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Directors: Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff
Release Date: June 15, 1994
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕

When ‘The Lion King’ was released I went to see the film three times in a row. At the time I lived on the tiny Caribbean isle of Tobago, and I went three times, partly because there was little else to do, partly because the film would disappear from the screen in ca. five days, anyway, but most importantly because the film made a deep impression on me. Strangely enough, I hadn’t seen the movie since, so after 25 years it has become high time.


Luckily, the film holds up very well after all these years. Indeed, not only was ‘The Lion King’ the highest grossing animation film thus far on its release, the movie still is one of the most popular animation films of all time. For example, it takes place 34 at IMDb’s top rated movie, as the second animated movie, after ‘Spirited Away’ on place 27, checked on November 21, 2020).

In that regard ‘The Lion King’ can be seen as the pinnacle of the Disney renaissance, because it tops an excellent row of Disney features (‘The Little Mermaid’ from 1988), ‘Beauty and the Beast’ from 1990, and ‘Aladdin’ from 1992), while the subsequent Disney movies of the nineties, while still good, would not reach the same heights again, nor stir the same sensation as these first four features did.

According to Mark Mayerson in ‘Animation Art’ this was partly because Disney’s success “caused other companies to start producing animated features. This diluted the talent pool and forced up wages and budgets” prompting management to interfere more in the film making process. Mayerson also detects pretentiousness and a lack of warmth in these later pictures (Animation Art, p. 305).

What certainly didn’t help was Toy Story’s big hit in 1995, suddenly shifting the future of animation from traditional to computer generated animation, a process that more or less was completed ten years later, after which traditional animated features would become extremely rare, at least in the United States.

Indeed, even in ‘The Lion King’ one of the biggest stirs among audiences (including me) was the computer generated stampede of wildebeests. This tour-de-force of computer animation was an impressive feat on the big screen, and though computer animation has been pushing the envelope ever forward since, the scene still holds up today, interestingly partly because the wildebeests are based on hand drawn designs.

There are more technical stunts to be found in ‘The Lion King’, both aided by the computer and not. Especially the opening scenes are literally stuffed with them, showing a sequence of mind-blowing images of African nature to the song ‘The Circle of Life’.

But much more impressive in the end is the character animation, which is top notch throughout, and which has an apparent effortlessness to it that never ceases to amaze. Especially the work by Andreas Deja and his team on Scar is impressive, making him a worthy successor of that other outstanding feline villain of the silver screen, Shere Khan (Jungle Book, 1967), greatly helped by his voice artist Jeremy Irons, who gives the character the perfect mix of self-pithy, sarcasm and sinister slyness.

Another stand out in the voices are Mufasa’s voice, which is deep and commanding, yet fatherly and compassionate, and which is provided by James Earl Jones of Darth Vader fame. Yet another is Whoopi Goldberg as the leader of a villain trio of hyenas.

Being a nineties Disney film, ‘The Lion King’ of course is a musical, a genre that certainly is not my favorite, but I must admit that Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s songs hold up very well, greatly aided by the imagery. ‘The Circle of Life’, as said, makes an impressive opener; ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ is spiced by very bold colors, and stylized background art (as well as anteaters, which do not occur in Africa – a strange and unnecessary error); Scar’s song ‘Be prepared’ is accompanied by evil greens and purples in a clear echo of Maleficent in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959), and the love ballad ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ is rescued from sappiness by the inclusion of Timon and Pumbaa mourning the loss of their friend. All these songs propel the story forward, none more so than the best song of all, ‘Hakuna Matata’, which neatly changes the infant Simba into the adult one.

Which brings me to the main reason the film still is a great classic: it’s told so well. The pace of the film is almost flawless, with exciting and more relaxing scenes distributed in perfect fashion. The only implausible scenes come at the end of the film: first there is Rafik’s all too simple cure of Simba’s guilt complex. I bet many psychiatric patients would die for such a quick resolution of their youth inflicted mental problems. Moreover, this scene includes a very unconvincing mystical dialogue between Simba and his deceased father. The finale uses two little too evident symbols of change and renewal (fire and rain), and how Simba manages to turn the wasteland of his kingdom into a prosperous country again, remains an utter mystery.

Nevertheless, the guilt that haunts Simba makes him an interesting and relatable lead character – like Aladdin he isn’t a flawless hero. And while it’s understandable he embraces Pumbaa’s and Timon’s relaxed lifestyle, it clearly cannot cure him from the haunts of his past, which he just has to face in the end, which means he has to overcome his biggest fears and insecurities.

