Nostalgiaville: The Lion King

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September 5, 2012 by abbyo

I like it when children’s movies tackle difficult subjects. It’s not just artistic quality that makes a family film last for generations. It’s maturity, too. It’s a rare treat when a filmmaker understands that a movie targeted towards kids doesn’t have to compromise its visuals or its story just because the audience hasn’t yet reached puberty. After all, adults aren’t the only ones who experience loss, or guilt, or fear. Those things happen to kids, too. But taking on delicate subjects in ways kids can understand takes smarts and guts. It’s not an easy thing to do.

That’s why it’s kind of impressive that a movie like “The Lion King” exists at all. Not only does this movie address all three of those dreaded topics (loss, guilt and fear), it does them in the form of an epic that would have Joseph Campbell punching the air like an audience member on the Arsenio Hall show. It may sound a little weird heaping such academic praise on an animated kids’ movie, but I’m serious. If you watch “The Lion King” closely, you’ll find not only gorgeous visuals, or an excellent set of songs, but a meaty script that’s steeped in Campbell’s “hero’s journey” theory, and takes more than a few cues from great literature. All that, and it still manages to get in the requisite number of fart jokes.

Think about the plot: A young ruler-to-be has a perfect father, but also a nasty, jealous uncle. Our hero, being young and immature, learns some tough lessons about the nature of bravery and what it really means to be a good ruler. After his uncle murders his father, and the hero is blamed, his crushing sense of guilt and inability to handle the situation (he is, after all, a child), send him running off into the wilderness. There he meets, and is fostered by, a pair of carefree fools who encourage the hero to forget all sense of responsibility, and lead a life of ease. After a reunion with a pair of figures from his childhood, the hero comes to terms with his past, and returns home to fight his villainous usurping uncle for his birthright.

Hot damn! If it didn’t feature a cast of cartoon African wildlife, you’d be forgiven for confusing this movie with something you’d see on Masterpiece Theater. The ways the characters are written and acted make them almost immediately recognizable to anyone who’s survived college English classes. Simba, our hero, is Prince Hal from Henry IV, Part I. The villain, Scar, is Don John from “Much Ado About Nothing,” Edmund from “King Lear” and Macbeth all rolled into one. The way Jeremy Irons plays him, with sarcasm dripping from every syllable, is right on the money, and enormously entertaining.

If Simba is Prince Hal, then Pumbaa and Timon, the carefree fools, are both Falstaff. They’re there for comedic relief (fart jokes), but also to lure Simba into a carefree lifestyle that helps him ignore his destiny. It takes wizened baboon shaman Rafiki to provide some of that patented Campbell Supernatural Assistance and movie the plot along to its climax.

It’s not just the writing that sets the tone. Everyone who worked on this film appears to have been keenly aware of what kind of movie they were making. The impressive quality of the writing is matched moment-for-moment by gorgeous visuals and powerful music.

Check out the opening sequence: The movie starts out with the uber-dramatic presentation of baby Simba bathed in a ray of sunlight that busts through the clouds like a heavenly feature-spot. The way the title card follows up leaves no ambiguity as to what kind of story this is.

If you don’t think that screams “EPIC,” then you need to watch more movies.

The movie is aided by an impressive score that combines the talents of Tim Rice, Elton John and Hans Zimmer, three guys whose work you’d never describe as “mellow.” Here, it proves a perfect match of lyrics and orchestration. The score features catchy numbers and hefty instrumentals that hit exactly the tone the movie’s trying to set.

Things do get a little over-the-top in the movie’s climactic battle sequence, and at times I questioned whether it was really necessary for a children’s movie to have so much dramatic heft. But the fact that the movie has had so much staying power over the years, and is universally beloved by more than one generation puts those concerns to rest. “The Lion King” shows that audiences, both young and old, really can handle more than the average mindless musical romp. If the subject matter is handled with the right amount of delicacy, and everyone’s on board, amazing things can happen.

Random Observations:

-Something I definitely didn’t catch on to as a child: the crazy-cool voice talents featured in this movie. In addition to Jeremy Irons as Scar, there’s James Earl Jones as Mufasa, Cheech Marin and Whoopi Goldberg (shut up, guys, she does great voice work) as hyenas, and Rowan “Mr. Bean” Atkinson as Zazu the Majordomo. That last one is actually what surprised me. Those casting agents had some solid taste!

-Roger Ebert’s original review of the movie claimed the songs weren’t as catchy as Alan Menken’s tunes from “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” But as numerous late-night beltings of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” with my college roommates can attest, he was dead wrong.

-A note: Due to changes in my work schedule, I’m going to change posting days to Thursdays. Check back here a week from tomorrow for a new post!

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