It began in Africa, so to speak. The Lion King starts off nauseatingly enough when the animals of the film’s jungle accumulate to bow before their future king, baby Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), who’s held up to the light of the sun in a curious celebration of patriarchal rule. Simba’s father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), is murdered by the evil Scar (Jeremy Irons), who takes over the land and allows it to go to seed with the help of his minority hyenas. What with all the lush vistas and references to Hamlet, the animators strive for a certain epic familial melodrama, and though the film’s beautiful animation more or less serves as an emotional response to its many hysterias, several unanswered questions remain. At the time of The Lion King‘s release, some were quick to point out its racist overtones, namely that the evil hyena triumvirate is voiced by Hispanic and Black actors. But that’s a miscalculation of sorts, especially when you consider that minority voices are also responsible for some of the film’s kinder characters. In the end, the film’s racism is mostly subconscious and stems from the animators’ elementary attempts to color-code evil for the film’s target audience (what other explanation is there for Scar’s black mane?). The Lion King is loaded with hoary bibilical references (rays of light, burning bushes) and Shakespearean shout-outs, but that’s all they are. The film’s experimental musical numbers (however screechy the songs) are gorgeously drawn, but since there’s no real conflict implied in the film’s mish-mash of styles, The Lion King pales next to the studio’s Sleeping Beauty, a film that was able to follow through on the struggle between paganism and Christianity implied in its cosmological smoke and mirrors. When Scar takes over the lion’s den, Africa inexplicably turns into a cloudy ghetto where the hyena population runs rampant. When patriarchal rule is restored, light returns to Africa. It’s a facile evocation of Good versus Evil that’s rendered all the more moot because the animators refuse to explain how these animals are able to inexplicably control the forces of nature. Surely if the deceased Mufasa can appear in the sky in order to offer some wisdom for an older Simba (Matthew Broderick), he can surely move a few clouds over and let the sun shine down on Scar’s ghetto.
Gotta love the gorgeous colors and deep blacks on this 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of The Lion King, but there's an unusual amount of edge enhancement throughout. Though this haloing isn't distracting per se, it makes you wonder how Buena Vista Home Entertainment got it right for Sleeping Beauty, which is a good 40 years older than this film. The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 Enhanced Home Theater Mix is the way to go. Every sound, line of dialogue and cloying musical number comes through loud and clear.
Disc one includes a lively commentary with directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn, who briefly discuss the film's influences (Hamlet, the Holy Bible) before then focusing at length on the film's animation. Rather than address the film's racist accusations head-on, the men curiously and indirectly skirt around the issue by talking about the race of the actors who voiced the film's good animals. The lousy supplemental material on the first disc is divided into four separate sections. The Grasslands section contains a three-minute featurette on the making of "The Morning Report," the new song which was added to the film for its IMAX release, and "The Lion King: Personality Profile Game," which is a sub-par version of the of the "Princess Personality Profile Game" that appears on the Sleeping Beauty DVD. The Tree of Life section begins with a terrible new music video for "The Circle of Life," performed by the Disney Channel Stars (I see you Hilary Duff!), followed by a completely unnecessary making-of featurette. (You'll need to go to this section to enable the film's sing-along feature.). The Jungle section includes two games (Timon's Grab-a-Grub and Pumbaaa's Sound Sensations) and Elephant Graveyard features three "deleted and abandoned concepts": Bug Football; Hakuna Matata (with a missing Timon verse); and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" as sung by the sidekicks (to Elton John's annoyance) and with a "Do Not Duplicate" logo stamped on top that noticeably detracts from the enjoyment. Rounding out the disc are sneak peeks for The Lion King 1 ½, Brother Bear, George of the Jungle 2, Finding Nemo and Santa Clause 2.
The real meat and potatoes appear on the second disc. You can access the supplemental material using two different menus, a confusing continental sidebar (sans Antarctica and prone to repetition) or a more comprehensive "journeys" index, which appears at the bottom of the main interactive menu and groups the material by its theme (story, film, stage, etc.). In Asia, there's "Leaps of Fantasy" (covering the designs that inspired the Broadway show), a multi-language reel, three stills galleries, and a brief but interesting featurette that discusses the casting of and motivation behind the film's international releases. In Africa, you'll be able to take in the African art and music that influenced the film, a discussion on the film's audio sequel (The Rhythm of the Pride Lands), seven character designs, four animal kingdom bios (lions, meerkats, warthogs, hyenas, oh my!), a production research trip and a multi-language reel (again). Ignore Australia and South America completely since all the information gathered in these two sections is a retread of material included elsewhere on the DVD's two discs. Take a trip instead to Europe, where you get to watch a multi-language reel (yes, again!), learn about the film's "landmark" songwriting and international release (are you experiencing déjà vu yet?), and watch Elton John's music videos for "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" and "The Circle of Light." Over in North America (divided into four sectors: Burbank, Orlando, New York and Glendale), get to know the intimacies of Disney animals, DVD sound design, the film's Broadway stage production, and various behind-the-scenes processes, from storyboarding to production designs.
Afraid to fly? Can't afford a plane ticket to Kenya? Though not as satisfying as a two-week trip around the world, it'll still take you that long to get through the features on this DVD edition of The Lion King.