My teenage son wanted to stay up later after the family went to bed, because we had just watched “The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride” and he was hot to see “The Lion King 1 ½.” But the movie wasn’t on for more than 10 minutes before he huffed, “Uhhhhhhhh! This doesn’t even feel like a Disney movie!”
He didn’t like it because it didn’t follow the Disney formula. Meanwhile, 79 percent of the Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it a “fresh” rating, which doesn’t surprise me. More than half of the online critics have been to film school, it seems, and that bunch always responds positively to anything remotely “postmodern.” And a self-reflexive film that pokes fun of the original “Lion King” certainly qualifies.
You know something’s up from the moment you see the African sunrise and hear the familiar introductory strains of “The Circle of Life” from the 1994 smash-hit . . . interrupted by Timon’s sing-along butchery, after which we realize that the famous meerkat (voiced by Nathan Lane) and his warthog pal, Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) are watching “The Lion King” in a theater using a remote control to stop it, rewind, fast-forward, and jabber as they please.
My son hates interruptions in a narrative, so it makes sense that he bolted without giving “The Lion King 1 ½” much of a chance.
We see Timon and Pumbaa in silhouette as they introduce the basic concept: they’re going to rewind to the beginning and tell the story of how they were there, in the thick of things, long before they make their first appearance in the movie. For example, in the beginning, when all the animals bow down as the lion cub Simba is presented atop Pride Rock? It turns out that Timon and Pumbaa were way in the back, trying to push forward so they could see what was going on, and poor Pumbaa felt as if he needed “a rest stop.” Then, a rather large gaseous burst escapes, knocking all of the animals around them unconscious, and as they fall toward the front, a few animals look over their shoulders and say, “We’d better bow down too.” Later, as young Simba sings “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” Timon and Pumbaa, who had moved into an underground “home” just underneath all the action, complain, “Oh, perfect, we moved to the theater district.”
Just as Forrest Gump seemed to turn up at watershed moments in history, these two pop up in key scenes from “The Lion King” as they retell the story from their point of view, setting the record straight about what REALLY happened. When Simba and Nala get into trouble in the elephant graveyard, the guys are there, just as they’re present when we see ominous goose-stepping shadows of hyenas against a rock wall, during the wildebeest stampede, and practically every key narrative moment.
And the humor, as they comment on the original film, is decidedly un-Disney. In fact, the self-reflexive, wise-guy gags come closer to what the Warner Brothers animation department did with the old Looney Tunes cartoons. One gag is absolutely reminiscent of the Bugs Bunny scene in which Elmer Fudd grabs the wascally wabbit in the wild by his ears and then, with a quick cut, the background changes and now it’s an interior and he’s holding Bugs over a kettle. That same thing happens here too, as Timon’s feisty mother (Julie Kavner) gets annoyed with Rafiki’s philosophizing about “first steps” and says her first step is going to be . . . and then she jumps down onto what we expect will be Rafiki’s foot. Except a quick associative cut takes us to a faraway Timon who screams and hold’s HIS foot. That kind of cleverness abounds, especially in the first act.
But the gags get old, and if you can imagine one of those Looney Tunes shorts being stretched to fill 76 minutes of screen time, you can picture how “The Lion King 1 1/2” loses some of its energy by the important third act. There’s some redemption at the very end as more Disney characters pile into the theater, and you can recognize them all by their silhouettes. It’s the kind of thing Mel Brooks would do at the end of his films.
As for the animation itself, some of the scenes in director Bradley Raymond’s 2004 direct-to-video “syncquel” are as stunning as the original movie, but they’d have to be for this revisionist narrative to work. However, you seldom get full scenes, and so the disjointed narrative begins to feel like an Academy Awards clip show with a couple of wisecracking animals at the podium. It might be clever, but for those who prefer fluid storytelling, “The Lion King 1 ½” will be unsettling and unsatisfying. Likewise, those who revere the original film might feel as Movie Met’s John J. Puccio did—that it “dishonored the memory of a cherished classic” with self-parody.
As with “The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride,” which also comes to Blu-ray this week, the video quality is unsurpassed. Colors are vivid and precise, edges are finely drawn, black levels are solid . . . it all looks very rich. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is sharp, with not so much as a trace of ghosting or excess noise, and yet there’s some nice, natural film grain here. “The Lion King 1 ½” is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with enough rear-speaker action to make the family home theater come alive. That said, it’s a front-heavy track that doesn’t have the same oomph, even during the stampede scene, as the original “Lion King.” Additional audio options are French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
The only new feature is a five-minute schtick with Timon and Pumba taking a vacation safari similar to a Disney Park ride and talking about the animals they see. Conspicuous by their absence? Lions. Oops. The only other bonus features are a 15-minute port-over behind-the-scenes look at the film that feels like a pre-release promo, 12 minutes of deleted scenes (seven of them), a fake “bio” of Timon hosted by actor Peter Graves that runs just four minutes long, and a “Grazin’ in the Grass” music video by Raven. I’m not counting trailers or a “Discover 3D” promo hosted by Timon and Pumbaa.
“The Lion King 1 ½” is a very clever “syncquel” that’s entertaining in the beginning but weighed down by a premise and format that seem ill-suited for a full-length feature.