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The Lion King: Platinum Edition

When The Lion King was released in the summer of 1994, Disney animation was once again a massively influential force in American pop culture. Restored to its former glory in large part by Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had assembled the teams responsible for The Little Mermaid (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992), the studio was a synergistic juggernaut driven by animated product that appealed to multiple demographics, bucking conventional box-office wisdom that held that there was a ceiling for G-rated family entertainment. In other words, The Lion King was primed to explode, which it did to the tune of $66 million on its opening weekend. But there was something different about this film. While it was still in the traditional Katzenberg movie-musical mold, the clever songwriting of composer Alan Menken and his late lyricist, Howard Ashman, had been replaced by the slickly produced (i.e. bland) pop stylings of Elton John and Tim Rice. It's a shame, too, because The Lion King's story, a mélange of myth that intermittently calls to mind everything from Hamlet to Star Wars, is in many ways the most deeply resonant of any of the Katzenberg "Renaissance" works, and often rises to the iconic level of the studio's most cherished classics. It's pretty basic "Hero's Journey" stuff: Young cub Simba is the heir to the throne of his father, King Mufasa, who is killed in an "accident" orchestrated by Scar, Mufasa's brother. Ignorant of Scar's plotting, Simba holds himself responsible for his father's death and banishes himself from the kingdom, allowing Scar to seize control of the throne. As the outcast Simba grows up under the care of a wisecracking warthog and meerkat duo named, respectively, Pumbaa and Timon, Scar plunges the kingdom into darkness, drought, and despair. Finally, the day comes when Simba must return to claim his rightful place as the Lion King and restore the kingdom to its former glory. At 90 minutes, the tale is stripped down to its essentials, but it never feels like a rote run-through primarily because of the vivid poeticism of the animation, which, surprisingly, stays with the viewer. Simba watching in terror as his strong, virile father falls to his death into a stampeding herd of wildebeests is a horrific sight for any child that ever believed their father invincible, while the opening ceremony heralding Simba's birth is an absolute visual feast in the tradition of Sleeping Beauty. Had Katzenberg allowed the filmmakers to rely solely on Hans Zimmer's dramatic, but (remarkable for him) unobtrusive score, this might've been a classic. But Disney corporate synergy no doubt demanded a soundtrack of pop ditties, an edict to which John and Rice respond with the crushingly obvious, easy-listening idiocy of "Circle of Life" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." Only "Hakuna Matata" doesn't send one scrambling for the mute button; rather, it inspires one to consider turning off the television, Elvis-style (there's also a new song that's been added into the 2003 version of the film entitled "The Morning Report," and it is merely unremarkable). The film is still considered a high-water mark for traditional Disney animation, and, commercially speaking, it was until it was outgrossed by Pixar's Finding Nemo in 2003. Artistically, however, it has undoubtedly been outclassed by its long running, Tony Award-winning, Julie Taymor-directed Broadway incarnation, which is so good one barely notices the Elton John songs.

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Walt Disney Home Entertainment presents The Lion King DVD as a part of their "Platinum Edition" series with a flawless, digitally-remastered anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) complemented by wondrous Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Spread out over two extras-packed discs, Disc One includes a feature commentary with directors Rob Minkoff, Roger Allers and producer Don Hahn; "The Making of 'The Morning Report'"; The Lion King Personality Profile Game; a "Circle of Life" music video performed by the Disney Channel Circle of Stars, for which there is also a "making-of" featurette and a sing-along track; "Timon's Grab-A-Grub" and "Pumbaa's Sound Sensations"; and a few deleted scenes. Disc Two is broken up into six sections, beginning with "Story," "Film," "Stage," "Virtual Safari," "Music," and "Animal," into which are nestled countless featurettes detailing the genesis of the film, its development, the composition of the music, the design of the animals, and its trip to the Broadway stage. These extras can also be accessed by clicking on one of six continents, where they have been rearranged in no discernible order. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case with paperboard slipcase.
—Clarence Beaks

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