The Secret to The Lion King's Success
(and why it enraged me when I first saw it)
by Carolyna Cougar
I beleive the reason that Disney's The Lion King was so successful was because it combined two different styles of Disney filmmaking. These two different styles are described below.
The Artistic Nature Film:
Made in the early 1940's, Disney's Bambi was released with a primarily adult audience in mind. Back then, adults weren't regarding animation as kiddie-stuff. They hadn't been raised by bad Saturday morning television animation, and hadn't learned that a rating of 'G' meant 'for babies'. Bambi was released before movies were rated.
Bambi was originally a love story, not specifically intended for an audience of children. Children were upset, and still are today at re-releases of Bambi, at the scene of Bambi's mother being killed.
__________It is, undoubtedly, a beautiful artistic film, with lush backgrounds of the forest as it changed through the seasons, like a priceless oil painting. The slightly stylized, yet realistic animal animation was the most realistic animation ever done before at that time.
__________There were very few songs. "Little April Shower" was about a springtime cloudburst. "I Bring You a Song" was about the main character's hopes for their love. They were sung by melodic voices in the background, symbolizing the forces of nature, or the feelings the characters had for each other. The songs were never sung by the characters themselves.
__________The music was orchestrational classic, beautiful and baroque, with an angelic chorus at times.
__________The humor was timeless, not relying on current events, movie stars or slang language. When Bambi and Thumper discovered the joys and perils of an iced-over pond, the humor was just natural. Almost no dialogue was used. Later on, when the three friends one by one become twitterpated, the humor is again, natural and easy to relate to by any one around the globe.
The Family Musical:
Aladdin was a film designed for a youthful audience of the 90's, with fast action, witty dialogue between characters and roller-coaster rides of action and suspense.
__________The film was artistically bold, with bright, pure colors and plenty of splash and flashy effects. Smoke, fireworks, parades, and plenty of magic. The character designs were highly stylized, adapting the style of popular charicaturist Al Hirschfield.
__________There were many songs, and all of them were sung by the characters. "Arabian Nights" was sung by the disguised Genie, who also sang "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali". Aladdin sang "One Jump Ahead" and "A Whole New World", and the villian even sings a song about his triumph, "The Ends of the Earth".
__________The music was bold and jazzy, and while the credits rolled, celebrity singers Peabo Bryson and Regina Bell did a pop revision of "Whole New World", which went on to become a top forty hit.
__________The humor was somewhat lowbrow, using 'wacky' cartoonish extras getting involved in acts of slapstick. The guards that chase Aladdin step on a firewalker, they also step on a man reclining on a bed of nails, cause a sword-swallower to swallow wrong, and ultimately get buried by a cartload of manure. The Genie is an almost constant comedian, blending visual gags with verbal jokes in a constant barrage. The monkey, Abu, is also always performing sleight of hand tricks and unsuccessfully feigning innocence. In addition, the humor relies heavily upon verbal puns, like
How The Lion King blended these two styles
__________This film definately has the beauty of Bambi, with lush natural backgrounds and realistic animal animation. But the colors are vibrant and glowing with vitality, and there are moments of fast action. The characters are
__________There are also many songs sung by the characters, with . "Circle of Life" is sung by an African choir. "I Just Can't Wait to be King" is sung by the lead character, Simba. "Be Prepared" is sung by the villian, Scar. "Hakuna Matata" is sung by Timon, Pumbaa and Simba.
__________One song, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight", manages to be sung by three different groups of singers; First, it's sung in third person by Timon and Pumbaa, as they remark on what is about to occur. Then it's an African choir describing what happens, and then it's the lead characters singing their thoughts to the audience. An interesting blend.
__________The music was a best-selling blend of African choir, jazzy pop and contemporary orchestration by Hans Zimmer. This was the first album that sold so well that a second was published, "Rhthym of the Pridelands: Music Inspired by The Lion King."
__________Unfortunately, the Aladdin-esque type humor won out in this film. There are hardly any instances of natural humor, and more of the lowbrow humor, reaching new depths by eating slimy insects (the ewww, gross factor) and touching on fart jokes. (!)