It’s a great feat that the film makers have managed to weave such a deep theme into the more classic usurper tale, which is notably dark: we watch both a murder and a dead body on the screen, in what must be the most harrowing scene in a Disney animation film since the death of Bambi’s mother in ‘Bambi’ (1942), the film with which ‘The Lion King’ has most in common: both follow the main protagonist in his youth and in his adult life, both depict a very romantic concept of nature, and both have ‘the circle of life’ as their main theme, with ‘The Lion King’’s opening and closing scenes being undisputed echoes of the closing scene of the classic from the 1940s.

Because ‘The Lion King’ is a rather serious tale, it’s a little low on comedy. Indeed, there are very few real gags in this film, one of them unusually self-parodying: at one point a caged Zazu (Rowan Atkinson) starts singing ‘it’s a small world after all’, which immediately prompts Scar in an anxious ‘No, no, anything but that!’. The other great gag of the movie is when Timon refers to the sad Simba as ‘He looks blue’, on which Pumbaa replies ‘I’d say brownish gold’. That said, the film is absolutely balanced in its mix of humor and drama, and never becomes heavy-handed.

In all, ‘The Lion King’ has hold up after these 25 years, and has his rightful place as one of the greatest films of all time, animated or not. And I seriously wonder why a remake was at all necessary or welcome, for in my opinion the original cannot be topped.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Lion King’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Lion King’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: unknown
Release Date: December 15, 1925
Stars: Virginia Davis (Alice), Julius
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Still from 'Alice in the Jungle' featuring four ferocious lionsAlice (Virginia Davis) and her friend Julius the cat are on a safari in the jungle.

The cartoon consists of several unrelated gags: Julius encounters some crocodiles, two elephants go bathing, Julius makes a barber sign post out of a tiger’s tail, and both Alice and Julius are chased by lions (a scene similar to the finale of Alice’s pilot cartoon).

The cartoon contains many surreal gags, a lot of them unashamedly Felix the Cat-like, especially when Julius uses his comic expressions and balloons as tools. Alice’s role, however, is extremely limited here. This is no surprise, for ‘Alice in the Jungle’  is made around leftover footage of Virginia Davis, who, after some salary problems, had been replaced by Margie Gay in early 1925.

Watch ‘Alice in the Jungle’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Alice in the Jungle’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Director: Walt Disney
Production Date: 1923
Stars: Virginia Davis (Alice), Walt Disney, Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, Ub Iwerks, Carman Maxwell
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Still from 'Alice's Wonderland' featuring Alice being chased by three lions‘Alice’s Wonderland’ is the pilot film for the Alice cartoons, which Disney made in Kansas city, before trying his luck in Hollywood.

The title card of this pilot reads: “Scenario and direction by Walt Disney. Photography by Ubbe Iwerks and Rudolf Ising. Technical direction by Hugh Harman and Carman Maxwell.”

Alice (the four year old Virginia Davis) drops by the studio and tells Walt Disney she likes to watch him drawing some funnies. Walt Disney lacks his familiar mustache in this sequence, but he is already the kind entertainer of children here, and he takes her to a sheet of paper on where a cat chases a dog out of a dog house. The rest of the studio is also populated by animators (Iwerks, Harman, Ising and Maxwell all appear in this cartoon) and toons alike. The whole crew ‘s watching a boxing match between a dog and a cat, for example.

That night Alice dreams she arrives in cartoonland by train. She’s welcomed by animals and she performs a little dance for them. Unfortunately four lions break out of Cartoonland Zoo and they chase her into a tree, into a cave, into a rabbit hole and finally, to a cliff. She falls off the cliff, and then she awakes.

This cartoon is very entertaining. The idea of a girl in a cartoon (the inverse of the idea of Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell, a series that was around for eight years by then) works wonderfully, and the cartoon is lively. It already contains lots of music and dance, and a very rubbery animated train, besides the normal stiff animation you find in most cartoons of the twenties. The animation of the train looks forward to the flexible animation style that would later make Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney famous.

Luckily, Disney was able to sell the Alice series, starting his Hollywood career. His fledgling studio released 56 Alice Comedies in the next four years, until the series was replaced by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927. The series was quite successful, allowing Disney to expand and to improve. In that sense, ‘Alice’s Wonderland’ lay the foundation of the Disney imperium.

Watch ‘Alice’s Wonderland’  yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Alice’s Wonderland’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

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