In late 2006, I received a flyer in the mail from the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. It announced a special rerelease of The Nightmare Before Christmas, which, for the first time, had been converted to 3D. I was at that point a diehard Nightmare fan for thirteen years, and I enthusiastically jumped at the offer. Sitting in the theater as the movie played, I came to a disappointing realization: Although it was telling the same wonderful story and featured the same wonderful characters, I had not gotten my money’s worth out of the 3D. There was no significant sense of depth, no uncanny feeling that I was immersed in another world. In my defense, I had no way of knowing beforehand it would be like this. 3D films had not yet saturated the market in 2006. I had no frame of reference.
Now that it’s 2011, now that I have a wealth of experience with the 3D process, I find myself in the position of reviewing Disney’s The Lion King 3D, a special rerelease of the 1994 animated blockbuster. Strictly from the perspective of narrative and animation, it’s the movie we all know and love; the Shakespearian plot remains fun and fanciful, the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice remain catchy, the characters remain memorable, and the drawings remains superb. But the 3D is unimpressive. That’s a bigger deal than it might seem, because that’s the only selling point of this rerelease. Sitting in the screening room, my mind drifted back to Nightmare, and I came to the realization that, because I now know what to expect of 3D – especially a post-production conversion – I made the mistake of not lowering my expectations. I’m going to give you my usual advice, followed by an optional addendum: See it in traditional 2D, or save your money altogether and watch it at home.
Now that I’ve made my feelings known about the 3D process, let’s drop that subject and make this more of a generational analysis. In some ways, the movie made a bigger impression on my now than it did seventeen years ago, when I had not yet turned eleven. I grew up with the Disney Renaissance, as many Generation Y children did, but only with the recent development of my critical-thinking skills was I able to fully appreciate the films of that era – the artistry, the talent involved, the sense that they were aiming for a family audience and not just children. What I responded to the most with The Lion King was the maturity with which the story was told; it is, overall, a great deal of fun, but it’s not without its darker moments, and there are specific sequences just intense enough to frighten really young children. Even today, I get a small chill watching the hyenas goosestep in full view of Scar, and I get just a little choked up at the death of Mufasa, the unfortunate victim of regicide.
Now that I’m older, I also respond much better to the humor, a lot of which is reserved for the comic duo of Timon and Pumbaa. As a kid, I could easily laugh at the sight of their Hawaiian luau number, intended to distract the hyenas and give Simba a chance to sneak past. Only now could I laugh at Timon’s wisecrack about how nothing could be eating Simba because he’s on the top of the food chain. And how about the moment Pumbaa goes postal when the hyenas call him “the pig”? Unless your eight-year-old is a cinephile, it’s unlikely he or she will know that Pumbaa’s response is derived from famous lines in Taxi Driver and In the Heat of the Night. I get that joke now. And I thought it was quite funny.
I appreciate the voice work in a way I never have before. James Earl Jones, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, and Ernie Sabella inhabit their characters with such conviction that I could freely disassociate actor and character – it wasn’t Thomas singing “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” it was young Simba. Jeremy Irons steals the show as Scar, who in 1994 was the most deliciously evil Disney villain since Ursula and who has since only been matched by Hades and Dr. Facilier. Scar, along with a multitude of hyenas, sings what I consider to be the film’s best song, “Be Prepared”; not only did it give Rice an excuse to indulge in bitingly clever lyrics, it also allowed for intense and beautifully rendered visuals of volcanic and seismic activity. The final shot of the song, a pullback, is one of the best belonging to a Disney movie.
As you can see, I don’t want to turn you away from seeing this movie, a highly entertaining chapter of the Disney Renaissance and a very good film in its own right. What I am trying to do is get you to see it for reasons apart from the 3D process, which was clearly employed as a marketing gimmick rather than as an artistic decision. Quite simply, the 3D doesn’t work. When Rafiki raises the newborn Simba on the edge of Pride Rock, he doesn’t come off the screen and fill the theater. When the herd of water buffalo stampedes into the canyon, they don’t invade our field of vision in a blur of hooves and dust. I never once felt as if I had been transported to the wilds of Africa, or anywhere else. The Lion King 3D does not need to be seen simply because a digit and a letter have been added to the end of the title. It should be seen for its story, its music, and its animation.