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As if we weren’t already convinced of its popularity, Disney’s The Lion King just pulled in another eighty bazillion dollars in the American box office, where it stood victorious over new releases for two weeks in a row despite being 17 years old. Sure, it had been studiously readjusted to work in digital 3D, but this is still a pretty remarkable achievement. It’s likely little coincidence that 17 years is about the perfect amount of time for the children that were most obsessed with the film when it was originally released to have wee ones of their own. Those Disney folks are all kinds of clever.

 Lion King: Diamond Edition, The, Blu-ray
 Lion King: Diamond Edition, The, DVD
Sadly I’ve never quite felt the same connection with The Lion King as the vast majority of humanity. And because I’m willing to go out on a limb, and assume that everyone reading this has already developed an iron clad opinion on this subject I’m going to go ahead and write this particular review from a particularly personal point of view. I’ve long suspected that my cool feelings towards The Lion King was a form of weird nostalgia. Quite often our memories of a time surrounding our first viewing of a film colour our future feelings, but I never had any specifically negative experiences with The Lion King, just an enduring lack of interest. In 1994 I had just entered high school, discovered punk rock, and was desperately trying to put away childish things. This clearly didn’t happen, as anyone who knows me will verify I never successfully stopped reading comic book and watching cartoons, but The Lion King was a juggernaut at a time I was making a concerted effort to hate popular, childish things, so it ended up taking up an uncommon amount of my negative energy. Well, negative energy isn’t quite the right term. My memories of this time are actually quite positive, so the purposeful ignoring of The Lion King phenomenon (I never saw it in theaters) feeds into a sense of sentimentality. I’ve tried to overcome this ‘reverse nostalgia’ over the years, since it clearly makes no critical sense, but still haven’t been able to appreciate The Lion King as much more than a technical achievement. A monumental technical achievement that changed the face of film animation, but a technical achievement alone.

I’ve also had problems overcoming the controversies that arose just after the film was first released. The Lion King represented the apex of an unprecedented five year run for Disney animation, following the studio saving  efforts of The Little Mermaid, the critical prestige of Beauty and the Beast, and the cultural phenomenon of Aladdin. During this early ‘90s rush of Disney-mania someone, somewhere stumbled upon the fact that The Lion King had an awful lot in common with Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion comic series, which was adapted into a Japanese animated series and film in the ‘60s. There was (and is) plenty of evidence to assume that The Lion King actually began life as a Kimba adaptation, which spurred Disney to state that the similarities were coincidental, and that the filmmakers were inspired by Hamlet, and the Old Testament, which just created more problems for detractors, as the film had been proudly promoted as an original story. The studio and creator’s unproven dishonesty forever taints the bedrock of my memories of the film.

 Lion King: Diamond Edition, The, Blu-ray
 Lion King: Diamond Edition, The, DVD
There is no denying that the opening sequence is one of modern filmdom’s most indelible series of images. Very few animated sequences have the power to emotionally overwhelm the viewer, and even fewer can do it without any proper narrative context. There’s also no denying that there are few animated films more simply, visually beautiful than The Lion King. These images are so engrained in our collective cinematic memories that the real Sarengetti somehow looks wrong in comparison these days. But despite the remarkable vocal performances, and some cracking dialogue (well, when it’s not swimming in pseudo-mysticism), a lot of the magic is driven away from the majesty of the images the minute characters start talking. Suddenly we’re in a human melodrama, not a primal opera. The character animation is still top notch, and I wouldn’t trade Jeremy Irons’ astonishing performance for anything (‘Long live the King’ still gives me chills), but what works so well for most viewers (the humanistic angle) leaves me cold following the rush of those first four and a half minutes. I’ve also never been particularly fond of Timon and Pumbaa (they aren’t quite obnoxious, but they aren’t really funny either), or Simba and Nala’s romantic subplot, so the middle section sinks further from the promise set by the pre-credit sequence. By the time the more dramatic, abstract, and expressionistic climax arrives I’ve usually lost interest, and the emotional swell of the final images (which mirror the pre-credit sequence) falls short.

 Lion King: Diamond Edition, The, Blu-ray
 Lion King: Diamond Edition, The, DVD

Video


As I’m assuming you all expected Disney has pulled out every single stop in resurfacing this particularly well-traveled street. This wasn’t just a clean-up for the purposes of a 1080p Blu-ray release, Disney was prepping a 3D theatrical re-release of their most popular 2D animated film. The remastering process is laughingly referred to as ‘Disney Enhanced’. Whatever that means, it appears to work, as The Lion King looks like…well it looks like however many millions of bucks it cost the company to fix it up. It’s possible that the Disney folks have employed some digital trickery in cleaning up this image (DNR, or whatever), but much of the original image was computer assisted in the first place, as far as I understand, especially the colouring, so the impeccable state of the image isn’t at all unexpected from the original material. The clarity makes some of the pencil outlines and blended shadow hues look a little dirty, but this is just part of the hand drawn process. The daylight scenes are always extraordinary in their utter brightness, and these are the best sequences to appreciate the clarity of the image, but I found myself more interested in the darkest scenes, especially Scar’s song to the hyenas in the volcanic elephant graveyard, which features subtle blends between the deepest blacks, and the brightest greens and yellows. I’m particularly fond of the manner that the intensity of the yellow in the lions’ eyes never changes to a darker hue despite overall frame darkness (as a cat’s eyes tend to glow). Some of the warmer hues, like grown Simba’s main, and Pumbaa’s snout, are slightly stricken with fine noise, but the general clarity remains crystalline.

