Combustible Celluloid
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With: Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly, Niketa Calame, Ernie Sabella, Nathan Lane, Robert Guillaume, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings, Madge Sinclair
Written by: Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton, etc.
Directed by: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 89
Date: 06/15/1994

The Lion King (1994)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Hakuna Matata

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Lion King is probably, without much doubt, the most popular and beloved of all Disney animated films. But I am not one of its biggest fans. Of the fifty or so Disney animated features, I'd rank it somewhere in the middle. I saw it only once, in 1994, and just now saw it a second time for its 2017 Blu-ray release (the "Circle of Life" edition). I'd agree that it's beautiful, and frankly, hard to dislike. But before I get going, let me explain.

In 1992, Aladdin was released, which contained the last of the songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. This amazing team had done all the songs for both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and were partly, if not largely, responsible for the resurrection of Disney's empire. Their songs were funny and lively, playful and catchy. Ashman tragically died, leaving behind only a couple of finished Aladdin songs. To replace him, Disney hired Tim Rice, which is a little like hiring Kenny G. to replace Miles Davis. Rice's soft, twittering songs clashed sharply with Ashman's jubilant ones, and that was perhaps Aladdin's biggest shortcoming.

Inexplicably, or perhaps, explicably, given that Rice's "A Whole New World" won the Oscar, Disney hired him again, this time to do an entire score for their next movie, The Lion King, along with -- head-scratchingly -- Elton John. The songs they came up with, including a trio of Oscar nominees, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," "Circle of Life," and "Hakuna Matata," are adored to this day, but hardly a match for even one of Ashman's lesser tunes.

Then, a personal thing. For me, seeing the new Disney movie was part of a tradition. We'd see them at Christmastime, which felt just right. It was a time for innocence, family, kindness, etc. It was a time to cuddle together against the cold for some warmth. So, for some reason, Disney decided to open The Lion King in June, a time for road trips away from family, playing outside in the sunshine, etc. As I went to see it, my whole body seemed to be protesting. "But this is the wrong time!"

So, yes. I had two chips on my shoulder before the movie even started. Now I have seen it again, and I'm giving it a pass. It features some very tight, simple storytelling, with gorgeous use of colors and spaces, and shapes. Scar (voiced by Jeremy Irons) is a terrific villain, perhaps one of Disney's best. Its flaws are not serious. I can't help thinking that it's a bit on the noble side, not quite as loose or as playful as other Disney films. It's certainly not as beautiful as Bambi, as laid-back as The Jungle Book, or as exciting as Tarzan, a few films with which it shares some similarities.

In fact, it's a little rigid, a little stiff. Its funny scenes are never quite hilarious and its touching scenes never really get the tear ducts going. But maybe this is the secret to its enormous popularity; maybe it's because it's so middle-of-the-road that it appeals to so many people. If it were even the slightest bit edgy or subversive, it would alienate a portion of its large fan base. That could be it, or maybe I'm just a stick-in-the-mud, and I don't get it. Whatever. "Hakuna Matata."

The 2017 "Circle of Life" Blu-ray edition is glorious in both picture and sound, no question. It includes a Blu-ray, a DVD, and a digital copy as well as "limited edition film frames" inside the box. Extras, many of which were produced for previous editions, include a commentary track by producer Don Hahn and co-directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, a "blooper" reel (animated to the actors' flubbed line readings!), a conversation between Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, and the "sing-a-long" version of the film, many other featurettes, and more.

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