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Review: The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King (1994)

Directed by: Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Premise: An animated Disney feature. Set in the plains of Africa, lion cub Simba is to inherit the kingship from his father but Simba’s uncle Scar plots to overthrow the king and take the throne.

What Works: Family films are sometimes regarded with disparagement by critics and other supposed fans of cinema. Like most things intended to appeal to the general public, movies that are made with family audiences in mind are viewed condescendingly. Sometimes the makers of family movies bring this on themselves by making lightweight fluff but there is no reason why movies considered to be suitable for general audiences cannot simultaneously be highly entertaining and substantive. The Lion King is impressive in large part because the film tells a story that is as complicated and dramatic as many so-called “grown up” movies and it’s able to mix dramatic storytelling with the fun of a Disney animated feature. In its early heyday, Walt Disney Animation Studio had a reputation for making family pictures with substance and that dealt with challenging issues of growing up. But contemporary animated movies are frequently too safe; if Bambi were made today it is unlikely that Disney or any other Hollywood animation studio would allow the mother to die. By comparison, The Lion King takes a lot of risks. This film has some traumatic moments and in which Simba, its lead character, must face mortality and betrayal. The Lion King deals with mature and complex themes as Simba copes with loss and guilt and he must choose whether to live out his life in hiding or face his responsibilities. That’s the stuff of great stories. For an animated movie of this type The Lion King does not shy away from the violence. Its heroes are put in serious peril, and forced to fight back, making the characters truly heroic. While it does the dramatic aspects very well, The Lion King also has the fun that viewers expect from a Disney animated feature and it balances the mature content with a sense of fun and adventure. The music score was composed by Hans Zimmer with songs by Tim Rice and Elton John and The Lion King features one of the last great soundtracks from a Disney animated feature. Quite a few songs of this film are among the most popular hits of Disney’s songbook such as “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata.” The filmmakers of The Lion King use their music well; aside from putting on a show, the songs are used to advance character and plot and so they serve multiple story functions while entertaining the audience.

What Doesn’t: The Lion King’s maturity and its attempt to address difficult life issues runs afoul when the filmmakers try to incorporate ideas about “the circle of life.” The lions of the movie acknowledge that they eat the animals of the plains and the filmmakers establish a predator-prey relationship between certain species. But these predator-prey relationships are cast aside for the animals to engage in comedy, friendship, and dance numbers. Only the villains of the film are ever seen eating red meat or gnawing on bones although insects and other creepy crawlers are consumed without hesitation by the heroes. The filmmakers try to have it both ways and they seem to understand this problem; at one point Timon, a meerkat (voice of Nathan Lane), points out the contradiction. Yes, The Lion King is a fable and a family film and it’s understandable why the filmmakers anthropomorphize certain animals and not others. Nevertheless, this film has a fundamental hiccup at the center of it; The Lion King entertains the idea of the “circle of life” but the film is compromised by an unwillingness to fully acknowledge the true disposition of animals in a state of nature.

DVD extras: The Diamond Edition release includes a 3D blu-ray disc, a 2D blu-ray disc, a DVD edition, and a digital copy as well as a commentary track, featurettes, deleted scenes, image galleries, and trailers. 

Bottom Line: The Lion King remains one of the standard bearers among Walt Disney Animation Studio’s feature films. Because of the mainstream popularity of Elton John’ pop songs the movie has a reputation for being juvenile but The Lion King has a lot in it that is surprisingly mature and intelligent and it’s a film that shows family movies can deal with difficult topics.

Episode: #508 (September 14, 2014)