Despite suggestions made by the Disney artisans, that their main source for narrative inspiration was derived from ancient African folk tales with only a slight afterthought paid to Shakespeare, Disney’s The Lion King (1994) is an obvious retelling of the bard’s Hamlet. Thematically, the film stands on more liberal interpretation. It makes its inquiries as per the individual's place in the greater 'circle of life', while reflecting on the major impact a single individual can have on a whole community.
There is also a very sincere thread, introspective and dedicated to ownership and responsibility for one’s actions – a minor 'earth day' plug for preserving the delicate order and balance of the planet - and an honest reflection on coping with life after the death of a loved one. Still, and despite these thematic elements, at its heart – The Lion King is Hamlet with a hefty mane of fur.
The Lion King began its lengthy gestation in 1988. Multiple drafts followed, with final screenwriting credits going to Irene Mecchi, Johnathan Roberts and Lindsay Woolverton. As scripted, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) has begun to teach his young son, Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) about the importance of governing with a mighty hand and an understanding heart. However, before the lessons can progress, Mufasa’s brother Scar (Jeremy Irons) murders him in a wildebeest stampede, then implants the thought in Simba's mind that it is all his fault.
The residual guilt from this great lie forces Simba into exile where he meets compatriots Timon the Meerkat (Nathan Lane) and warthog Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). Simba (now voiced by Matthew Broderick) grows up in their company. However, as the years pass, he realizes that his duty is to the pack of lions on Pride Rock – the domain once governed by his father, but now under the control of Scar and the hyenas; Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg), Banzai (Cheech Marin) and Ed (Jim Cummins).
Largely considered a B-movie at the studio – at least, by the top animators on the lot, The Lion King’s directorial duties were passed on to Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff – under whom roughly 350 artisans brought their inspiration. Project research took a select team to the wilds of Africa to soak up the culture, majesty and grandeur of the wide open spaces. These were later translated into powerful visual concepts and final artwork in the film.
The results speak for themselves. The Lion King is a film of immense personality unlike anything Disney animation has ever attempted. Clearly the artists were 'touched' by their African experience and brought that intensity to their color design. For imaginative flare there was nothing to touch the buoyantly staged ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King;’ the disturbingly powerful symmetry of Adolph Hitler’s Nuremberg parades, brilliantly reconceived for Scar’s ‘Be Prepared,’ or natural beauty of the Dark Continent superbly celebrated in the film’s emotionally stirring opener – ‘Circle of Life.’
When The Lion King had its premiere it was universally hailed as a masterpiece. There's really no arguing the fact. The narrative may be thinly disguised Shakespeare, but the artistry in animation is pure vintage Disney. The chart-topping score from Elton John/Tim Rice justly won Oscars. The irony, of course, is that what had been perceived as a 'little film' has since gone on to become the most successful animated feature in the company’s entire history. It wasn't all magic and pixie dust. A lot of hard work had something to do with it too!
And now comes Disney's Diamond Edition Blu-ray; a truly sumptuous visceral experience. Colors are majestically rich and eye-popping. Contrast levels are bang on. We can see finite detail previous hidden in the art work. The image is sharp, yet smooth. This is a reference quality disc. The audio is a home theater 7.1 DTS remix - aggressive acoustics and perfect pitch. Extras abound. We get a comprehensive making of documentary on the film, another on the Broadway incarnation, deleted scenes, pencil tests, songs, bloopers, a theatrical trailer and audio commentary. Truly, there isn't anything more Disney could have done to make this Blu-ray an experience. The Lion King soars in hi-def. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)