The Disney marketing machine has made a science out of cross-promoting its company's signature animated films, often building excitement for a project more than a year before it hits theaters. By the time of 1994's The Lion King, that science had become an art. Riding high on a wave of escalating critical and financial successes, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, and Aladdin, Disney launched The Lion King amid a wave of international publicity and anticipation that helped make it the highest-grossing animated film ever. Nearly a decade later, it remains one of the top cinematic moneymakers of all time, and the dissipated hype has left behind a technically astounding movie that operates equally well on a vast, sweeping scale and on a personal one. Disney seems to be trying to renew The Lion King's event status with a new Platinum Edition double-disc release, but the set's many extras are mostly well-intentioned time-killers, and their organization into themed menus that link to the same featurettes over and over in different combinations is deeply annoying. And the much-vaunted "new song" at the centerpiece of this release amounts to some 90 seconds of instantly forgettable material that replaces a funnier original scene. That aside, the film itself has held up well over the last 10 years, both visually and textually. Loosely based on Hamlet (and arguably, as some detractors believe, on the Japanese animated series Kimba The White Lion), The Lion King follows Simba, an overconfident lion cub who fantasizes about ruling the kingdom presided over by his stately father Mufasa. Those daydreams end abruptly when Simba's creepy uncle Scar murders Mufasa, scares Simba off, and installs a hyena-based fascist regime that uses Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph Of The Will as a visual referent. Simba, voiced as an adult by Matthew Broderick, finds his Lethe with a warthog and a meerkat (voiced by Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane, whose sniping, chummy partnership led pundits to dub them Disney's first openly gay animated couple), but his past inevitably comes back to haunt him. The script uses that story arc's simplicity to good effect, by spending more time on character development and exploration of the gorgeous African setting than the average Disney movie can muster. Fart jokes aside, the occasionally leisurely pacing, as well as the intense violence and the characters' relative depth, make The Lion King a more adult experience than most animated films, as does the spectacular animation. On an unusually informative and entertaining commentary track, directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn reveal lines, scenes, and concepts that were discarded along the way. They also enthusiastically discuss the technology (and the headaches) that went into The Lion King's bravura visuals, which read like a checklist of the hardest things to animate proficiently–rain, fire, clouds, transparent smoke, running water, deep-focus shots, moving-camera shots, and vast herds of individuated animals among them. At its worst, Disney can be a monolithic empire, dedicated to artificial cheer and relentlessly policed corporate image-packaging. At its best, it produces films like The Lion King, a technically groundbreaking collaborative work with humor, heart, and talent showing through in every carefully chosen line.
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