__________The rare instances of what I'll call natural humor was when Simba crouched down in the tall grass when he was about to be reprimanded by his father. The audience got immediate sympathy for the cub, and responded with chuckles. Another example is when Simba has grown up in the jungle, and pulls his childhood friend Nala, also grown, into a pool of water. Simba is perfectly comfortable with the idea of swimming, but Nala comes out positively horrified, being raised in the relatively dry savannah. And when she climbs out and Simba follows her, his mane plastered comedically over his face with water, she gives him a wry look and pushes him back into the water as she runs off.
__________This is humor that goes beyond language, cultures and time periods. On the other side of the spectrum, we have humor that relies on trendy phrases, bathroom humor, and English puns.
__________Examples of this sort of humor are when Zazu gives the morning report, and utters a stream of bad african animal puns, that goes, "The buzz from the bees is that the leopards are in a bit of a spot. I told the elephants to forget about it, but they can't. And everyone knows, cheetahs never prosper." The hyenas say, "Make mine a cub sandwich", and "We can eat whatever's lion around". The bathroom humor occurs when during a song, Timon stops Pumbaa from actually saying the word farted, but it's clear that's what he was going to say. The word 'Pumbaa' roughly translates into 'fart' in Swahili, and if you look hard enough on some of the conceptual artwork there is a picture of Pumbaa sitting in a puddle of mud, with bubbles in the mud coming from his rear. In a scene that was mercifully re-edited, Pumbaa races into a cave with hyenas inside, to save his friends. We never see what happens inside the cave, but the hyenas run out of there in a mad, panicky scramble. Originally there was going to be a loud fart sound, leading to the conclusion that Pumbaa saved them by farting so foully that not even the hyenas (who should be used to unbeleiveable stenches) could bear it. Because it was too 'over the top', the sound effects were replaced by the sounds of a physical fight, with landed blows and a "Take that, you stupid...!"
__________Another far too easy laugh for the kiddies is the use of the eating of slimy bugs. It's the 'ewww, gross' factor, slapstick for kids. Very little children will giggle at stories about eating worms, snails and other creepy-crawlies.
__________There are also spoof jokes, at one point a character starts singing "It's a Small World After All". There's a fighting scene that is a spoof on bad Kung Fu films.
__________Additionally, in Bambi, Man was clearly the enemy, but in The Lion King the animals adopted a lot of human characteristics and rarely behaved like real animals. The villian talks about the gene pool; he also captures a mouse in his paw, and then the paw turns into a quite dextrous hand with fingers, over which the mouse scurries and tries to escape. One of the characters, a meerkat named Timon, walks on his hindlegs 90% of the time, manipulating objects with his human arms and hands and using tools. In a less extreme case, a baboon character carries a staff with him and walks on his hind legs a lot; but he is a baboon, after all, with opposable thumbs. That isn't such a stretch.
My reaction to the movie
I was really excited about seeing The Lion King. I first saw the first four minutes of the film in a trailer before Aladdin, and I could hardly wait to see the rest. It looked like another Bambi, but set in the African savannah. Everything was beautiful and natural and serious.
My initial reaction after seeing the film was...Betrayal! How could they ruin such a promising movie? Every time I watch the movie I have to, like, put this big filter over my brain and take out the stuff that annoys me, so I can enjoy the film I know it could have been. I was all set for Bambi, and I got another Aladdin, done with animals.
And when I saw a friend's laserdisc special edition of Lion King, I was glad to see all the supplemental material that there was. It's amazing the amount of development work; it takes years to develop a Disney feature film. Anyway, on one of the supplemental sections, there were two other storyboard versions of the song, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight". There was a god-awful version that was sung by Timon and Pumbaa in its entirety, this idea was quickly squelched. Not so easily squelched was a wonderful (in my opinion) version that was mostly instrumental, with an offscreen chorus singing about the character's love, much like the one in Bambi. Most everyone I asked much preferred the version that was not sung by the characters.
People have already talked the story and plot's flaws to death, but despite all that I beleive The Lion King was a success because it was a blend of these two styles. Perhaps the 'Aladdin' ratio was higher because, like Aladdin, this was a film for todays audience. Films today try to appeal to the broadest audience possible, and I think that's what Lion King did. It had something for the kiddies, lots of humor and catchy songs. It also had something for adults; a serious storyline and beautiful artwork. Perhaps this is why the films that came after The Lion King didn't do as well, they went more towards Aladdin and less towards Bambi's realism and naturalism. I think it definately has to do with the loss of international appeal. It can't be simply because it's all about animals, could it?
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