Monday, February 15, 2010

#32: The Lion King (1994)

You may have heard of this one: "The Lion King" was the most successful, well received and most revered of the Disney Renaissance, and tops many peoples' favorites lists. After it, we got spin-off shows, DVD sequels, a highly successful show on Broadway, and IMAX special ultimate edition re-releases. In case you are that dense and don't know the story here, it's sort of like 'Hamlet' but with lions. Young cub Simba can't wait to be king of Pride Rock like his father Mufasa, but unfortunately his jealous uncle Scar wants the throne to himself. So he bumps off the king and convinces Simba that it's his fault and gets him to leave the kingdom. Far off from there Simba meets meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa, a couple of lay-abouts who teach him about living a care-free life. But Simba's past comes back to haunt him, of course, and he must eventually go back to restore his rightful kingdom.
By using a time-honored story and its structure, the film's plot is pretty solid, and the imagery has become iconic Disney; the opening sequence alone has been utilized and parodied many times, even by Disney themselves. This has been a problem in reviewing the studio's most famous movies, that they've become more of staple commodities than actual films, but I'll try to dig deep into what makes the film what it is. Let's start with our lead, Simba, yet another nondescript Disney lead, but he works for what the film requires of him, since two-thirds of the movie is about things happening to him rather him doing anything of it. His father, again as such, is ever ready to give Simba as many bite-sized life lessons he can before he's booted from the film. Timon & Pumbaa, while at first look seem like the obligatory comedic sidekicks, even ascend this by providing a role in the story in distracting Simba from his troubles and giving him the blaze attitude he must shake to reach our inevitable climax. What I've come to understand from these last few films is that it doesn't matter as much if the characters in these films are really developed characters, but it's their fitting within the themes and emotions of the story that counts. Now to me, I don't think that's quite as strong or effective in terms of my personal engagement, which may be why I'm not as won over by these movies as everyone else, but at least I've finally been able to wrap my mind about how these films are able to work so well. It's like your pre-established cogs put into place in a whole new way.
Let me also briefly talk about Scar, which is where I must start to question a bit of a story lapse, particularly since a lot of people think he's one of the finest Disney villains. Now past the "Circle of Life" open, Scar is the first character we see, and he's ever-present for the whole rest of the movie, depicted as an overtly jealous and manipulative bastard. However, establishing his character too early and too clearly robs him a bit of his devious nature, I think. Like when you find out he leads the hyenas, it seems like it was aimed to be a big reveal, but of course all evil works together in Disney. Now Scar, with special thanks to Jeremy Irons, has a very dominant and menacing premise when it counts, like when he ruthlessly throws his brother to his death, but most of the rest I found his aloof, slightly effeminate tendencies to somewhat out of place. Plus there's the matter of all the scenes of his new regime: he becomes king and the hyenas basically scare off all the other animals, leaving the land desolate and barren. The lions plead with him that they have to move on since there's no food, but Scar bitches and complains. His goal was to be king, but after that... not so clear. Maybe it's revealing of his unflinching arrogance that he didn't give a shit about how he ruled, just that he DID rule, but it kind of makes him a less intimidating villain to me that he uses his power just to loaf around and watch his people suffer. If he took some particular masochistic enjoyment from the suffering then sure, but not the case here.
So enough villain bitching; I'm very thankful that this movie used more than two colors. While I wouldn't consider it as lush as your Disney classics, I appreciated the variance of colors and motifs used: yellow Pride Rock, gray elephant graveyard, greens and browns in the jungle area, blues for Rafiki, and of course reds for the final battle. Though a lot of them are pretty bright and primary, most seem to be aesthetically pleasing, although at times they push it too far: the "Just Can't Wait to Be King" is a stylized number, which basically means let's make all the objects and background bright abrasive colors. Primary purple hippos! Primary yellow giraffes! It was like a technicolor nightmare. But anyway, one more thing I must take issue with is the moral, or rather the overtness of it. As I mentioned before, "Beast" was the first Disney film to utilize a script, and I'm noticing that these films are not only getting more talky, but their morals are a lot more spelled out. Over and over Simba repeats how he can't talk about his mistakes and he has to go back and face his past and fulfill his destiny or some shit. As with "Aladdin," there's a lot of blatantly saying the moral center through dialogue. Think about it, what if in "Up" Carl just flat out said, "I have to stop living in the past and of my dead wife! I have to live a new adventure today and move on!" It'd be real shitty. Instead, we have the absolutely astonishing photo album scene that tells us everything we need to know just from the visuals. That scene is more powerful than could ever be just spoken with dialogue, and Disney's done a fair share of this kind of stuff in the past, from the Queen in Snow White's intense glares to a lot of the dogs in "Lady and the Tramp." Plus saying the moral aloud makes these feel like afternoon educational specials. I mean, come on man, I'm watching a movie.
Verdict? Yeah, so that concludes what I call the big Four ("Mermaid," "Beast," "Aladdin" and this), the so-called high end of the Disney Renaissance, and also as I've seen are all every similar in scope and tone. They're all brightly colored, have somewhat heavy stories, wacky sidekicks and highly structured stories with explicit morals. Disney would go on with this formula past this of course, but these four are your modern day classics. As for this one, I'd say it falls in the middle. The story was pretty intense but I think the characters didn't step up to support it (Matthew Broderick felt a bit wavy as adult Simba); however the striking visuals and memorable songs at least make this a very entertaining 80 minutes. So I put "Beauty" on top, then this, then "Aladdin," then "Mermaid". Man am I tired. Let's close the book on this one and move on, eh?

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