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The Lion King 1½

DisneyToon Studios/Walt Disney Home Entertainment (February 10 2004), 2 discs, 77 mins plus supplements, 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Rated G, Retail: $29.99

Storyboard:

The “untold tale” of how Lion King sidekicks Timon and Pumbaa unexpectedly – and unknowingly – influenced the original film! We kick off as usual, expecting the 1994 blockbuster to play through as normal, though it is soon halted and spun around by Timon and Pumbaa, who decide to show us, the audience, their side of the story, and how things really happened. Rewinding way back “before the beginning” we are taken to Timon’s homeland, where the young pre-Pumbaa meerkat feels left out of the colony. Taken off digging duty and put on sentry watch, Timon dreams of living the high life – something he gets to do when he fails to report a hyena attack, leading him to decide to set out on his own rather than face the scorn of the rest of the colony. Soon finding himself lost, Timon literally bumps into Pumbaa, the rather confused warthog, and the pair quickly strike up a bond, setting up home in the jungle. Meanwhile, up on Pride Rock, little Simba is born and presented to King Mufusa and the other animals. Not before long, Simba’s story is in full swing, with Timon and Pumbaa fumbling their way through various landmark scenes from The Lion King, and actually instigating others. Eventually, Simba arrives in their home, learns about Hakuna Matata, and waits for Nala to turn up, looking for help…

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The Sweatbox Review:

The direct-to-video movie (specifically the Disney video sequel) comes of age with the release of The Lion King 1½, not so much as the “mid-quel” that Beauty And The Beast’s Enchanted Christmas was, but more of an “inter-quel”, coming not between parts one and two, nor even in the middle of the original film, but actually playing “alongside” it, Back To The Future Part II style.

The series comes full circle (of life?) with this release, as it can arguably be said that the whole direct-to-video niche that Disney created started with the issue of Lion King II: Simba’s Pride to video and DVD (the previous release, The Return Of Jafar was composed of the first five episodes of the Aladdin spin-off TV show, though Simba’s Pride was designed as a full feature and with video in mind from the start). Now, The Lion King rears its head again, soon after the Platinum release of the original 1994 mega-hit to DVD, and with its sequel heading to disc soon. What sets Lion King 1½ (or Lion King 3: Hakuna Matata for those in Europe, with no explanation) apart is the fact that it’s been specifically designed for DVD consumption from the outset – and as a fully-fledged 2-disc set no less!

Actually, although the film does contain some of the best animation to come from the Australian DisneyToon feature group yet, it was a touch of the “cheapquels” that was mostly in danger of annoying me with this release…that the whole endeavour, from the outset, appears to be little more than the original film run through with “optional visual commentary”, like Men In Black’s on-screen DVD diagram device, added to the film. Yes, Mystery Science Theater 3000 did it first, poking fun at ancient sci-fi flicks with on screen jibes, but going back even further is Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, which looks at the events of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the sidelines of two supporting characters (an interesting choice for this new film to take, since the original Lion King itself featured many parallels to the Hamlet story).

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Attacking this perhaps overly obvious concept may be a little harsh however – once the movie begins, it’s soon apparent that there is, in fact, some fine work going on, from the writers, animators and voice cast, but perhaps the only thing holding this back from working as a fully fledged theatrical feature is that it just doesn’t feature that much of its own story. In truth, what we do get is a funny, observant and enjoyable journey through the events of The Lion King, as seen from the viewpoints of its two supporting characters and eventual break-out stars, Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat and warthog double-act that have also enjoyed success as travel guides in the video compilation Around The World With… and their own television spin-off.

Mid-way through watching this for the first time, it occurred to me that the viewer simply must have seen the original Lion King film before they embark on this new update, or else many of the jokes would fall flat, and in many cases the story just wouldn’t make sense! The more familiar one is with the film really does help in understanding the new takes on events, and especially those huge fans of The Lion King will have perhaps the best time of all. There’s really no point springing for this one if you’re a Lion King newbie – since centers so strongly on spoofing scenes from the original movie that it would be like being the outsider in a very private joke. Those who get the joke, though, will have a blast.

