The Lion King opens with a four-minute musical sequence where not a single line of dialogue is spoken yet so much is said through the delicately crafted visuals and poignant lyrics that accompany the music. As the varied animals of the African plains gather we see a young Lion prince has been born to the King and Queen who proudly watch as their son is presented to his future kingdom. The song featured is entitled "The Circle of Life", the lyrics for which hint at what is to come as they describe the balance of the world and how it is maintained, for this film such a story is communicated through the animal kingdom of Africa, of which the Lion reigns supreme.
Simba, the young prince has much to learn from his father, Mufasa, the proud and well respected King who will one day pass on the throne and responsibility that comes with it to his son. As he runs around, playing games and generally misunderstanding the weight his future role holds, Simba is lured into a despicable scheme by his Uncle Scar, the Kings brother who is bitter having been superseded as heir to the throne. Having allied with the Hyena’s Scar sets a scheme in motion that sees him kill his brother and convince Simba it was entirely his fault.
Under this false pretence Simba runs away on the advice of his Uncle Scar and ends up being adopted by two mismatched pals (Timon and Pumbaa, a meerkat and warthog) who teach him to forget his problems and live a carefree life. The heart of this tale however is about facing your responsibility so years later when Simba meets a face from the past he comes to see that he must stop running from what has gone before, and start looking toward the future and living up to the footsteps his father once left behind.
Though its basic story elements are firmly rooted in classical tales from the Bible The Lion King is rather unusual for a Disney movie of this age as it uses an original concept rather than being a direct adaptation of a literary source. Like any good children’s movie The Lion King is littered with lessons on life with the main theme here being that we must face our problems head on rather than running away from them. As a testament to the writers you never feel force-fed such information despite the entire movie being one big example of this lesson which allows for a story that will even have adults think about the trials Simba faces. As they had complete control over the story something else you will notice is just how tight the script is, even the occasional line that brings you up to speed on the story so far is handled delicately whilst every sentence in the script (with those spoken by Mufasa and Scar in particular) adds to the characters and moves the story along.
The same can also be said for the songs featured. Written and composed by Tim Rice and Elton John each of the five are near perfectly suited to the look and feel of the movie. The opening number "Circle of Life" plays its part well and essentially sums the movie up in the opening minutes, but is also stunningly powerful thanks to the original African vocals as contributed by Lebo M while the animation it accompanies is some of the best in the movie. Young Simba's party piece "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" does the job and will appeal to young and old alike, though is probably the most perfunctory of the five while the animation is also slightly out of tune with the rest of the feature. Scar reveals his plans to the Hyena's through the musical number, "Be Prepared", that like his character mixes method with madness and has a wonderfully dry sense of humour while the performance Jeremy Iron's gives is second to none. "Hakuna Matata" is the song most will remember and is the one kids love. Performed by Timon and Pumbaa it serves many purposes in the film from teaching Simba a new way of life to progressing the story several years, all the while its upbeat nature and wildly exaggerated performances combined with comedic lyrics makes it a winner. Last but not least is the love song, "Can You Feel The Love Tonight". Beautifully performed and accompanied by some stunning animation (a Lioness has never looked so appealing!) this song is one for the romantics but also plays its part by enhancing the storyline in the latter stages of the film.
A tight script and fine selection of songs are nothing however without the performances to match, so it is through the combination of some stunning voice talent and equally inspired animation The Lion King really comes to life. Leading the way are James Earl Jones as Mufasa and Jeremy Irons as Scar. Both actors have incredibly distinctive voices and their roles are perfectly suited to them with James Earl Jones playing the strong, dignified King with a touch of sentimentality while Jeremy Irons plays the evil brother, who with a slight lisp added to his natural accent gives a charmingly witty yet distinctly villainous performance. Looking to the younger cast member we find the young Simba is brought to life through an energetic Jonathan Taylor Thomas while adult Simba is played well by Matthew Broderick, who gives a balanced performance as he goes from someone a little wet behind the ears running from his troubles, to someone who slowly comes to realise the role he must adopt. The supporting cast are equally strong with Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella having a ball as the carefree Timon and Pumbaa, while Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin bring a wicked sense of humour to the Hyena's. And of course we cannot forget the other British cast member, Rowan Atkinson who plays Zazu, the Kings 'stooge' who speaks in a very stereotyped British accent that goes particularly well with the sense of humour written for the character.
