Monday, February 20, 2012

The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994)

Can you feel the love tonight?

“Disneyfication” is an ugly word. Mirriam-Webster defines it “the transformation of something into a safe and carefully controlled entertainment.” I think of it as Disney's penchant for taking a classic piece of literature and scraping away everything disturbing or complex about it--everything that made it a classic, in effect--leaving what is essentially tasteless pap, fit only for toothless babes, or parents who wish to keep their kids from growing a sensibility, much less intelligence.

I can think of a few heinous examples: Hans Christian Andersen's “The Little Mermaid,” a fable about a sea maiden who enters into a Faustian bargain--a pair of legs and the chance to win an immortal soul, in exchange for her tongue (Andersen's tales were not exactly kid friendly). Disney's 1989 adaptation (by Ron Clements and John Musker) stitched together broad comedy sketches (featuring cute crustacean sidekicks), a fistful of song-and-dance numbers (by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman--arguably the only decent elements in the picture), lopped off the heartbreaking finale, and pretty much transformed the tale into the story of yet another Disney brat who can't get understanding from her overbearing daddy.

More atrocities: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise's Beauty and the Beast (1991) stole its best ideas from Jean Cocteau's haunting 1946 film (would have done better to steal Cocteau's gorgeously shadowed cinematography as well). Ron Clements and John Musker's Aladdin (1992) jettisoned fabulously sensuous details in  the Islamic literary classic in favor of a movie about a stand-up comedian genie, voiced by Robin Williams.

Trousdale and Wise's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) continued the process--the hunchback's hideousness smoothed over (he mostly looked puffy, as if in reaction to a bee sting), the tragic conclusion turned into standard-issue Happy Hour. But there was one number--“Hellfire,” where Archdeacon Frollo (Tony Jay) sings of his unholy obsession with the beautiful Esmeralda--that for sheer passion and sense of damnation approached, however distantly, what Victor Hugo had in mind. Too unsettling for the kiddies, Disney must have decided (though the movie overall was a hit); the studio never tried for that level of intensity ever again.

Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff's 1994 The Lion King was supposed to be different. Set in Africa and borrowing the plot structure of Hamlet (with bits of Prince Hal thrown in), the movie was to be Disney's prestige production, the one where risks were taken. Thomas Disch wrote a treatment called King of the Kalahari, and a script was drawn up where Simba would be corrupted by Scar and eventually deposed.

Too dark, the studio must have (again) decided; rewrites followed. The way I see it, they could have gone either the Hamlet route, portrayed Simba as a young lion tormented by anguish over his father's slaying and guilt over his own indecisiveness (the possibly richer, more difficult alternative), or they could have gone the Henry IV route and introduced a Falstaff figure, to struggle with Mufasa for control of Simba's soul. Instead they have Simba opting for exile; at worst his crimes consist of laziness and a lack of accountability (the darker implications of Hamlet's self-torment--not to mention his near-incestuous love-hate for his mother Gertrude--are firmly left out of the picture). He meets a pair of friends, Timon and Pumbaa (basically pint-sized, heavily sanitized versions of Falstaff) and hangs with them.

He (please skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the picture--though at this point it's difficult to think of a reason why) eventually confronts Scar and has his vengeance, though indirectly: the villain loses balance and falls to his death (Come to think of it, nearly every Disney villain accidentally falls to their deaths. The lack of firm footwork among their ranks is alarming).

The animation is smooth--best that money from the biggest animation studio in the world can buy. As with most American animation, the best bits are often the comedy sketches: Falstaff dumbed down, all the fart and crap jokes meant to amuse an African Prince Hal without the wit, or implied criminality (petty thievery, bribery, exploitation of the prince's royal status in every way possible).

I keep hearing critics praise the background art and character design. Don't know if said critics ever noticed the background art to Japanese anime, where the very leaves of a tree seem to be painstakingly painted in (even the dappled sunlight in a relatively 'minor' work like Yoshifumi Kondo's Whispers of the Heart (1995) seem expressive, mysterious, beautiful); and then there's Hayao Miyazaki's creature design in films like Nausicaa, of theValley of the Wind (1984) or Spirited Away (2001). The Ohmu, No-Face--need I say more? The artwork in this movie doesn't even match Disney's own gold standard--Clyde Geronimi's 1959 Sleeping Beauty, which achieved the illuminated grandeur of a stained-glass window from a Gothic cathedral...

So--a Disney classic, deserving of 3D treatment? Not a big fan of the process myself; to date I can count all the decent 3D features I've seen on the fingers of one hand. Sure, it deserves this particular kind of abuse; meanwhile Scorsese's Hugo on second viewing is as complex and lovely and evocative as ever. If I had to spend my precious holiday dollars on a movie, I'd spend it on that film instead.

First published in Businessworld, 12.15.11


Anonymous said...

Sorry to picky, I just want to correct something you've got here. Scar's demise was a little more sour than falling to his death. He did fall, however he survived as it wasn't a great height. Scar's hyena friends overheard him betraying/blaming them when talking to Simba and mauled him at the bottom of the cliff.

Noel Vera said...

Falls, mauled. Gotcha.