A grand, epic experience that I still remember seeing in the theater back in 1994, "The Lion King" remains one of Disney's most commerical animated features, causing a worldwide sensation upon release. A film that blends humor, heartbreak and drama beautifully, "The Lion King" sticks with both young and old, who can both find something to enjoy in the film's memorable tale.
The first Disney animated feature to not be taken from a prior story, "Lion King" is instead inspired by several sources, including "Hamlet". The film focuses on Simba, a young lion cub who is the son of Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and, as such, the heir to the throne of King of the jungle. However, not everyone is so pleased; Simba's uncle, Scar (Jeremy Irons) had previously sought out the throne for himself. Assisted by a pack of bumbling hyenas, Scar sets out to steal himself Simba's place and send the young cub into the wilds, carrying the belief that he was responsible for his father's death.
Joined by the pairing of a meerkat and warthog (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella), Simba sets out to confront his feelings of guilt and learn about the responsibilities that face him as he enters into adulthood. Warned by lioness Nala (Moira Kelly) of Scar's plans, Simba begins the trek back to reclaim his rightful place on the throne.
Although the shift had begun slightly towards computer animation (some computer assistance was used in "Lion King"), this film offers some of the most remarkable hand-drawn animation in studio history, with impressive detail and depth to the vast scenes on the African plains. Otherwise, Elton John and Tim Rice's songs are generally quite memorable (especially the opener, "Circle of Life") and Hans Zimmer provides an African/tribal-themed score that provides atmosphere, tone and heightens the emotions of many scenes.
The actors providing the voices also do fine work. I'm still not entirely sure if Matthew Broderick was a commanding enough presence as the voice of adult Simba, but he creates an involving character. Jonathan Taylor Thomas capably plays both the energetic curiosity, guilt, humor and drama of Simba. Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella make what could have seemed like toy-ready sidekicks into characters that are wonderfully memorable. Last, but certainly not least, Jeremy Irons turns Scar into a classic Disney villian and one of the more believably threatening in an animated feature.
Overall, "The Lion King" is certainly one of Disney's classic features and has arrived with quite a DVD presentation. Viewers will be very pleased with the audio/video quality, although the extras could have been more detailed and presented in a more organized fashion. Viewers can also choose to watch the film with or without the new song, "Morning Report".
VIDEO: "The Lion King" is presented here in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer is also THX-Certified. The picture is pretty much everything I'd expected for the film's DVD release and more. The image quality is truly marvelous, with stellar definition and detail, giving the picture a level of depth and clarity that just delights.
The transfer is essentially without flaw. The print used is in exceptional condition, with no specks, marks or other debris. Edge enhancement does not appear, nor do any instances of pixelation. Colors are presented in outstanding fashion, with a rich, vibrant and well-saturated appearance that is stunning.
SOUND: "The Lion King" is presented here with both the film's original Dolby Digital 5.1 theatrical mix and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix for home theaters. While the listing of a new "home theater" mix might lead one to expect minor changes, this new mix seems like more of a major reworking to bring the soundtrack up to the kind of standards one might expect from today's films than simply something minorly retooled for DVD. This new presentation was handled by Terry Porter, the film's original sound re-recording mixer, who has had a long career working on the soundtracks for many movies ("Little Mermaid", "Lilo and Stitch" and the restoration of "Fantasia").
Considering the fact that the original soundtrack is nearly ten years old, it stands up pretty well. A highly regarded mix, the old soundtrack is fairly aggressive with the music and boasts a decent dynamic range. However, one gets the feeling that the low bass doesn't go as deep as it could and potential instances of surround use don't occur, both likely because the filmmakers thought that both might frighten younger viewers.
Some may want to check out the older mix, but the newly completed 5.1 "home theater" mix is certainly more optimal in just about every aspect. In the new 5.1 presentation, the surrounds are put to exceptional use to deliver ambience, creatures flying/running by and other major/minor effects. In other words, the new audio presentation extends the action further out into the listening space where the prior mix only offered minor envelopment. Apparently, no new elements were recorded for this sound mix, but the existing sound effects were repurposed into a more immersive experience. Both the score and songs also seem to be pulled further out into the room, as well.