Bringing this wonderful cast to life is of course the animation that like pretty much every Disney movie from Beauty and the Beast onwards has a beautifully clean polished feel to it. The characterisation given to each and every cast member is often superb, with Jeremy Irons and James Earl Jones in particular meeting their performances true Lion counterparts on screen. Given this is a movie told through animals the most impressive aspect of the animation is how well the nuances of animal movement and expressions have been captured. Sure there is a great deal of artistic license present as creating a movie that is truly realistic in every way possible is both time consuming and ultimately missing the point of the medium, but certain features such as the way in which the main animals move, the way young Simba slumps into himself when being disciplined and the more savage side of the Hyena's, is all reproduced with a great sense of realism. Adding to the fine character animation is some very impressive background work that is probably best showcased in the opening of the film alongside a few short sequences where we see the African plains in motion. One scene in particular is quite beautiful as we see the clouds loom over a riverside location and then rain begins to fall. Animated beautifully and allowed to unfold naturally this simple yet elegant sequence adds a great deal of atmosphere to the movie in the opening stages.
Playing out more like a well planned event than a movie The Lion King is constantly entertaining thanks to its sharp script and blistering pace. Yes it slips a little in the last quarter where ironically the swift pacing used to bring everything to a conclusion is for me what hurts the movie as it seems like the 'big return' is over and done with all too soon. But directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers have crafted together the various elements that make up an animated movie and combined them almost seamlessly to create an overall effect that is almost perfect. The grand opening is followed by numerous set pieces, peppered by some well honed comedy and rounded off with great performances, all of which defy the simplistic tale found at the films heart and make for a movie that plays as well to those who enjoyed it at cinemas almost ten years ago as it no doubt will to the children and adults who experience it for their very first time on this DVD release.
This long awaited DVD of The Lion King carries the Special Edition banner not only because it is packed with bonus features but also because it includes two versions of the film for you to enjoy. The Original Theatrical Cut is joined by a new Special Edition of the movie that includes a newly recorded musical number that has been seamlessly integrated within the movie through the addition of new animation that maintains the films original look. This new song is known as “The Morning Report” and is performed by Zazu around ten-minutes in when Mufasa is giving Simba a pouncing lesson. Sadly they were not able to bring Rowan Atkinson back in to record this additional song though just like the new animation, the replacement voice actor manages to maintain the illusion that the song was there in the first place (for those who have never seen the film at least). So is this new song a worthy addition? No, not really. Unlike the other songs it serves little purpose other than to lighten the mood and for me it failed even to do that as it just does not have the punch of the other tracks. One best to avoid in this reviewers opinion though like many of the bonus features on the disc I am not so keen on, I am sure kids will love it.
Presented in the original 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio and featuring anamorphic enhancement the transfer found on this disc verges on reference quality. The actual print shows absolutely no sign of damage while the films eclectic range of colours have been transferred to DVD perfectly allowing the vivid palette to literally jump off the screen. Compression too is very good with no signs of edge enhancement or aliasing on the character outlines, while for the most part the solid colours used throughout are exactly that, rock solid with no sign of macro-blocking. I did however say 'for the most part' as this is the only area where fault can be found, for if you look very closely some macro blocking can be seen (the manes on Mufasa and adult Simba are a good example) and I suspect this will be more noticeable on larger screen sizes (on my 32" I had to be in 'obsessively anal' mode to pick this out).
The Lion King was originally released with a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix though due to the technology being relatively new at the time (1994) the decision was made to keep this track far more conservative in comparison to what we are used to today. Examples include sequences such as the Wildebeest stamped where subwoofer usage is not quite as heavy as you might expect, a conscious decision by the producers and mix creator Terry Porter so as to not scare the primary audience. For this DVD release the decision was made to create an 'optimised' 5.1 track that takes advantage of the standardised Home Theatre environment by giving the enthusiasts a finely tuned and far more aggressive track in the form of what has been dubbed the Disney Enhanced Home Theatre (DEHT) mix. Again created by Terry Porter this new mix utilises the original 5.1 elements, only things have been tweaked in order to give a whole new experience that you can read about in a little more depth in my previous feature.
