For my money, The Lion King takes the silver medal during Disney's "Second Golden Age" of the 1990s. Though it doesn't break any company formulas, it sure is a fun ride for kids of all ages: full of great characters, catchy songs and absolutely jaw-dropping animation, this African-themed adventure remains one of the best family films since its release. Owing a great deal to Japan's Kimba the White Lion and Disney classics like Bambi, our story follows young Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and later by Matthew Broderick) on his journey towards adulthood. After the death of his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) at the hands of his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons), the young cub runs away from his home in Pride Rock, guilt-tripped into thinking he was partially responsible. Simba's time away from home allows him to mature...and eventually, gather the courage to face his fears. Together with new friends Timon the meerkat (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa the warthog (Ernie Sabella), Simba eventually returns to Pride Rock to reclaim his father's place as leader. You know, 'cause of "The Circle of Life" and all that.
From top to bottom, The Lion King is a visual tour de force. First-timer Roger Allers (who also wrote the musical adaptation and drew storyboards for every Disney animated film from Oliver and Company through Aladdin) was joined in the director's chair by Rob Minkoff, whose only previous directing credit was a pair of Roger Rabbit shorts. Producer Don Hahn was also a Disney veteran, having produced Beauty and the Beast and associate produced Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Their visual efforts---in addition to the countless character animators, background artists and more---capture our attention in ways that words simply can't. Perhaps the film's most visually ambitious sequence is the computer-assisted "wildebeest stampede", developed over a period of nearly three years. The Lion King was only Disney's fourth film to successfully utilize portions of CG animation, following The Little Mermaid's "Staircase", Beauty and the Beast's Pixar-assisted "Ballroom Dance" and Aladdin's "Cave of Wonders" sequences.
Of course, most of Disney's "Second Golden Age" animated films are also remembered for their songs, and The Lion King has no shortage of terrific music. Lyricist Tim Rice, who also co-wrote songs for Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, was joined by Elton John; the pair contributed five original songs which bookend many of the film's most memorable scenes. A sixth song, "Morning Report", was never used during the film's original run but was added to The Lion King's musical adaptation and subsequent home video releases. Rice and John's award-winning work---along with Hans Zimmer's excellent score---anchors The Lion King's popular soundtrack, cemented further by the musical adaptation's longevity.
The Lion King spawned two direct-to-video sequels in 1998 and 2004, which are also new to Blu-Ray as part of a massive boxed set...but today's review only focuses on the original and best. An
optional 3D release is also available, supplemented by a theatrical re-release that's still going strong. In any case, this "Diamond Edition" release looks to maintain the high standard set by last year's excellent Beauty and the Beast package...and for the most part, it succeeds.
ADDENDUM 10/3/11 - Upon a second viewing today, I noticed one small change to The Lion King that's entirely new to this Blu-Ray release. Remember the controversy a few years back about this nonsense? Well, it looks as if Disney buckled under the pressure and trimmed the "offending" sequence by roughly two seconds. This edit is barely noticeable (at least not enough to change my overall ratings or recommendation), but it's definitely worth pointing out before the official release date.
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio (opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1), The Lion King practically leaps off the screen at every conceivable moment. The film's color palette often favors warmth, but the image never feels over-saturated: this is simply a vivid, jaw-dropping effort that easily rivals last year's Beauty and the Beast Blu-Ray. Black levels are solid from start to finish, digital problems are non-existent and the film's crisp character designs are rendered in fantastic detail. Die-hard fans have every reason to be excited about this release, because there won't be a better-looking animated Blu-Ray this year.
Bad puns aside, this DTS-HD Master Audio track is a lion-sized effort. The film's occasional action
sequences and memorable music cues burst to life from all directions, while the subwoofer is given
plenty to do as well. Channel separation is solid, dialogue is extremely crisp and the film's strong
atmosphere is preserved perfectly. From start to finish, this crystal-clear audio presentation is an equal match to the reference-quality visuals. Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are provided in French and Spanish, while optional English, Spanish, French and English SDH subtitles are also offered during the main feature.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
This Diamond Edition definitely beats Beauty and the Beast in one category, hands-down: the menu interface is much less complicated and annoying. The 89-minute film has been divided into just under two dozen chapters, no obvious layer change was detected and this release appears to be locked for Region "A" players only. The two-disc package is housed in a dual-hubbed keepcase; also included is a handful of inserts and a handsome embossed slipcover. As usual, it's a pretty package that gets the job done.
