Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Franchise Frenzy: The Lion King

I Ain't Lion...That First Movies Still Amazing (The Sequels? Weeellllll.....)

Gives ya chills, don't it?
Disney is pretty much the reason why I love not only the art of animation, but cinema in general. Their movies were ones I rewatched endlessly, to the point where even today even the mention of key words like "necessities" and "world" are likely to cause me to burst into a Disney song. One of my favorites of the bunch was easily The Lion King, a movie released only a year and a half before I was born, and (something I didn't realize until I actually started writing this article) one that came out twenty years ago this week. Who can believe it's been twenty years since moviegoers were enthralled by the Circle of Life? Even today, the movie has a tremendous presence in pop culture, to the point where a new sequel TV series entitled The Lion Guard was announced last week.

Yep, The Lion King has stood the test of time to remain an exemplary movie. I'm obviously older than I was when I first discovered, but my appreciation for the movie has only grown over time. It's enormous musical numbers are catchy as all out, and easily stand as some of the best performed numbers of any cinematic musical. But what really catches me now is its dark material, which somehow gel with upbeat songs and humorous characters like Timon & Pumbaa. Balancing those kind of elements is one few movies can stand to, but not only The Lion King face it, it manages to use both to hit home its mature themes and ideas.

I'd also like to take a moment and applaud the voice cast of this film, which really does help guarantee the movies greatness. Matthew Broderick helps sell all the tragedy Simbas been through, while Jeremy Irons does one of his best roles as a truly terrifying bad guy (to this day, the scene where he first interacts with Simba as an adult is just unnerving in the amount of tension it conveys) And oh yes, Nathan Lane and Ernie Sebella  remain hilarious as the duo Timon & Pumbaa. One little note by the way; how weird is it that a movie that contains traumatic moments like Mufasas death (which makes Bambi's mothers passing look chipper in comparison) and a villain being eaten by his former henchman is given a G rating in 1994, yet in 2014, The LEGO Movie is deemed fit for a PG rating by simply saying the word butt? Oh, MPAA, you're so pointless...

Now, a magnificent movie like The Lion King is bound to make money, but wowza! Like Frozen nineteen years later, this thing surpassed expectations to make $850 million worldwide (I'm not counting the money it made in it's 3D re-release) and become nothing short of a phenomenon. In today's moviemaking society, a sequel would be ordered immediately. Hell, at DreamWorks, three sequels would likely be made ASAP! But back in the day, Disney was just starting their direct-to-video initiative, which would make sequels to their beloved animated movies and release them to the lucrative home video market. The Return of Jafar was thee first of a flood of films that ranged from (at best) tolerable to excruciating. The Lion King received not one, but two DTV sequels, but luckily they were on the better end of these features.

The Lion King II: Simbas Pride is one of the many home video films that pretty much recreated the original movie, but with the kid of the first movies protagonist being the focus of the films story. At least this one has the courtesy to slightly switch up things a bit, by taking the structure of Romeo & Juliets story and having Simbas daughter, Kiara, fall in love with antagonistic lion Kovu. The film lacks the scale, good music, beautiful animation and lovable characters of the first movie, but it at least has the courtesy of remaining watchable. The villains (one of which is voiced by Andy Dick) are intimidating enough I suppose, and at least the voice cast from the first movie mostly comes back. The trouble is that nothing in this movie is very interesting; neither Kiara or Kovu (whose voiced in lackluster fashion by James Marsters, Disney's go-to-guy for a long time to play young troubled Disney characters) have any real depth to them, which makes the whole affair a bit of a slog. At least Lane and Sebella remain entertaining as Timon & Pumbaa in their moments.

Simba and his family that are so important they didn't
warrant getting mentionedi n the original movie, but by
golly, they still deserve their own feature!
That beloved duo would be the center of the final Lion King DTV sequel, The Lion King 1 1/2. This has one of the more unique premises of any of these "cheap-quels", as Timon & Pumbaa's perspective of the first film is given, as well as the explanation for how they met. This is a very comical film, one whose humorous moments are surprisingly successful at time, with unfortunately hardly any real plot to speak of. Unlike The Lion King 2 though, at least this one's got two leads are interesting to watch, even if they do very little to advance the characters beyond cracking one-liners. Part of The Lion Kings many charms was how it was able to deftly blend both hilarious moments with moments of awe-inspiring beauty. Not even a hint of grace is in this one, and none of the laughs even approach the gags in the original classic. That being said, it is at least a diverting affair that at least attempts something new, which is more than can be said for modern day theatrically released sequels like Despicable Me 2.

It's weird to look back on this franchise that The Lion King has spawned, solely since the first movie remains so phenomenally successful, and the sequels flaws have become more apparent over time. At least none of the follow up adventures were bad enough to detract from the first movie (though that original is so glorious I'm not even sure a sequel that's as a bad as A Good Day To Die Hard could damage its reputation) None of the dozens of direct-to-video sequels Disney churned out from 1996 to 2008, including these two Lion King tales, were good enough to challenge the (correct) perception that these films were little more than soulless money makers, but at least these two weren't atrocious. And after all, we'll always have the original movie, with it's Circle of Life, which, after all, does move us all!

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