For this UK DVD release the DEHT mix has been encoded in half-rate DTS 5.1 Surround and can be found on both the Theatrical and Extended cuts of the film. Put simply this new mix is absolutely phenomenal, the sense of immediacy it has combined with a great spatial range creates an experience that literally sucks you up and envelopes you with its invigorating depth of sound. Key sequences such as the opening "Circle of Life" number are enhanced by superlative surround usage while the Wildebeest stampede draws upon enough low end bass to ensure your neighbours will be cursing you for weeks to come. The musical numbers in particular are further enhanced by creating that effect of placing you at the centre of the action while Hans Zimmers score and the African choirs feel as if they are being conducted around you. This may well come across like I am on the DEHT publicity team but I assure you, it really is that good!
As DVD consumers have come to expect the films original audio mix is also present. Dubbed as the 'Original Theatrical 5.1 Mix' this audio track is again present on both the Theatrical and Extended cuts of the film only this time is encoded in the Dolby Digital format. Included primarily to appease the purists and for those who are not keen on the new DEHT mix what you will find here is a 5.1 track that sounds merely adequate and somewhat pedestrian in light of it's younger, more aggressive brother. I guess the best description I can offer is a 5.1 mix that is rather flat by today’s standards (even for animated films), the grandiose nature of the films opening and close feel somewhat further away from you due to restricted surround and low-end effects though all the while music and dialogue come through clean and crisp at all times. Put simply this is the track you can sit the toddlers in front of while you go about your daily chores while the DEHT mix sits waiting for that moment when you sit down to unwind in front of your finely tuned setup.
Accommodating the Hebrew speakers here in the UK (and to save a few dollars on production runs) Disney have also included a Hebrew Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.
Subtitles are provided on the main feature in English, English for the Hard of Hearing and Hebrew.
Disc One asks you to choose between English and Hebrew languages before running a selection of trailers presented in non-anamorphic Widescreen. These include the forthcoming Disney animation Brother Bear. Fortunately the trailers can be skipped which brings us to the main menu, presented in anamorphic widescreen with DD5.1 Surround audio (mostly using audio from the films soundtrack). Guiding us through the options is an irritable Zazu who chatters away if you do nothing, and offers compliments if you are quick to make your selection. Disc Two gains an extra language option (Spanish), though loses Zazu's guidance and anamorphic enhancement. Much like disc one it also utilises beautifully drawn 2D backgrounds with minimal animation ensuring everything is quick and easy to run through.
Unless specified otherwise all bonus features are presented in 4:3 Full Screen with English Dolby Pro-Logic audio. On disc one all bonus features have optional Hebrew subtitles, while on disc two they all have optional Hebrew and Spanish subtitles. Sadly the deaf and hard of hearing population here in the UK are once again snubbed with no sign of English subtitles on the bonus features.
Disc One: The bonus features on disc one are split into several sections though fortunately there is an Index that allows quick and simple access to everything on the disc. For review purposes I have separated the bonus features into the sections they are found in...
Audio Commentary - Producer Don Hahn and Directors Rob Minkoff & Roger Allers take us through the movie with a mostly scene specific track that offers a fine balance of discussion. Topics focused upon include the conceptual process and evolution of scenes, abandoned concepts, technical challenges faced, casting, the experiences of working with the actors and a whole lot more. What really makes this track work however is the fact that all three were recorded together, this allows for greater interaction between the participants leading to a more natural and entertaining track that is filled with laughter and prompted anecdotes. Saving the best for last the three even finish on a song!
Tree of Life:
Elephant Graveyard: With the exception of the Audio Commentary this section is by far the most interesting found on disc one as it features three small featurettes labelled as Deleted Scenes and Abandoned Concepts. Presented in storyboard form the first two are introduced by producer Don Hahn who explains where they would have been seen in the film and why they were never used. The third sequence is an alternate take on the "Can You Feel The Love?" musical number and is introduced by Tim Rice and Elton John who express the horror they felt when they first heard this version as sung by Timon and Pumbaa.
Jungle: This section includes two set-top games aimed primarily at the family.
Disc Two Preview (0:55) - A short trailer for disc two that I can only presume is aimed at children so they can get a taster of what is on the second disc.
Disc Two: As the voice of Scar explains in his introduction of disc two you can view the bonus features contained within via five tailor made Journeys that focus on specific aspects of The Lion King phenomenon (Story, Film, Stage, Music and Animals). Alternatively you can travel to the various continents of the globe accessing specific features individually.
To see absolutely everything the disc offers you need to go through both options, though I found it was best to play through the Journeys first as they compile selected featurettes together into mini, far more focused documentaries that can then be complimented by the further extras found in the continents.
