Though there’s no touching the early wave of classic Disney animated features, when the studio reinvented its animation department in the late 1980’s they had a run of successful and impactful films that deserve to be shelved near those great works. 1994’s The Lion King is the best of that run (which arguably goes from 1989’s The Little Mermaid through to 1999’s Tarzan) and a film that captures much of the same terrain of those classics, but reimagines those stories in a way that feels fresh. It’s a crowning achievement, and the Diamond Edition Blu-ray presents the film in a pristine transfer. Our review of The Lion King on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
The film beings with the birth of Simba – the latest lion cub, and heir to the throne. His father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is a proud father who tries to teach his son the way of their world, but his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) – though weaker than Mufasa – has long been hoping and plotting to someday take over. Scar starts his plan by encouraging the young Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas) to go where he shouldn’t, which introduces him to the hyenas (voiced most notably by Cheech Marin and Whoopi Goldberg). And then Scar again pushes Simba to be in the midst of a stampede, which kills his father. Simba doesn’t know that it was Scar who intentionally lets Mufasa die, and so Simba runs away from his kingdom thinking it was his fault.
While in the wilderness he makes friends with Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), and they espouse a “Hakuna Matata” lifestyle, which means carefree and without worries. They get by on grubs, but enjoy their lackadaisical lives. As Simba grows into manhood (voiced by Mathew Broderick) Scar runs their tribe into the ground, and when Simba’s love interest Nala (Moira Kelly) shows up looking for help Simba is pushed into reclaiming his rightful place.
Running a swift 89 minutes, The Lion King captures the beauty and pain of earlier Disney. Though the song “Circle of Life” has entered the pop consciousness as can be seen removed from context, it’s really a song about how everyone lives and dies and the cycle that continues on. There’s enough going on under the surface to not make this just a distraction. The film is deeply indebted to Bambi in that way (which offers a similar circle), but the film is also warmer in its way, with the good natured, but never fourth wall breaking sense of humor. Disney’s films always had their funny moments, but there’s a great naivety to them than the Warner Brothers model, and that’s well followed here. And, though I would argue Bambi is the crowning achievement of their animation at that time, this does a better job of justifying the main character’s royal lineage – something that makes little sense in Bambi.
Also borrowing heavily from Shakespeare (there’s some Henry V and Falstaff in there), the story is simplistic but never heavy handed and it works. If there is one small complaint I have about the film it’s that Scar’s rule is compared directly to the Nazis, and though it’s already frightening enough thinking of Scar’s rule, when the film tips it’s hand on that one it’s a little much – the point was made. But otherwise, The Lion King is a perfect film for children that gives them something to chew on. And though Disney’s films have often relied heavy on dead parents, it feels earned here.
There is a 3-D set also available, which we did not get for review. The 2-D Blu-ray version comes a DVD copy. The film is presented widescreen (1.78:1) and in 7.1 DTS-HD master audio. This transfer is absolutely perfect. This is a demo disc all the way around and the clarity is breathtaking. The film also comes with the second screen function, which allows you to look at stills and galleries, and live action bits on your laptop or iPad while the film is playing, and the film can be watched in sing-a-long mode.
As for the rest of the supplements there are Bloopers (4 min.), which appear to have been done for an earlier release. New to the set is “Backstage,” which offers a retrospective called “Pride of The Lion King” (38 min.), that assembles Jeffery Katzenberg and Michael Eisener, the film’s directors Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff, producer Don Hahn, and stars Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane (among others) to talk about the making of the movie. It’s followed by “The Lion King: A Memoir – Don Hahn” (20 min.), which walks through the making of the film with period clips. Then there are five deleted scenes with introductions by Allers and Minkoff (15 min.). There’s also an extended scene included (3 min.) done for the previous DVD release. There’s an interactive still gallery offering character design, storyboards and more, and Disney’s Virtual Vault, which offers all the supplements from the previous DVD releases (111 min.) through streaming video. If it at first doesn’t look that thorough, if you have a good online collection, it proves to be a worth special edition.