The start-stop technique (Timon is prone to pausing the movie with his remote) is ever so slightly irritating, but it is usually to fit yet another joke in, and as such, just about works. As narrated by Timon, The Lion King 1½ plays out in much the same way as a Zucker Brothers’ spoof (think Airplane, Top Secret or Scary Movie 3), where the recognition of the scene accounts for much of the humor. Throw in many pop-culture references (one scene plays out to Ennio Morricone’s immortal The Good, The Bad And The Ugly theme) and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the direction and tone the film takes – though it’s a testament to how well the original Lion King was constructed that it supports this wide and wild take on it. Even the amusing moments we have come to know well from the 1994 film still feel fresh and funny, while also providing a new spin on several sequences (Can You Feel The Love Tonight, particularly, works very well in this example).

The animation is also very strong and easily the Australian studio’s topping achievement, being extremely well blended in with shots and elements from the original, and providing several nice touches throughout the film – some that only eagle-eyed watchers will notice. One such shot that raised a laugh comes right after Timon and Pumbaa get a night’s sleep in a nearby cave, and are awoken next morning by Simba’s belting out of the Just Can’t Wait To Be King number. As the meerkat emerges from the cave to complain, we see that the entire background has morphed into the highly stylised look of that sequence from the original!

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When it comes to the new songs in Lion king 1½, they work rather effectively, given the kind of direction the production takes, and at times do recall the original film in more ways than one (hints of Can’t Wait To Be King again in Timon’s “I want” moment, based on Warthog Rhapsody, a song written for, but replaced by Hakuna Matata, in the original film). The vocals, largely featuring the first film’s original voice cast, don’t sound a pitch different than how we remember them, though it is a shame that Rowan Atkinson didn’t participate in either this film, the original sequel, nor any of the DVD issues, since the replacement Zazu just doesn’t quite hit the right tonal marks.

Returning as Timon is Nathan Lane, aided and abetted by Ernie Sabella as Pumbaa. Joining them for this wacky outing are most notably Julie Kavner (better known as Marge Simpson) as Timon’s mother, and Jerry Stiller (father of Ben) as the meerkat’s uncle, who contribute a wealth of animation voice experience to their roles and help the rather dry dialogue lift off the page. The best lines, of course, go to Timon, the sarcastic meerkat with an answer for anything, and a unique way of putting things. It seems nothing from the original is sacred to either Timon, nor the filmmakers, who quite happily place the most irreverent dialogue into his mouth, whether he’s just being flippant, or speaking about one of the first film’s most revered moments – or both at the same time!

In fact, the film seems to take the more “hokey” elements of the original – as well this new film – and goes about sending them up in any way imaginable before the critics and nay-sayers can have a go. But somehow it all seems to work. The Lion King 1½ also has its own story, and surprisingly a lot of heart, though if the film does have a fault, it’s the lack of an strong emotional core – everything is played for broad laughs – and even if we know the outcome of the story, this new version perhaps needs a more suspenseful ending – though the one provided is strangely satisfactory and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

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Ultimately, we end up at the right place: friendships are confirmed, family reunited, and events rounded off in the now customary Disney way, though with much more sardonic wit and self-referencing than is usual from the Mouse House. So much so, if truth be told, that I did wonder whether it was because the Studio was so at ease at toying with their biggest traditional animated franchise, or whether the whole endeavour smacked of sheer desperation in trying to keep up with the Shrek crowd, and the new trend of having to be one jump ahead of the audience by throwing them curve balls and tilting them just off balance enough so as to appear “new and exciting”.

The Studio has been in this territory before, of course, with The Emperor’s New Groove and the upcoming Chicken Little, but there’s never been anything quite like The Lion King 1½ from Disney, not something like this that really pushes the boat out, breaks the rules and pokes fun at itself with such bite. Not nearly anywhere as masterful as the original film, it does however stand tall above Simba’s Pride as a companion piece – and a surprisingly well-crafted and very, very funny and unexpected one at that!

Is This Thing Loaded?

