There are many animation studios around these days and most of them deal exclusively with computer generated images. It is an inevitable outcome; technology pushes art, art pushes technology. It was only a matter of time before the computers outdid human hands. However, for those of us old enough to remember a time when cell animation was the norm, we’d remember a certain innocence that pervaded the art-form. There’s something visceral about hand-drawn characters that the robotic precision of computers just cannot replicate.
For me, there are two major American studios that excel in cell animation. One is Disney and the other is DreamWorks, whose classics like The Prince Of Egypt and The Road To El Dorado can rival Disney’s best. Disney is of course older, so it has more under its belt. The Lion King, its 32nd animated feature film, came at a time when the Disney animated feature was making a comeback. This is something I didn’t realise till a few years ago. I never stopped to ask myself why I hadn’t known, when I was growing up, of any Disney film that was released during the ’70s and ’80s. The ones familiar to me were The Jungle Book, Aristocats, Dumbo, Cinderella, and then the later movies like Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin. The first batch of films belongs to the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, and the second to the ’90s. What happened in between? Why did Disney lose itself?
The Lion King presents the answer. Disney, for whatever reason, didn’t supply itself with solid storytelling and a fine cast of characters. It also lost the musical for a while. Everyone loves song. Not everyone loves musicals. Disney tapped into this idea after its early success and in turn lost its chief fan base: The children. Why The Little Mermaid revived the Disney animated feature in 1989 was not because Ariel had seashells for a top, but because it ventured deep into adventure and mysticism through sing-song. And the songs were catchy. It also gave the Disney audience its first truly menacing villain since the Evil Queen from Snow White.
The Lion King goes a step further. It has all that The Little Mermaid has: Music, adventure, fun characters. But it transforms itself into a serious — and sometimes woeful — drama that builds itself up to accommodate a much older audience. The kids will still love this movie, sure, but the deep underlying melancholy of what happens to Mufasa and Simba will resound more completely with the adults than with the children, whose star attractions will almost certainly be Timon and Pumbaa.
The plot is as follows: The movie opens with an extended sequence that has all the great animals of the Savanna coming together under a giant protruding rock to welcome the arrival of Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), the lion cub who is to become the new king of the plains. This is a truly glorious opening sequence, made all the more powerful by Carmen Twillie’s “Circle Of Life”. The animation is evocative in its deep reds and oranges. The music calms and swells. There is no dialogue. There is only the story. No doubt it stands to question the believability of antelope, zebras, and even elephants bowing to one of their natural predators, but I’d like to put forth the notion that yes, even though the lion will one day eat the zebra, the zebra is proud to be a part of life’s circle. Willing sacrifice, you might say.
Relationships are established very early. We meet the current king Mufasa (James Earl Jones), who takes Simba on a life lesson across his lands — “Yes we eat the antelope. When we die, our bodies become the grass. The antelope eat the grass. We are all connected”. These early scenes with Mufasa and Simba are pivotal because they are too good to be true. Their relationship is too pristine to endure the entire length of the movie. We know, instinctively, that something horrible will befall them. We also know who will orchestrate this disaster. We just don’t know when. Or how.
The who is Scar, Mufasa’s brother (interesting that Mufasa is a lowland lion and Scar is a mountain lion), and he has grown very weary and upset over the fact that Simba is now the rightful heir to the throne. Voiced by Jeremy Irons, Scar is a slithering plague of wicked lies and sardonic undertones. He is the mastermind behind his plot of treason. It’s a sinister idea. But then, he is a sinister animal. Who knew that lions could desire power so hungrily? Sometimes it’s easy to imagine the actor behind the animated face, but Irons is so good at emoting the right pitch at the right time that, for all intents and purposes, he is Scar.
The how is one of the movie’s most ambitious and adrenaline-fueled sequences, and it reveals itself at the opportune moment; when characters are destined to die. Like Disney’s earlier classic Beauty And The Beast, cell animation is married with CGI to create magic. The magic here is more seamless than the romantic ballroom of Beauty, and infinitely more terrifying. It involves a herd of wildebeest stampeding through a deep gorge as a helpless Simba clings for life to a rickety branch. I will not give away too much about this scene. It stands to reason that many of you reading this would have seen the movie, but on the odd chance that some of you haven’t, there is much wonder and sadness to be discovered here, and I shall not ruin it for you.
And then there are songs. No Disney animated movie is complete without them. And no Disney animated movie uses them so completely. Written mostly by Elton John and Tim Rice, musical numbers like “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”, “Be Prepared”, and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” trigger important narrative and character progressions while savouring enough of the toe-tapping melody and African-inspired backing vocals to warrant happiness from beginning to end. “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” in particular yearns for a more emotional response from its listeners. Compared to John’s pop version that plays over the end credits, this one hums and echoes with feeling. So too does the movie’s most famous track, “Hakuna Matata”, which arrives just when complications in the plot begin to weigh down on Simba and the audience. Like the scene it outlines, it comes like an oasis, headed by Nathan Lane (Timon) and Ernie Sabella (Pumbaa). It rounds off what is, in all forms of honesty, an impressive catalogue of Disney music.
There are a number of supporting characters in The Lion King. There’s Zazu (Rowan Atkinson), Mufasa’s confidant and most trusted friend. There’s Nala (Moira Kelly), Simba’s childhood companion. And there are the three hyenas (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings) who act as mercenaries for Scar (when the tables turn, so do their loyalties). In the animal kingdom, hyenas and lions do not get along. This movie plays hard and fast with this relationship and teeters much of Scar’s doings on the conscience of the hyenas. They could, at any time, bite his head off. And yet they are not so predictable. They know when food is dangling in front of their mouths and when it’s being kept hidden. And the difference is costly.
The Lion King is a wholesome movie. It is a Disney musical through and through. It understands perfectly what it’s meant to achieve, and then it undercuts itself by darkening its tone and sobering up its characters. There’s still a lot of room for smiles and laughs though, and where directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff receive their standing ovation is at the fragile balancing of joy and despair. Many movies claim to be “family” movies, but The Lion King is among the very few that deserve the title. When family members of all ages can sit through a movie together and each take something different away from it, you’ve got something special. Heck, it’s even bold enough to be a nature documentary.