|Lion King, The 1 1/2|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 10 February 2004|
Once upon a time, Tom Stoppard wrote a play called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” which is a somewhat absurdist, reality-bending retelling of “Hamlet” from the point of view of the two boneheaded school chums that the Prince of Denmark eventually sends to their deaths. The characters of meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa in “The Lion King 1 _” have a much happier relationship with their royal leonine buddy Simba, but in some ways, this straight-to-video animated feature can be called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern For Kids,” despite the fact that the target audience has probably never heard of “Hamlet,” much less wondered how the supporting characters saw the story.
“The Lion King” was released theatrically in 1994 and has become pretty iconic throughout most of Western civilization since then. It has already spawned a straight-to-video actual sequel, 1998 “The Lion King: Simba’s Pride,” but “The Lion King 1 _” is neither exactly a sequel (although it briefly touches on events following the first film) nor a prequel (though it does have scenes that precede the original). “The Lion King 1 _” opens just as “The Lion King” did, to the stirring strains of “The Circle of Life” – before the inspirational montage is interrupted by a remote control, wielded by Timon (voiced by Nathan Lane, as in the original) and Pumbaa (voiced by Ernie Sabella, also from the original). The meerkat and the warthog, it turns out, are watching and commenting on their old exploits, silhouetted against the screen like the mob at “Mystery Science Theatre.” This allows the filmmakers to simultaneously celebrate and send up “The Lion King,” giving us both back story and playfully tweaking what we have already seen in the original “Lion King.” We meet Timon’s loving mom (voiced by Julie “Marge Simpson” Kavner) and exasperated Uncle Max (Ben Stiller) and see for ourselves why Timon was cast out of his meerkat tribe and witness the first meeting between Timon and Pumbaa. We also get new looks at some familiar sequences, with Timon, Pumbaa and Co. distracting the hyenas for a much longer period so that adult Simba (Matthew Broderick, reprising the role) can get through his fight with the evil Scar unhindered. The movie’s reconstruction of just why all those animals are really bowing in front of Pride Rock at baby Simba’s presentation happily takes bodily function humor further than it’s probably ever dreamed of going before in a Disney toon.
What’s especially good about the screenplay by Tom Rodgers, along with two of the three new songs by Elton John and Tim Rice (who also composed the musical numbers for the original “Lion King”), is that the jokes are mostly sly and multi-leveled, appealing to adults as well as children. Director Bradley Raymond strikes just the right tone, making everything easy for small fry to grasp while allowing enough sophistication to keep grownups engaged. Lane and Sabella are perfect, and it’s refreshing to see not only Broderick but also Moira Kelly as Simba’s love Nala, Robert Guillaume as the baboon shaman Rafiki and Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings as the trio of marauding hyenas returning to their vocal characters – the continuity makes it that much more fun.
Chapter 2’s new song “Digga Tunnah,” as the meerkats sing about their way of life (digging tunnels to avoid predators) has an infectious beat and charming lyrics, and Timon’s I-gotta-be-me ode to his dreams in Chapter 3, “That’s All I Need,” finds a good balance, recreating the big ballad form precisely enough to serve as a very good parody. There’s also a singalong version of “Hakuna Matata” in Chapter 9, with the lyrics on the screen for Disney karaoke fans.
The images are very handsome and clear, with especially nice work on the bright pastels in Timon’s Chapter 3 fantasy. The DTS track sounds perfectly good, though there’s not much in the way of discrete sound – there are some tiny bird chirps in the rears to create the sense of a surrounding jungle in Chapter 3 and a nice whoosh in Chapter 8, but mostly the rears simply back up the mains.
“The Lion King 1 _” is a two-disc set, which seems a little coy, as it seems that even with the healthy complement of extras, the material here all could fit on one disc, but even so, it’s a good value. The 15-minute making-of featurette is charming and the seven deleted scenes, with on-camera introductions by director Raymond and producer George Mendoza, are interesting looks at the thinking process that goes into the film (although in virtually all cases, the end result indicates they ultimately chose for the best). The “Grazing in the Grass” music video by Raven – derived from a new song John and Rice wrote for the closing credits – it’s a little too bubble-gum for this reviewer, but I’m not the target listening audience, and the background dancing is genuinely impressive.
“The Lion King 1 _” is a worthy addition to a mythos that qualifies as a cultural phenomenon. As Sabella notes in the commentary, “Sinatra had ‘My Way’ – I’ve got ‘Hakuna Matata.’ ” He’s laughing when he says it, but he’s also right.