For some, Disney’s 1994 cash cow The Lion King entered their life too late to enchant, but at the right time that it could reignite their nascent affection for the storybook diversions of their childhood. For others, The Lion King has always been there, representing the apex of the art form as they came to know it via hundreds of viewings on clamshell-boxed VHS. And then there’s a small bunch for whom The Lion King arrived at the precise moment that all its inherited storytelling strategies were finally beginning to lose their luster, leaving behind nothing but glossy hooey, a shaggy cat story in which boys become men and women watch. In other words, some grew up before The Lion King. Others grew up after it. I speak on behalf of those who grew up at least partially in reaction to it—just as I suppose some Slant readers could accuse my review of being a reaction, or maybe an addendum, to the one by Robert Humanick from just a few weeks ago: “I was once the film’s target audience.”
The Lion King was, for me, the movie that began to help me begin to understand how moviemakers and audiences alike could start to rely on formulas. Benevolence and evil, bravery and cowardice, kings and vagabonds—all are kept from meaningful interaction in telling the tale of Simba, the cub whose king father was killed by his sinister uncle. Unlike the pair of ascending hits that preceded it, The Lion King‘s attempts to balance majesty with frivolity seemed even then a tad too on the nose. Beauty and the Beast focused on tragedy averted and romantic faith renewed, spiking the punch bowl only once or twice. On the flip (out) side, Aladdin signed away all illusions of Cinderella-honed, kingdom-keeping pomp the moment they brought Robin Williams aboard. If the former was occasionally dull and the latter ingratiatingly eager, at least their faults suggested human involvement on some level.
The Lion King‘s sensual, teal-and-orange African pastures were a visual leap forward from the Roy G. Biv overload of its antecedents, but everything else about it would’ve been best done justice through paint-by-numbers. Its scenario almost imperceptibly cribs from Hamlet, and like a Shakespearean crowd-pleaser, every regal figure is countered by a buffoonish mirror or foil. Elton John’s pop concoctions (which now suggest the waning years of Deep Forest-era half-assed multiculturalism) provide an all-too-perfect subterfuge for lyricist Tim Rice’s sometimes torturously gymnastic verses to hide within, whereas Alan Menken’s bombast let virtuosity just be virtuosity. Taking a cue from the songs, directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff sway robotically between drama and comedy, which usurps both of their power by turning them into the polar opposites of a constant, sheer entertainment reliability. Occasionally, the wires get thankfully crossed, as when lion cub Simba’s adolescence is ludicrously housed within the song “Hakuna Matata,” where anyone who has gone through it can attest that there are few other sequences in real life that scream “no worries” less than the onset of puberty. Otherwise, The Lion King is aesthetically antiseptic, a film without odor.
If you're the type of person who has a 3D television set, a 3D Blu-ray player, and 3D glasses, you no doubt have the sort of disposable cash on hand that any recommendation on whether or not you should buy any given disc is superfluous to the discussion. Conspicuous consumption needs no prescription, unless it's to assure the buyer that they'll be able to use their purchase to exhibit their purchasing power. To that end, this will suffice as a showroom showcase. In 3D, standard Blu-ray, or even straight-up DVD, The Lion King looks better than it did in theaters, in part because the colors seem much more coordinated and complementary than I remember them being in 1994. The 3D effects, still on display in theaters as I write, almost bring Disney full circle, back to the painted-plane dimensionality of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When paired with a contemporary 7.1 DTS surround audio mix, it's admittedly difficult to wave away the entire apparatus as nothing but a gimmick. But you should.
For an edition you'd presume was meant to be definitive, there's nowhere near as much bonus filler as I've come to expect from Disney. (Perhaps some of it was held for the super-duper, crucially definitive, eight-disc release packaged in an African drum.) Beyond the increasingly satisfying "Backstage Disney" features, which serve as encyclopedic looks at how Disney movies are made (and by that I mean they're made to serve as their own commercials for how Disney movies are made) and a quintet of deleted scenes (including one that should play well with anyone skeptical that Jeremy Irons's Scar is meant to be cryptically gay), there's not much to report, other than the fact that the movie itself is presented in no less than four ways: 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital file. We've finally reached the point where Disney admits that it's more important to try to cover every available home viewing format than to offer a well-rounded total package.
"Hakuna Matata" would mean never having to be subjected to The Lion King ever again, much less having Simba's growing pains coming at your face in 3D.