Well, I’m not sure how much space the 77-minute movie and a DTS track would take up on a disc, but it sure seems to me that this is a one disc Special Edition masquerading as a 2-disc set so as to up the overall impression and push a few more units. There really isn’t anything of any major consequence on the second disc, only adding up to around a half hour of additional, video based, material. Having said that, the film really does look and sound great on that first disc, thanks to the space it needs, and though the features may seem slim on disc two to start with, there actually seems to be more than meets the eye.

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First up, on disc one, is the usual barrage of previews for upcoming Disney product. The first major release of the New Year, this is quite an important one from Disney, who have packed it with a bunch of highly anticipated trailers for new-to-DVD titles. For instance, the disc provides the first real look at the Aladdin: Platinum Edition, though it’s a rather disappointing sneak peek that offers nothing new. Likewise for Brother Bear, and the upcoming last-theatrical-hope-for-2D, Home On The Range, but continue on for Mickey, Donald And Goofy: The Three Musketeers (which looks great, and happily falls between the animation style of the classic shorts and none-too-cheap-looking DTV product), Lion King II: Simba’s Pride Special Edition (which announces the short One By One, previously set for the next Fantasia film, as an extra) and, rather disappointingly, Mulan II (with a very bad Eddie Murphy impersonator – think they might get him back, Robin Williams style, for the third one?).

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Apart from set-up, sound options and a THX Optimizer, disc one also houses a Deleted Scenes section, presented in full-frame, and featuring around 12-minutes worth of scrapped storyboard footage, including two alternate openings (introduced, and with commentary from, director Bradley Raymond and producer George Mendoza), though nothing of any great note, and perhaps actually a little tedious. There’s also a Hidden Mickey feature, which plays up the fact that, throughout the film, the creators have hidden around 20 Mickey-shaped objects within the designs and backgrounds. This is quite a fun feature, both for kids and fans, though might take a couple of viewings to catch them all!

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Onto disc two, and it’s much more of a full-frame experience, with all the bonuses here presented in 4×3. On playing the disc, we’re led to the first option: Featurettes or Games And Activities. Choosing featurettes will take you to the video-based extras, including (and let’s get the disposable out of the way first), the Raven music video for Grazing In The Grass, which actually feels embarrassingly dated, though some may find the tune a funky diversion, and at least it’s longer than Disney’s usual 30-second “music videos”, lasting over three minutes.

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Much more fun is the Peter (original Mission: Impossible) Graves hosted Timon: Behind The Legend featurette, featuring the “true” story of one of our lead characters. With input from Timon himself (voiced, as usual, by Nathan Lane, but animated in the lower-cost TV animation style), this is a funny little aside. In the four minutes this plays, there’s nothing of any real substance, but it’s a nice addition, and features one absolutely hysterical and well-timed gag centered on the meerkat’s face. I’m not sure which one is scarier though: Timon’s himself, or trying to guess how many facelifts and Botox injections Graves might have endured over the years!

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Wrapping up the featurettes is Before The Beginning: The Making Of The Lion King 1½, a 15-minute peek behind the scenes. Focusing nicely between the crewmembers and the voice cast, everyone gets to say how great it all was returning to the characters and building around the existing story to create the new film. It’s a fairly standard documentary, and simply a typical fluff-piece, but it’s always nice to see the talent behind the camera, even if, in this case, it does seem to be stuck behind a soft-focus lens covered with copious amounts of Vaseline!

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Moving into the Games And Activities choices, and it becomes clear why a second disc is probably needed. Picking up from where Timon And Pumba’s Virtual Safari left off, from The Lion King Platinum Edition, we find the now completed Virtual Safari 1.5, another CGI tour around the backgrounds of the Lion King world. Timon and Pumbaa are again our guides, joined by Timon’s mother and uncle, and the viewer must make multiple “left or right” choices as to which direction the safari takes.

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It’s the storing of the various paths a journey can take which really takes up the space on the disc, and there are some fun moments along the way. Despite the fact that these “trips” are obviously geared toward the little ones, I really can’t work out the fascination with them, though anyone will have to admit that they are amazingly well done and have a lot of work put into them.