Story (11:51): Three short featurettes meld into one to create a compelling look at the stories creation. The films writers, producer and directors take us through the bible story influences, the hints of Shakespeare and how these were combined with the basic family values that are often at the heart of every Disney movie. Like most of the journeys this is done through a selection of carefully selected archive production material and newly recorded interviews which are then slickly edited together to keep the pacing tight and your attention firmly focused.
Film (18:52): - This journey begins by taking us back to when The Lion King was the “B” movie at Disney, cast aside as the ‘Bambi in Africa’ story everyone was instead concentrating on Pocahontas. Interviews with the art and design staff compliment further interviews with the directors and producer as we are taken through the films development including a research trip to Africa and how the art of the movie was influenced by this trip, all of which is complimented by some wonderful photography and artwork examples. Rounding off the piece is a look at the films unexpected success and reflections from the crew.
Storyboard Intro (1:56) - Directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers explain the process of putting together an animated film, almost from the outside in when compared to a live action movie.
Production Design (1:55) - Art Director Andy Gaskill takes a look at the development of the films landscape artwork and the challenges faced to adapt nature to the screen.
Character Design - Eight short featurettes totalling 11-minutes see the lead animators of eight major characters take us through their designs and how they developed the characters. Quite often the animators become the characters so when combined with archive footage of the research and voice actor recordings these featurettes prove to be most entertaining.
Computer Animation (4:27) - The Lion King was animated using traditional methods though even back in 1994 they were utilising computers to achieve certain technical feats that were simply impossible to replicate using hand drawn methods. One such sequence is the “Wildebeest stampede” and in this featurette the films CG Imagery director Scott F. Johnston takes us through the steps involved to make this sequence possible.
Film Character Design Galleries - As the title suggests this section contains still galleries for the films characters. Ten main characters combine to give you 222 images while a section for miscellaneous characters offers a further 27. From rough sketches to the final design sheets and clay models each characters design process is detailed here with the likes of Zazu and Rafiki sure to prove the most interesting due to the radical changes they went through from initial concept to final design.
Music (24:21): - This collection of featurettes provides us with a superb look at the films music and those who created it. Starting with the songs we see Tim Rice and Elton John discuss how they came on board the project and their methods of writing for the film. Complimenting this is a detailed and informative section where Hans Zimmer offers his thoughts on the music he created for the film. This includes discussion on his idea to bring Lebo M to the picture who of course provides The Lion King with its strong vocal opening and African choir backing throughout. Bringing this mini-documentary to an end is a look at the Rhythm of the Pridelands additional soundtrack CD that was produced following the films success, while Elton John and Tim Rice offer a quick word on their Oscar win for The Lion King.
Music Videos - Three music videos offer you alternate versions of the songs featured in the film: Can You Feel The Love Tonight? and Circle of Life are performed by Elton John while Jimmy Cliff (featuring Lebo M) offer his rendition of Hakuna Matata.
Stage (16:16): - This journey takes a look at the Broadway show adaptation of The Lion King. Taking us through the evolution of this adaptation we see how it went from being an idea everyone laughed at to the hit stage show it is today. From the writing process where they extracted the main themes of the movie and boosted certain character roles, to the musical extensions with further songs from Tim Rice, Elton John and Lebo M, and finally on to the stage and costume design this mini-documentary chronicles the shows creation with great success.
Stage Musical Publicity Gallery - A stills gallery featuring 11 images of poster artwork used to promote the stage show around the world.
Animals (18:17): - The last of the journeys is introduced by Roy Disney and features 4 mini-featurettes that take a look at the real life animals seen in The Lion King. Lions, Meerkats, Warthogs and Hyenas are covered using a mixture of documentary footage and clips from the film while a voiceover offers basic nature documentary style information that children will certainly find to be both educational and entertaining, though adults will find it all a touch light on facts and bloated by clips from the film.
Rounding off this final journey is a featurette looking at Disney and animals, highlighting the great partnership they have had over the years with animated features, live-action documentaries and films, and of course animal themed adventure rides in their various parks around the world.
With my Journeys over we can now explore the various continents and see what extra material there is on offer...
Storyboard to Screen Comparison (4:02) - The entire 'Circle of Life' opening sequence is presented here in split screen allowing you to compare the storyboards (placed at the top of the screen) to the final animation (placed at the bottom of the screen).
