I think I know why Disney’s rerelease of 1994’s The Lion King has been resonating so powerfully with North American audiences (it has earned nearly $80 million in only three weeks, and was tops at the box office over all newcomers for its first two weeks), and why it will almost certainly do the same for British moviegoers when it opens here on Friday. It’s not the new 3D conversion, which looks fine, even if it doesn’t really add anything significant to the film. (It doesn’t detract, either. Hoorah.) It’s simply the chance to see this marvelous film on a big screen again. However crass Disney’s motivation may have been in rereleasing the film — it was intended merely as a promotion for its arrival on blu-ray, and I bet even Disney is stunned at how well it’s doing — it’s cheering to see that even in this era of awesome home-entertainment setups and increasingly unpleasant multiplexes, people still want to see great movies on a big screen with big sound, even films they can watch at home.
And then there’s this: No level of supercomputer-processed CGI can compete with the breathtaking impressionism of hand-drawn animation. The Lion King is simply gorgeous to look at in a way that the likes of Toy Story cannot touch. There is luminous life in the imagery here that brought tears to my eyes once again. I’m so glad I had another opportunity to see this, perhaps the jewel of the Disney renaissance of the late 80s and early 90s, projected in the dark again.
The story is just plain wonderful, too. Yes, it’s Hamlet on the savannah… and that’s a good thing. Archetypes of good and evil, of family and responsibility, of friendship and support make this ring with truth and emotional might, and the animal fantasy makes it sweet, unexpected, and funny. Nathan Lane (The Nutcracker in 3D, Astro Boy) and Ernie Sabella (The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, Mouse Hunt) as the duo of meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the lion prince Simba (the voices of Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a cub and Matthew Broderick [The Tale of Despereaux, Bee Movie] as an adult) — just about steal the show… though they don’t appear till halfway through the film, and up to that point, I was delighted to be reminded how much wicked fun Jeremy Irons (Eragon, Kingdom of Heaven) is having as Scar, Simba’s power-hungry uncle. Rowan Atkinson (Love Actually, Johnny English) is amusing, too, as Zazu, major domo to King Mufasa (the voice of James Earl Jones: Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, Click), though it’s a shame that one of the most clever of Elton John and Tim Rice’s lyrics, sung by Zazu — “this child is getting wildly out of wing” — gets lost in the sound mix. I can’t remember if it was always like that, but it should have been fixed if it was.
Ha. I only knew what I couldn’t hear because I listen to the soundtrack [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] often, and have long since memorized the lyrics. If I could have sung outloud at my press screening without annoying my fellow critics, I would have done so.