit as king and that Simba was much better suited for the throne. This is what made the Lion King so popular it challenged it's protaganist and show's his struggle of comming to copes with the guilt of his father's death. And honestly The Lion King is far from a bad movie.