Early Concepts: Timon & Pumbaa Find Simba (3:01) and Simba's Presentation (4:04) - Presented in storyboard form these alternate sequences are introduced by producer Don Hahn who explains the concepts behind them. Of particular interest is the latter sequence that showcases the genesis of the opening “Circle of Life” concept that is shown here sans the music we all know and love. Instead we find the characters have dialogue while the title card for the movie is different (reading "King of the Jungle").
Abandoned Concept: Warthog Rhapsody (4:21) - Producer Don Hahn also introduces this sequence (again in storyboard form) which he describes as an early rendition of Hakuna Matata that sees Pumbaa take the lead in a musical number (performed here by the films directors and other crew members).
Early Presentation Reel (1:32) - Producer Don Hahn once again steps into the spotlight to introduce this short presentation reel that combines artwork and photographs of Africa used to both inspire the team and help promote the movie to various Disney execs.
Art Design Galleries - 6 galleries present you with a total of 126 images all showcasing the films often beautiful background artwork in various stages of development from basic sketch outlines through final colour paintings. A further 5 galleries comprise a total of 50 images that when stepped through show how a scene is built out of multiple cells laid on top of one another. Bringing this section to a close are a further 3 galleries that focus on the films effects animation and total 22 images. Much like the previous galleries these feature images that when stepped through show how effects animation is created using layers.
International Release (3:33) - A short featurette that looks at how the original English dub is adapted and then localised to specific cultures to obtain the best translations for the myriad of foreign dubs produced by Disney.
Multi Language Clip Reel (4:11) - To showcase the various foreign dubs from around the world Disney have put together this multi language version of Hakuna Matata. Starting out in English it then seamlessly moves into numerous languages from around the world, on each language you also have the option to press the Enter button on your remote which will then jump to an extended sample of that countries 'favourite moment' from the film.
International Soundtrack Covers (16 Images) and International Large Format Release (11 Images) - Images from the soundtrack album and theatrical releases of The Lion King around the world.
The Lion King 3 Trailer (1:46, Non-anamorphic Widescreen, DD2.0 Stereo) - This short trailer for the third Lion King movie can also be found on disc ones opening trailers.
DVD Sound Design (5:00) - Re-recording Mixer Terry Porter explains the concept of the Disney Enhanced Home Theatre mix, something we covered in more detail in the following feature and also above in the Audio section of this review.
Animal Kingdom Park (4:02) and Animal Kingdom Lodge (1:39) - These short video segments are basically one big advert for the Disney attraction and hotel resort found in Orlando.
Virtual Safari - Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella return as Timon and Pumbaa as they take you on two virtual safari's through the African jungle. Choose your method of transport (Jeep or Boat) and away you go on a mini-adventure created primarily for children where Timon and Pumbaa act as zany tour guides though most of the time end up running from hungry carnivores. Interaction from the viewer is limited to specific junction points where you choose to move left or right, and with just three such junctions in each safari you can imagine the variety on offer here is sadly minimal. This really is a shame as the mixture of CGI and 2D animation looks fine while the real treat is Terry Porter's 5.1 mix for these tours where he develops the DEHT concept and helps to create a very effective though short lived 'adventure ride' feel. So this is certainly great for the kids though adults will most likely be bored after 20-minutes.
As a film The Lion King is as impressive today as it was back when I first saw it in the Cinema and now thanks to the outstanding audio and video quality of this DVD release everyone can enjoy it in their homes the way it was meant to be experienced. The added bonus here of course is the highly recommended DEHT audio mix, and though Disney’s decision to use the DTS format for this Region 2 DVD release is to be applauded, it does also limit the number of consumers who can benefit from this improved 5.1 soundtrack.
In terms of bonus content The Lion King Special Edition is a definite success. The combination of informative and entertaining features such as audio commentary, mini-documentaries, featurettes, image galleries and set-top games make for a fine selection while the bite size nature of the continents bonus features on disc two allow you to dip in and out with ease. If I had any complaints, and I do, it would be the lack of Theatrical Trailers and the almost complete lack of interviews and recording session footage with the voice actors. Apart from roughly one minute of archive footage and some additional voice recording for the menus and Virtual Safari games (though I am fairly confident only Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella return, the other ‘characters’ are merely quite well impersonated) the voice actors are no where to be seen and I find that to be a great shame as the talent on board was fantastic and to hear their insights on the film and see them at work would have rounded off an otherwise outstanding package.