Lion King brings the flavorful, colorful, and romanticized Africa into the animated realm, wonderfully chipper at its peak, and immensely downtrodden at its lows. That’s the balance that keeps it alive though, trips through the Elephant Graveyard tense, rife with danger, and that’s almost total thanks to the animation crew.
Disney animation works because it’s, well, work. Seeing such precise pencil strokes in motion never stops being mesmerizing; how could they not be? The level of precision work would carry Disney up until their near total shift into computerized work, Lion King one of those early examples with a mild technological kick. That’s okay too, the stampede sequence still meshing with the hand-drawn work seamlessly, age not an issue.
Background paintings remain infallible, Lion King’s arguably some of the richest and boldest in the studio’s storied history. They’re not simply portraying a place for action, but a country loaded with exotic, beautiful wildlife. It’s only appropriate the backdrops indicate such.
Lion King is an early 90s tussle, battling Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Little Mermaid if you cheat (Mermaid was ’89). It’s all prior to the idea that Disney could turn these into profitable machines, lacking in the art and care as the sequels drug them through the mud and diluted their impact. Still, beyond the early output with the likes of Dumbo and Snow White, there’s hardly a better treated generation than those who grew up with these fanciful Disney epics.
Lion King serves as the icing, future plans issuing the clumsy Mulan and enjoyable if not quite up to the expected standard, Tarzan. In fact, for all of their animated will, there’s always a sense those films were trying to be Lion King, a film so proud, majestic, and wondrous, it’s forever the standard to aim for.
You can see what Lion King does for kids, from dealing with death, helping them live a bit care free, and then learning of their responsibilities as they mature. Animation relates to that younger generation in a way live action can’t, the best of it not speaking down to them, but putting it on a higher level where they can still understand it. All the while, it’s mixing with some of the best musical numbers the studio would produce, perfect in their placement and poppy, upbeat qualities. Lucky for Disney they found Pixar, because they never would have matched The Lion King otherwise.
Disney’s Diamond Editions continue to make other hi-def presentations weep for mercy, the resounding definition on display here achieved through precise restoration work only. It’s a shame more studios don’t care, or believe their films don’t carry the same majesty. They’re wrong. Regardless, Lion King is the freshest Disney animated feature to hit Blu-ray, their catalog offerings sticking to those early decades mostly. That immediately means there’s little clean-up to do, the print certainly secure over the years and free from damage.
That allows this transition to go smoothly, the focus on presenting pure animation cells creating incomparable images, unless you’re speaking of the other Diamond releases. The AVC encode manages it all, from the simply colored close-ups to the monstrous challenge of kicked up dirt, scattered motion, and computer generated antelope without as speck of artifacting. Those marvelous painted vistas are captured in their entirety, every brush stroke clearly visible no matter how small, and the same goes for the animation itself. Mustafa and adult Simba’s mane are truly impressive with their quick, sometimes even broad strokes, that little shimmying of the pencil giving them additional life.
Africa is rife with primaries and bold saturation, from the greens of the more forested home of Timon and Puumba to the stunning reds of the sunsets dominating the planes. Zazu’s beak is a brilliant orange, and the earthy tones of the lions keep their firmness without being overdone. It’s more of a purity, a showcase of clarity that is everything this format was made for. When the source material is handled with care and respect, this is the end result.
Black levels issue a secondary kick after the colors, those dusty remains in the graveyard dim and never overpowering. Calibration is sublime, respecting the original palette without blackening it out. There are plenty of blues mixed in the blacks and grays, a means of keeping those images bright with the right dose of “terrifying.” There is no sense of contrast boosting or exaggeration with any aspect of this disc, Lion King’s HD premiere living up to those prior Diamond re-issues.
Gained fidelity and two added surround channels are not the only reasons to upgrade from the compressed Dolby Digital of old. Bass is certainly another, heavy in its weight as elephants stomp, stampedes kick off, or the score livens up with hearty drums. Lion King’s furious finale has fire flaring up, each flame tower igniting the subwoofer with a bump, the overhead thunder even more so.
This is an all-around upgrade though, the songs presented with spectacular clarity and precision placement via this DTS-HD 7.1 boost. The stereos are in constant use, splitting the front instrumentals while letting the center bark out the vocals. Chants envelope the room, the swerve into the surrounds never letting the mix lose focus in the fronts. Those extra channels add a little bit of room for the music, the real addition being the action.
The stampede remains a highlight, surely a demo were it not for the narrative material contained within. Simba sits powerless amidst the herd, stomping critters captured brilliantly in the stereos prior to their travels behind the frame. There’s clear distinction between the two new channels and the standard rears, the mixing effortlessly sending effects overhead.
Extras are a bit slim in comparison to the DVD edition, mostly because said DVD features are only available over BD-Live via The Virtual Vault, a trend which is NOT appreciated. On the disc itself, extras begin with Second Screen, a means of viewing features on portable Apple or Android device while the movie plays on your main screen.
Bloopers/outtakes are fully animated not to mention funny. Backstage Disney contains three bits, the first being Pride of the Lion King, a 40-minute piece that reeks of corporate pandering, speaking on what the film meant to the studio (and certainly their bottom line). Lion King: A Memoir is a 20-minute bit following producer Don Hahn’s journey while working on the film. Deleted and alternate scenes (five total) offer a commentary from the co-directors Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff.
A musical section provides the deleted song, “Morning Glory” which is no longer part of the main feature, and a sing-a-long while the film plays. An extensive interactive gallery offers mountains of artwork to sift through, and there are more trailers here than you’d expect, even from Disney. Stupidly, none of them are actually from The Lion King’s promo campaign. Finally, there’s a commentary featuring Don Hahn with the co-directors.