Audio


The Lion King was released at a time when Disney animation was first delving into the possibilities of digital surround sound, and this particular mix is one of the studio’s crowning achievements. Even the compressed DVD release was massive in its scope, so it comes as no surprise that this revamped 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is just one step away from utter perfection. The vocals still take precedence for the most part, but between all the singing and Shakespearian performances even simple dialogue takes on a rather epic scale. I’ve always adored the way actual lion sounds are mixed into the vocal performances, and with a good, uncompressed LFE support these growls and roars rumble the room, though of course not nearly as much as it does during the disruptively bass heavy wildebeest charge. The stampede sequence is likely the most aggressive aural sequence in the entire film, even outside of the LFE bounce. The music swells around the outer reaches of the mix, while manic creatures gallop throughout every channel. The less aggressive surround and stereo effects include plenty of basic ambience, and a lot of off screen dialogue (Rafiki is introduced almost exclusively from off screen). I find that Hans Zimmer’s underpinning score, the stuff that plays when no one is singing, is rather underrated, or at least as ‘underrated’ as anything this popular can be. Zimmer’s majestic and rhythmic cues are often lauded, but I find his ‘scary’ cues the most gripping, and generally musically unique. This slight remix (it might just be the uncompressed nature of the track) hits the underscore a little harder, whereas before it was left more lost in the heavy sound effects. The mega-popular sung songs also sound quite crisp, and the big musical sequences feature some

 Lion King: Diamond Edition, The, Blu-ray
 Lion King: Diamond Edition, The, DVD

Extras


This Blu-ray release’s extras begin with a commentary track featuring producer Don Hahn and directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. This same track was available on the Platinum Edition DVD. After listening to so many group commentaries on older Disney classics it’s kind of refreshing to hear a track including participants that were actually a part of the original production of the film in question. The vast majority of the extras on this disc are brimming with pomp and circumstance (as you likely already know, The Lion King is practically the best movie ever made), so it’s also refreshing to hear a less pretentious take on the story. That said, beyond its positive, buoyant tone, and generally informative quality, I can’t say the track was particularly entertaining. The disc also features a Disney Second Screen option to watch synced extras on your iPad or laptop, which promises all kinds of fun stuff. Unfortunately this stuff wasn’t available when I wrote this review, so I don’t really have anything else to say on the subject. If you haven’t memorized the film’s song lyrics yet there is also a sing-along mode.

The new extras extend to a blooper reel (3:40, HD). This is kind of odd, as the studio has taken the effort to actually animate the vocal outtakes. The animation is clearly not of the same quality, but looks pretty good for what I’m guessing is a flash based equivalent. Under ‘Backstage Disney: Diamond Edition’ are a pair of new behind the scenes featurettes (much better than the original snippets included in the Platinum Edition DVD). First is ‘The Pride of The Lion King’ (38:00, HD), a retrospective with members of the cast and crew discussing the film and its impact, in generally casual places like park benches and restaurants. There’s information concerning the fact that no one wanted to work on the film (they wanted to work on Pocahontas), and how that led to a series of younger crew members to find their way into the production, personal stories told as relating to the film, and lots of talk concerning the film’s big technical achievements. The featurette ends with a look at Julie Taymor’s stage version of the story. It’s a very interesting little story, only sullied by Jeffery Katzenberg’s idiotic implications that Lion King took animation out of the ‘niche market’. What?! This is followed by ‘ Lion King: A Memoir – Don Hahn’ (19:40, HD), a featurette from the point of view of producer Don Hahn, complete with behind the scenes video and interview footage. Hahn also directed Waking Sleeping Beauty, and this featurette is very much in keeping with that film’s surprisingly uncompromising style, enough that I’m going to guess that this was original meant to be part of it. The section is closed out with a series of five deleted/extended scenes (14:30, HD), presented in the form of storyboards, and including introductions from co-directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff.

 Lion King: Diamond Edition, The, Blu-ray
 Lion King: Diamond Edition, The, DVD
Under the ‘Music and More’ menu is the extended version song ‘The Morning Report’ (2:30, HD), and a link to the sing-along mode. I’m personally quite happy this hasn’t been put into the film, as it ruins the flow of the early sequences, but it’s also a fun edition for the fans. The disc also features four interactive art galleries, including ‘Character Design’ (165 images), ‘Visual Development’ (115 images), ‘Storyboards’ (84 images), and ‘Layouts and Backgrounds’ (50 images), ‘Disney’s Virtual Vault’, which includes extras from the DVD release over an internet connection (not yet available in my location, according to the menus), an ad for Disney Blu-ray 3D, and trailers.

 Lion King: Diamond Edition, The, Blu-ray
 Lion King: Diamond Edition, The, DVD

Overall


I’m not the biggest fan of this particular Disney classic, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying every minute for the one thousandth time, or even sharing the film with your kids for the first time. And besides the current 3D theatrical re-release, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate your love than this gorgeous, and boisterous new Blu-ray release. The new extras are a little stuffy, but quite well produced, and all the old extras are supposedly available via internet link closer to the release date. Those with 3D enabled sets and players will likely want to get their hands on the same day release of the 3D version of the film.

* Note: The below images are taken from the Blu-ray and original DVD releases, and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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