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There are more multiple choices to be made in Who Wants To Be King Of The Jungle – a Millionaire spin-off, featuring Timon – and you – in the hot seat. Presented by real life US Millionaire host Meredith Vieira, there are the usual ten questions (the prize being more “grubs” for Timon instead of cold hard cash), based on the entire Lion King Trilogy, and the graphics and audio reproduce the well-known Millionaire feeling well.

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Selections are chosen by the player on their remote, and on the whole the game is a fair amount of fun…and not as easy as it may seem at first! Be aware that the questions are picked at random (which is a good thing, as the player has a fair chance of having something new to answer), but so are the “Poll The Animals” clips (which is a bad thing, as the player has a poor chance of actually giving the correct answer)! An interesting new application for the DVD, this was a lot of fun.

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Finally, Find A Face offers up the chance to find and name the various Disney characters that arrive silhouetted against the screen at the end of the main feature. Another game aimed squarely at the kids, it unfortunately doesn’t offer up any rewards for guessing them all correctly.

And that’s…um, it! Nothing more, nothing less. There were no additional Easter Eggs that I could find, though it would have been great to include Steve Moore’s hysterical Stand By Me short as an extra bonus (could it be that this wasn’t included due to Moore’s vocal support of Roy Disney’s campaign to oust current Disney CEO Michael Eisner?), or at least The Lion Sleeps Tonight clip from the Timon and Pumbaa television show.

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It’ll be interesting to see how they go about filling the upcoming Simba’s Pride Special Edition, also rumored to be a 2-discer, though the African-inspired short One By One, with music by The Lion King’s Lebo M and animated by the folks at Feature Animation, has been announced.

Case Study:

The packaging follows along the recent lines of Disney’s two-disc issues, with the now customary outer cardboard sleeve that opens up, book like, to reveal the contents inside. My one beef with this is the strap line across the top that reads “Music By Elton John And Tim Rice”, when in reality, their only contributions were songs from the original, and one “half-song” that was set to new lyrics – not really enough to warrant this largely superfluous claim. Inside it’s a different story, and we get one of the nicest insert booklets seen for quite a while in a Disney release, as well as a promo booklet for money off other various Lion King and Disney products (including a look at the terrible artwork for the Simba’s Pride SE, where Simba himself looks totally off character).

Ink And Paint:

Being a direct digital-to-digital transfer, The Lion king 1½ looks just as good as you might think, and as clean and sharp as you might expect. There’s really not much else to say, and though I could waffle on about locked colors and sharp edges, the best way to put it is this: if you were happy with the restoration done on the original Lion King for its DVD issue last October, then you’ll be more than happy with this. A top-notch and very vibrant transfer.

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Scratch Tracks:

Presented with, as so many DTV titles are, with a DTS track as well as the usual 5.1 Dolby Digital, there’s nothing on this disc that can beat The Lion King’s exceptionally “Enhanced Home Theater Mix” from that film’s disc release. The DTS does sound a little more “punchier”, as usual, but not a giant step ahead in tonal quality that the Dolby track expresses. Both keep dialogue locked to the center, while the rears feature mainly atmospheres, directional effects, and the odd activation on big music cues or action sequences. A good, fun, strong track, everything here, like the film itself, is pushed to the limit! An additional French dub and Closed Captioned subtitles are also available.

Final Cut:

It’s fast, it’s flashy, it’s fun. The Lion King 1½ may just break the (rotten) spell and general bias towards the DTV product that endlessly spills from the House Of Mouse (mind you, there’s no saying that Mulan II won’t immediately cast that spell again soon enough)! Timon and Pumbaa return in style, in a comedy tailored directly to the strengths of their characters, with Lane and Sabella playing along gamely and having as much fun, it sounds, as the audience. Well worth checking out, though whether it will reward multiple viewings will depend on your age and how much you love Simba and co, but there’s definitely a couple of viewings to be had while it’s still fresh. Make sure you know the original inside and out beforehand, and you might just find that you get a much bigger kick out of it than you could possibly imagine – it’s sure to raise a smile on even the most ardent of “cheapquel” critics. Absolutely recommended, and I can fully say that with Hakuna Matata!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

lionking15-17.jpg MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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