A number of HD features have been created specifically for this release, beginning with "Pride of The Lion King"
(39 minutes). This behind-the-scenes documentary gathers up members of the cast and crew including former Disney Chairman Jeff Katzenberg, composer Hans Zimmer, producer Don Hahn, co-directors Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff and more. It's a bit more fast and loose than last year's exhaustive Beauty and the Beast
documentary, but fans should really enjoy this feature from start to finish.
On a similar note is "The Lion King: A Memoir" (21 minutes), featuring Don Hahn's retrospective thoughts on the film's development, production and lasting impact. Hahn fans may also want to check out his directorial debut, Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary about the company's "Second Golden Age" (available separately, of course). Either way, this one's a real highlight.
Next up are two never-before-seen extras: a collection of five Deleted Scenes with co-director introduction and a short Animated Gag Reel (apparently created for this release). The former is nothing mind-blowing, but definitely worth a look. The latter? Well, it's of very little interest and will probably only be watched once...unless you're part of the younger crowd, of course.
Our last new extra is "Disney Second Screen", an app for your computer or iPad that syncs the film with additional bonus content including games, early production art and more.
Our next collection of bonus features was originally part of the 2-Disc Platinum DVD, but it returns in HD format when applicable. This collection includes an Audio Commentary with Hahn, Allers and Minkoff; the extended "Morning Report" sequence; a rather lengthy Art Gallery; the kid-friendly Sing-Along Mode and a collection of Trailers. Unfortunately, the trailer for the main feature is not included.
Finally, other notable extras from the DVD are advertised on the package...but unfortunately, they won't be accessible to all viewers. Originally introduced on the Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 Blu-Rays, this "Virtual Vault" grants access to these extras via BD-Live...and this is a pretty bone-headed move, if you ask me. It's not as if standard-def extras take up loads of disc space, and Beauty and the Beast's Blu-Ray thankfully avoids this pitfall. In any case, these features include "The Making of 'The Morning Report'" (above left), three Additional Deleted Scenes, a collection of "Stage, Film, Story and Musical Journey" featurettes (above right), Elton John's "Circle of Life" Music Video, a brief Film-to-Storyboard Comparison, two short Demo Sequences and an Unfinished Scene. Don't get me wrong: it's better to have these extras in the "Virtual Vault" than not at all...but if you're not rigged for BD-Live, tough luck.
Oh, and let's not forget the bonus DVD Copy tucked inside as well, which also includes the Don Hahn featurette listed above. Odd that nothing else made it over (why not include some of those "virtual" extras?), but I'd imagine most folks just want this for portable film viewing or the rec room.
With the exception of the BD-Live content, all bonus features are HD and presented in a mixture of aspect ratios. Overall, this a solid collection but the "Vault" nonsense knocks it down a peg.
The Lion King is still the highest-grossing 2-D animated film of all time...and though it's not Disney's best, it's still a shining example of family entertainment done right. The film's stunning visuals and memorable music outpace the rather formulaic story, resulting in a terrific crowd-pleaser that's much more than the sum of its parts. Disney's "Diamond Edition" is worth every penny, serving up a reference-quality technical presentation and a whole herd of terrific extras (which sadly, aren't all contained on the disc itself). Die-hard fans undoubtedly have this on pre-order already, but everyone else should consider The Lion King a worthy addition to your collection. Very, very Highly Recommended.
NOTE: The above screen captures were obtained from the Collector's Edition DVD and do not represent Blu-Ray image quality.
Randy Miller III is an office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA who does freelance graphic design, teaches art classes at a local gallery and runs a website or two in his spare time. He also enjoys slacking off, telling lame jokes and writing stuff in third person.