Well, for the past few weeks on Fishing in the Discount Bin, I've been plowing through several of Disney's classics from the Disney Renaissance. Looking through my notes, this stretch ends with The Lion King. This is in my notes at October 4, 2015.
As I mentioned when I started this, the Disney Renaissance represented a whole new generation of animators being turned loose to show what they can do. That's why I think things kinda leveled off with Pocahontas. The new generation found their groove and settled into it. But for those first four, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, they felt like the could do anything...and they did. And nowhere is this more apparent than in The Lion King.
The Lion King had the added benefit of being the plucky underdog. As has been widely documented by now, no one in the Disney studios wanted to work on The Lion King. All hopes were being pinned on Pocahontas as being their next prestige picture. As one of the producers on the DVD bonus material points out, The Lion King had been given the derisive nickname of "Bamblet," because it was dismissed as just being Bambi mixed with Hamlet. And we won't go into the more-than-passing resemblance it has to legendary manga Kimba the White Lion. And because it was looked down on so much, that made everyone involved in the production just try harder.
Of the big four, this is the only one I've had the pleasure of seeing in the theatre twice. The first time I saw it was in June of 1994, just as school let out for that year. For kicking ass on our report cards, Mom wanted to take us into the city to treat us to a movie. I wanted to see The Shadow. My sister wanted to see The Lion King. So my mother said, "Why not both?" and we saw both that day. I remember showing up in the theatre. We were there early, and the earlier showing of The Lion King was still playing. There were a few mothers with their toddlers out in the lobby, as the very loud surround sound was spooking the youngsters.
The second time I saw it in theatres was that Christmas. In a brilliant marketing strategy, Disney actually pulled The Lion King out of theatres in August of 1994, and then re-released it to theatres in November of 1994. It was the quickest re-release in Disney history. Anyway, over Christmas vacation, it was showing at the Cardium...the good ol' one-screen small town movie theatre in Drayton Valley. My sister and a bunch of her friends wanted to go down to Drayton to see it again. I had just gotten my driver's license and my mother, no doubt wanting a few hours of peace during the stressful Christmas season, said, "Would you mind taking them?" So I did. The big selling point of that re-release was, before it, they were showing the entire Colors of the Wind sequence from Pocahontas. Ah, yes, the entire ad campaign for Pocahontas was, "If you thought The Lion King was good, then Pocahontas WILL BLOW YOUR MIND!" And it didn't.
But showing the entire musical sequence was a marketing tactic that worked for The Lion King. I forget what movie I saw in late-1993 or early-1994, but I remember seeing the first trailer for The Lion King. And for that first trailer, they showed the entire complete, uncut, Circle of Life sequence. And my reaction to seeing that for the first time was, "Duuuuuuude."
I mean, talk about a film that starts with a bang. The sun rising over the African savanna, the beautiful singing. Fun trivia fact: he's singing out, "Look out! Here comes a lion!" Alan Menken, who composed the songs for the first three of the big four, finally took a break, so lyricist Tim Rice said, "Hey...how about Elton John?" John said yes, and the rest is history. So many great songs, from those opening bars of The Circle of Life to the joy of I Just Can't Wait to be King, and the requisite love ballad Can You Feel the Love Tonight?
And to bring in the score...Hans Zimmer, another composer at the top of his game. As I've said about Zimmer recently, it seems as though in the mid-90s he discovered the strings setting on his synthesizers and never looked back. This was just before that happened, and he delivers a great orchestral score mixed with traditional African music...but some of that modern Zimmer is seeping in, especially in the final climactic fight of Simba vs. Scar.
And such great character work, too. Like Timon and Pumbaa, being some of the most memorable sidekicks in Disney history. I remember, at the time, my mother likening them to a Disneyfied Ren and Stimpy. Tiny skinny hyperactive one...big fat moronic one. It's an easy allusion to make. And the hyenas...another fun trivia fact. To voice the hyenas, they'd hoped to reunite Cheech and Chong on the big screen. They'd already hired Cheech Marin, and since Cheech and Chong were going through one of those patches where they were refusing to work with each other, Tommy Chong passed when he heard Cheech had already signed on. And then, Whoopi Goldberg called, saying she'd love to do a voice in Disney's next animated film. And the rest is history.
James Earl Jones as Mufasa. Jeremy Irons as Scar. Rowan Atkinson, who was just becoming famous for Mr. Bean, as Zazu. Such an amazing voice cast they were able to put together.
And let's talk about the death of Mufasa...the death that traumatized the millennials as much as the death of Bambi's mom traumatized the baby boomers. (I'm Gen X...the animated death that traumatized me was Optimus Prime.) According to the running commentary, one of the most heated debate about that scene was if and how much blood they should show. Ultimately, they didn't. But still. Mufasa's pleading to Scar, only for Scar to respond with a chilling "Long live the king" before throwing Mufasa to his death and Simba curling up to his father's body, pleading for his father to make up. No blood was needed, because of how it was shot and staged and the line readings...it all makes it such a beautifully tense and emotional scene.
And the wildebeest stampede that triggers they whole thing. It was largely computer animated, and new software had to be written to do it. Back in those days, there was a minimum of three technical innovations per film, and that stampede was the most notable for The Lion King.
I really don't know what more to say. The Lion King finally and fully put Disney back at the top of the animation mountain. Like Simba in the film, the climbed to the top of Pride Rock and let out that mighty roar, proclaiming that they were the king. And the Nine Old Men of yore looked down like Mufasa and smiled.
It was a good time for animation.