Aside from being more aggressive in terms of surround use, the new sound mix also boasts noticably increased dynamic range, with crisper highs and considerably deeper low end. Stampedes or the footfalls of the heavier animals are now thunderous. Hans Zimmer's score also now boasts more impact and the film's audio as a whole wraps the viewer up in the emotions of the story more than it did previously. More about the new sound mix can be found in the "sound design" featurette located on the second disc.
Commentary: This is the main supplement on the first disc and includes discussion from participants director Rob Minkoff, director Roger Allers and producer Don Hahn. The three have been recorded together and deliver an absolutely entertaining track. The three have a great deal of fun and freely joke about some of the situations in the film and stories from the production. While they do make an effort to keep things light and fun, they still manage to offer a superb amount of information, talking about concept designs, recording with the actors, deleted or changed elements and the animation production process. They don't go too "technical" and when they do, they almost always define what they're talking about and overall, really cover a remarkable amount of ground in the 90 minutes. The audio commentary can be turned on via the audio set-up menu.
Elephant Graveyard: 3 deleted/alternate scenes, including alternate versions of "Can You Feel The Love Tonight?" and "Hakuna Matata".
Tree Of Life: "Circle of Life" music vid, "making of" featurette for the music video and sing-along soundtrack for the film's tunes during the feature.
Grasslands: A "making of" featurette for the newly included song, "Morning Report", and a "Personality Profile" game.
Also: 2 additional interactive games and sneak previews for "Lion King 1 1/2" (Yes, I'm serious.), "Brother Bear", "Sleeping Beauty", "Finding Nemo", "Santa Clause 2", "Mary Poppins: Special Edition", "Walt Disney World" and "George of the Jungle 2".
DISC 2: Disc 2 is a little confusing, as it offers both tours via "continents" (different continents offering a different - although often similar - set of supplements) and via a series of menus at the bottom that offer more specific titles ("film", "music", etc.) Some things are repeated in the other set of sections and other menus, while others are not. The set-up of these menus is rather frustrating and unnecessary.
Rather than trying to sort everything out, I'm simply going to list what can be found on this second disc. Given the organization and repetition across the menus, I may miss one or two items, but will try to provide a complete list. As for the featurettes themselves, I suppose that, all put together, they do provide a fairly good look at the making of this feature. However, nothing here goes truly in-depth into the production process the way that some other animated "Special Editions" have done in recent years. Hopefully, Disney will move away from offering information in these sets in bite-sized chunks and go back to more long-form documentaries that take us step-by-step through the long process of bringing these films to the screen. Also a surprise is that the voice talent doesn't participate here.
Leaps of Fantasy: This is a brief featurette on translating the "Lion King" into dance for the stage version.
Multi-Language Reel: This is a familiar supplement with animated films, where we get to see one scene ("Hakuna Matata", in this case) transition from language to different language, covering many of the different ones in which "Lion King" was translated to. An odd addition is the ability to view each country's "favorite scene" - not quite sure how they came to a conclusion on those.
International Release: This is a short featurette that talks about casting vocal talent for dubbing Disney animated features into other languages.
Galleries: Stage musical gallery, international soundtrack covers and international large format advertising.
Sound Design: Buried within the "North America" section under the "Burbank" subsection is this featurette, which visits with both producer Don Hahn and sound re-recording mixer Terry Porter, who discuss their intentions with both the more conservative original sound mix and the updated 5.1 presentation, which, we find out here, is a modified version of the large format sound mix that was done for the IMAX release earlier this year.
Story: This section offers three featurettes - one on the origins and concepts behind the story, one on the story themes and one on the meetings and pitches the writers and artists had to do as part of the process. All three are only a few minutes long.
Origins: Disney executives and the filmmakers discuss - quite humorously - how everyone involved thought that absolutely no one would want to see this movie and how "Lion King" was really just sort of a B-picture in comparison to the "A" project of "Pocahontas".
