Friday, September 16, 2011

The eternal problem with The Lion King: "Where's the middle?"

As most of you know, Disney is re-releasing The Lion King in 2,330 3D theaters this weekend as a two-week advertisement for the upcoming Blu Ray release.  So weak is the current crop of openers (financially, not artistically), that there is a good chance that the re-release of this 17.25 year old movie could top the weekend box office yet again.  Anyway, I come not to discuss what that means for the industry, or for the new-found trend of re-releasing old movies retrofitted with 3D, but merely to point out the big problem that I've always had with the film.  It's still pretty great overall (I watched it just under two years ago), with dynamite animation, a sober and moving story, plus terrific vocal work from what was arguably the first major animated film filled with an all-star cast of human actors.  Yes, the film's success basically caused the current trend of filling up animated features not with professional voice-over actors but with whatever A-list or B-list celebrity you can get to say yes, but I digress.  I do have few qualms here and there.  Simba's primary moral dilemma is based on a falsehood, Simba only defeats Scar because the villain stupidly confesses his sin just before his ultimate triumph, and the romantic subplot is a waste of time and space.  But overall, the film still kills as an emotional journey and a towering achievement of the 1984-1994 Disney Renaissance period.  Jeremy Irons probably should have gotten an Oscar nomination, and the Hans Zimmer score may be the best in Disney history save Alan Menkin's Hunchback of Notre Dame score.  But what I'm describing is the film's first and third acts.  What about the second act?  Well, it doesn't have one.

The original theatrical version runs 84 minutes without credits (or 79 minutes if you view "Circle of Life" as a stand-alone prologue not related to the primary story, but that's your call).  By the forty-five (or so) minute mark, Mufasa is dead and Simba has just been chased out of Pride Rock.  Minutes later, he passes out and is awakened by Timon and Pumba.  Well over half the picture is dedicated to what is technically 'the beginning'.  What happens next is a quick musical montage set to "Hakuna Matata" where we see Simba grow up into a young adult.  We see one brief nighttime conversation where Simba talks about his father and then POOF Nala shows up to set up the romantic subplot as demanded by Elton John (there was a version of the film with "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" cut out, but Elton John allegedly protested so back in it went).  And then right after that gratuitous love song, POOF Rafiki the wise monkey shows up to basically coax Simba into returning to his rightful place as king.  And of course the extended action climax follows and all is restored by the 84 minute mark.  But wait... pretty much everything that happens between Simba talking to his animal friends under the stars and Simba taking his place on the circle of life is Act Three of 'the end'.  As best as I can figure (and I've tried for seventeen years), the second act of the film, the 'middle' if you will, is entirely comprised of a single 3-4 minute musical montage where Simba dances with his new animal pals and learns how to say 'No Worries' in Swahili.  After that moment, there is no more of Simba adjusting to his new life, just one brief moment of 'life under Scar's rule', and then we're off to the self-discovery and redemption finale.

This doesn't make The Lion King a bad film.  I'd argue that much of the missing middle is due to the once-ironclad rule that animated films HAD to be well-under 90 minutes.  More importantly, there is no law that films have to have a hard three-act structure.  But I was puzzled when I was fourteen and I remain puzzled today, how the film works as effectively as it does despite not really containing a 'middle of the story'.  Oh well, hakuna matata and all that.  If you wish, you can share your Lion King-thoughts below.  I won't be seeing this converted version in theaters, but if any of you do please let me know how it looks (if not otherwise occupied, I'd be tempted to just sample the Circle of Life sequence and then leave).  If the mood hits me, I can enjoy the DVD copy I currently own, or perhaps wait until next month when my Blu Ray arrives... the 2D version, that is.

Scott Mendelson     


Aaron Neuwirth said...

I see your point and it is well stated. It never really bothered me because the story always managed to somehow combine the notion of being “epic” from a children’s animated film POV with being tightly constructed.

As far as the 3D goes, having gotten to see a screening of the film in this format (which was the first time I had seen it in its entirety since maybe the VHS days), I can easily say that the film does in fact look like lots of care was given to make the added depth of feel worthwhile and not just like pop-out pieces in a diorama.

Yes, the opening Circle of Life sequence is spectacular in both forms, but watching shots of Zasu flying into the canyon, the stampede sequence, or watching “Be Prepared” in this new dimension certainly makes it a worthwhile experience.

While I never care to endorse 3D unless it is truly something special (Avatar or Boom Boom Bay: Dark of the Moon), these retrofitted versions of Lion King (and Beauty and the Beast for that matter) do a wonderful job at engaging the audience in a newish experience. Plus, seeing the Lion King on the big screen again was something I couldn’t miss.

Trevor Cox said...

I am taking my girlfriend to see this on Sunday. I will let you know what I think.

Sean Power said...

You have managed to put into words something I have felt all my life. I was six or seven when the movie originally came out. As a kid who experienced a lot of anxiety about the changes that can occur in life because of parents (Death (thankfully has not happened to me) or divorce (did happen), I really identified with Simba during the opening act. Hell, at that age, I was just worried about growing up and it felt like Simba was facing some of things I was facing. You know, in a symbolic sort of way. The opening insanely sentimental, so it draws you in emotionally as well. I thought I was going to watch this character successfully navigate the fears in my own life.

Then, the solution is to grow up. Grow up suddenly. They don't even address how to feel while you're growing. Just grow up suddenly and your problems will be solved. As a kid that day in the theater back in 1994, I checked out the minute Simba just grew up.

A few years ago, my girlfriend bought an old tape of the "Special Edition", which features only that horrible roll call song or whatever, and it was the first time I'd seen the movie in years. I had actually forgotten entirely how the movie ended. I was so put off by the middle of that film that I didn't even bother to remember anything past that point. There are lions and they fight in fire! In fire! I was kid into action cartoons and I just plain forgot about a lion fire fight for exactly the reason you say.

So, thank you for putting this feeling of mine into terms of film criticism. I enjoyed your article

Sweetcalves said...

I don't know if you've seen or heard of this but the guy brings up some interesting points.

Silentbobstash said...

Took my daughter on Friday. The 3-D has the same problem of being too dark but the animation and 3-D choices were stunning. And nice to see a film so much better than some of the dreck that's being released.

Vfontaine929 said...

It's spelled renaissance not renascence.


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