Disney’s “The Lion King” has always held a very special place in my life. It was one of the very first films that I can recall becoming completely obsessed with at a very young age (the soundtrack, stuffed animals, multiple viewings of the VHS, etc.), and it even holds the distinction of being the very first film that I saw twice at the theatre. There’s no denying that there have been many masterpieces in the Disney animated collection, but still to this day, I consider this to be their greatest achievement of all. Now that it’s taking its rightful place in the “Signature Collection,” we are once again given an excuse to look back and see why one of their greatest masterpieces became so beloved and is still so highly revered 23 years later.
Set in the Pride Lands of Africa, “The Lion King” follows a group of animals ruled by King Mufasa (Voice of James Earl Jones), who has recently had a son, Simba (Voice of Jonathan Taylor Thomas). Mufasa tries to teach his son how to be a good king, though, at such a young age, he still gets into trouble by doing things he’s not supposed to do, such as venturing into the hyenas’ territory with his best friend Nala (Voice of Niketa Calame). There’s also the problem of Mufasa’s brother Scar (Voice of Jeremy Irons), who is extremely jealous that he isn’t king. This eventually leads him to hatch a plot that has him murdering Mufasa and pinning the death on young Simba, who flees the kingdom and begins a new life in the wild with some new friends, Timon (Voice of Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Voice of Ernie Sabella). Meanwhile, life in the Pride Lands becomes quite harsh when newly crowned King Scar allows his hyena friends to move in. With Simba running away from his past, and everyone believing he’s dead, will things ever return to the way they were?
To pinpoint what makes “The Lion King” such a great film is not a terribly hard thing to do. This story has always felt as timeless as a number of great classics, and yet, the funny thing is that it was not based on any existing material in particular. Sure, the similarities to William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” are easily noticeable in the dynamic between Mufasa and Scar, but apparently the comparison wasn’t even made until after it was developed. Putting that aside, the narrative has multiple elements that draw you in, bringing this story to life with a realism that very few animated films are able to accomplish with the use of talking animals.
For example, the connection between Mufasa and Simba, father and son, as he tries to guide his cub on the right path so that he will be a wise and just ruler is a universal relationship that almost anyone could relate to (not in a royal sense, but in the more basic sense of preparing the next generation for their place in the world). That connection is clearly shown to have had a grand effect in just the first 30 or so minutes of the film, for when Mufasa is murdered by Scar, leaving Simba to discover the body, the impact felt as a result is one of the most devastating in all of cinema. By the time we come to Simba’s inevitable return to set things right, we are so entrenched in the story and the characters that you just might need to be reminded that you’ve been watching a Disney film the entire time, which only once again goes to show just how powerful animation can be.
Speaking of the characters, much like many of Disney’s other great successes, they play a major part in making the film as memorable as it is. Aside from Mufasa and Simba, you also have Timon and Pumbaa, arguably the most popular pair of Disney characters of all time. Their colorful personalities and laid-back approach to life inject the film with a little needed levity after the tragic events that drive Simba out of the Pride Lands. In other words, they’re entertaining and just plain fun characters that you find yourself really wanting to be around (adding to the film’s already massive rewatchability). Of course, you also have the film’s deliciously evil villain Scar, perfectly voiced by the great Jeremy Irons, who makes him ooze with genuine jealousy and sly sliminess. After all, what is a Disney animated film without an unforgettable villain?
As usual, we must discuss the music, but for “The Lion King,” it’s even more vital than for most. True, Disney films tend to have great soundtracks, but with this classic, composer Hans Zimmer, along with song writer Sir Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice, went above and beyond to create something that transcended everything that came before it (and has yet to be matched since). The film earned four Oscar nominations in two categories (Best Original Score and Best Original Song) and easily won them both. In fact, these were probably two of the biggest “no-brainer” votes in Academy history, with the only difficulty being having to choose between “Circle of Life, “Hakuna Matata,” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” (the winner) for Original Song. To put it simply, the music here is just as powerful as its brilliant narrative, perfectly complementing it with literally the right note every step of the way.
Even 23 years later, “The Lion King” still stands as a grand achievement on several levels that includes not only the story, characters, and music, but also the beautiful animation coupled with the amazing designs. It’s hard to imagine Disney ever being able to top what they were able to accomplish here. It was basically the perfect combination of elements coming together from the perfect team of collaborators, who ended up with an astounding animated classic for all ages, and for the ages. It set a bar for animated features that others could only dream of reaching, and in all likelihood, it will never even be matched, let alone “dethroned.”
“The Lion King” returns to Blu-ray in a 1.78:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of fantastic quality. Every single frame appears beautifully sharp and clear, making the 23-year-old animation look brand new again. The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally impressive, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and the brilliant, Oscar-winning music in phenomenal quality. Overall, this Disney masterpiece has been given the utmost care, resulting in yet another outstanding release in their continuing line.
Audio Commentary with Co-Directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, and Producer Don Hahn: An outstanding commentary track that has the directors and producer taking you through the making of the film, giving you tons of fascinating background info along the way.
Visualizing a Villain (3 Minutes): A pointless inclusion that has an artist creating an interpretation of the film’s villain.
The Recording Sessions (5 Minutes): A fascinating look inside the recording booth at the voice actors recording their parts.
Inside the Story Room (24 Minutes): Archival footage of the pitching and discussion of five sequences from the film, featuring an introduction and input from the film’s directors.
Nathan and Matthew: The Extended Lion King Conversation (7 Minutes): An intriguing conversation between Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, and an executive producer on the film.
Bloopers & Outtakes (4 Minutes): An amusing series of animated outtakes.
The Morning Report: Extended Scene (3 Minutes): A new (and quite frankly, not very good) song from the Broadway adaptation that’s been edited into the film with new animation.
Deleted & Alternate Scenes (13 Minutes): A fascinating collection of deleted material that includes an unused song.
With its remarkable narrative, memorable characters, stunning animation, and brilliant music, “The Lion King” remains the very pinnacle of Disney’s animated achievements. With its re-release on Blu-ray, featuring a gorgeous transfer of the film and lots of fascinating extras, there’s no better time to add this classic masterpiece to your collection if you haven’t already, for it easily deserves a spot on the shelf right next to the plethora of other Disney classics.