African Art Influence: This featurette has the filmmakers discussing how they integrated a suitable landscape to bring out the scale and beauty of Africa.
Production Research Trip: This featurette has the filmmakers chatting about the trip to Africa for research on the film and the effect that the trip had both on their work and their lives.
Reflections: Filmmakers and Disney executives share their feelings about the phenomenon that "The Lion King" has become. While it's not terribly informative, the featurette is genuine and emotional.
Storyboard Process: Directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers discuss the process of storyboarding scenes and pitching them to the rest of the staff.
Computer Animation: This short piece goes into the main stampede sequence, and how each of the beasts were created and controlled, with computers programmed to keep the hundreds of digital beasts from running into and/or through each other.
Early Concepts: Early versions of "Timon and Pumbaa find Simba" and "Simba's Presentation". An "early presentation reel" is also included, with an introduction from producer Don Hahn.
Abandoned Scene: "Warthog Rhapsody".
Design: Production design and character design featurettes, as well as a film character design gallery are included on the second page of the "Film" section.
Musical Origins: This piece discusses the opening of the "Lion King" stage play on Broadway, after the success of "Beauty and the Beast". Elton John, Tim Rice, filmmakers and Disney execs discuss the reasoning and skepticism behind the transition from film to stage. I have not seen the stage play, but was lucky enough to see a museum exhibit a few years ago that offered props and other elements from director Julie Taymor's work ("Lion King" on stage, "Titus" and others) that was stunning.
Stage to Screen: This goes further into the process of trying to adapt "Lion King" for the stage; "Beauty and the Beast" was already a finer "play" than "Lion King", so it was up to the imagination (and quite an imagination it is) of Julie Taymor to try and turn this into a theatrical experience that does justice to the film and its themes.
Musical Texture: This piece discusses how the music was emphasized by Julie Taymor in the stage version to try and capture the feeling of Africa that the movie achieved.
Setting the Stage: This featurette offers a look at the team who created the set, costume and prop design for the stage show.
Music Inspiration: Hans Zimmer, Tim Rice and Elton John talk about their inspirations for the music in the film, as well as the importance of the tone and feel of the music in capturing the spirit of Africa. As mentioned in the commentary, the dialogue in the opening scene was dropped in order to highlight "Circle of Life", which served as a much more powerful and dramatic opener, while still giving the audience an idea of what's to come.
Landmark Songwriting: This piece discusses how the film was originally not intended to be a musical until Tim Rice and Elton John joined the project.
Orchestral Color: This piece has Hans Zimmer discussing how the film finally took shape as a musical and the role of the orchestra in the music. An interesting note mid-featurette is also that the film was originally called "King of the Jungle".
Scoring Emotion: This piece has composer Hans Zimmer discussing how he created themes in the score and his challenge of seeing the animals as humans and reflecting their joys and sorrows in the score in a similar manner as if they were humans.
Also in "Music": Featurette on the African influence in the film's music, piece about the awards notice for the music and music videos for "Hakuna Matata", "Can You Feel The Love Tonight?" and "Circle of Life".
Also on Disc 2: Storyboard-to-film comparison for the opening sequence (found under the "Glendale" sub-section of the "North America" section; featurettes on the different animals involved, an art design gallery, animal kingdom park/lodge promos, featurette on Disney and animals and a "Virtual Safari" interactive game with the Timon and Pumbaa characters. The trailer for "Lion King 1 1/2", which I believe is going direct-to-video early next Spring, also makes a return appearance here.
Final Thoughts: "The Lion King" finally gets a release on DVD and certainly, I have no problems giving this release my highest recommendation. It's an excellent movie and Disney has obviously taken a great effort to present the film here with the finest possible audio and video quality on DVD. However, the extras - once one actually finds all them, given the rather unorganized menus for the second disc - just don't dig as deep into the production as I would have liked to have seen. It's hinted that "Lion King" wasn't the priority when it first entered production, which is something I would have liked to hear more fully about - greater detail about those early moments and how it progressed into something much grander than anyone expected. Still, the supplements included do offer a pretty good amount of information and should prove interesting to most fans of the film.