LION KING 1 1/2 – DVD review

Since their inception the Disney folks have been shrewd enough to know how to maximize their profits. In the beginning they started the practice of re-releasing their major animated features to theaters every few years to the delight of ever-newer generations of children who had never seen them before. When the video age arrived, the Disney people were among the first to embrace it, their prerecorded tapes ensuring a continuing interest in their movies, especially when they periodically pulled their product out of circulation. Then, they struck upon the idea of the straight-to-video sequel, with each new issue never quite equalling the standards of its progenitor but good enough to capitalize on the original’s name recognition and still be entertaining to youngsters.

So it is with Disney’s 2004 follow-up video to their enormously popular and critically acclaimed “Lion King.” That “The Lion King 1 1/2” isn’t really a sequel at all but a prequel of sorts and that it completely corrupts the tenor of the original story are beside the point. Very young kids will probably like it. Everyone else above the age of five might want to beware.

As you know, the original “Lion King” was noble, dramatic, humorous, and touching by turns, and it struck a nerve with children and adults alike. “The Lion King 1 1/2” takes the two comic characters from the original, Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog, and puts them into a kind of vaudeville act–laughing, joking, and clowning around–making this sequel a silly, juvenile attempt at musical-comedy. But the music is derivative at best and insipid at worst, and the comedy is strictly for tots. Fart gags, belch jokes, and slug-eating contests abound. To me, the filmmakers have dishonored the memory of a treasured classic.

The new story idea may have seemed inspired when it was first conceived, but it comes off as frivolous and trite. Timon tells us how and why he left his family and set off on a voyage of self discovery, only to find there’s no place like home. Haven’t we heard that somewhere before? To tell the story, Timon and Pumbaa show us their video home movies of events that transpired before and during the happenings in the first picture, and they continually interrupt the narrative to comment on the action. It’s really annoying.

A few songs pop up along the way like “Digga Tunnah,” in which Timon complains that there must be more to life than digging tunnels; “That’s All I Need,” where he explains his desire for a new place to live; a reprise of the appealing “Hakuna Matata” (“No Worries”), but this time done as a sing-along, of all things; and “Grazing in the Grass” at the very end. Elton John and Tim Rice were involved with creating some of the music, but it’s hard to tell.

Then we’re shown Timon and Pumbaa’s first meeting and their slowly getting acquainted, Pumbaa looking for a friend and Timon looking for a bodyguard. Finally, we see them rescuing and raising Simba, the lion cub, and checking out a few highlights from the first movie before they return to Timon’s family and lead them to a paradise they’ve found.

The voices of the main characters remain the same, so there’s a comforting familiarity about everything. Nathan Lane again voices Timon, Ernie Sabella is Pumbaa, and for the brief moment he’s in the movie Matthew Broderick is Simba. Robert Guillaume also returns as Rafiki, the seemingly wise, if vague-talking, Jamaican-sounding monkey (“Look beyond what you see”). Moira Kelly is Nala, Simba’s love interest; Whoopi Goldberg is Shenzi; and Cheech Marin is Banzai. But except for Lane and Sabella, none of these other characters are on screen long enough for us to care about who’s doing their voices. Two major new characters are Timon’s mother, voiced by Julie Kravner, and Timon’s eccentric Uncle Max, voiced by Jerry Stiller. They, too, are hardly developed.

Not even the animation seems entirely worthy of the new project. It varies from being beautifully vivid and detailed to static, one-dimensional, and commonplace.

Nor is the script without its oddities. References to “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Bowling for Columbine,” “Peter Gunn,” and other artifacts of contemporary culture will undoubtedly go over the heads of children, as will words like “et tu,” “epiphany,” “metaphor,” and “existential.” Was the inclusion of these items an attempt by the filmmakers to educate kids, an effort to attract adults, a way to offer a few inside jokes, or a complete misreading of the target audience?

Everything about “The Lion King 1 1/2,” from its vapid dialogue and characters to its unengaging melodies, is a mystery to me. Its only purpose appears to be to keep kids occupied for a very short time (it’s only seventy-seven minutes long) while Disney makes more money. Seems a tad mercenary, if you ask me.

The THX-certified video and sound are fine, very clean and very clear, as expected, in a 1.74:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen. But the image is unusually soft and slightly veiled, too, the colors never really coming to life. While the animation is mostly done in traditional 2-D style, there is some assistance from the CGI department as well, yet neither approach seems very convincing or lively. Well, at least we have few or no moiré effects, grain, or haloes to contend with.

The sound is available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1, so you can look forward to crystal-clear sonics. Frequency response, dynamics, and dynamic range are all appropriately strong and wide, and the surround channels are fed enough information to make experiencing the film more fun to listen to than to watch. Musical ambience enhancement can sometimes be a bit overpowering, but things like birds twittering, water rippling, wind blowing, crickets chirping, and other jungle noises abound, making the audio, at least, a pleasure to hear.

To be sure you notice it and think it’s special, Disney executives have fitted out the movie in a deluxe, two-disc set. Disc one contains the widescreen presentation of the feature film and several extras. First, there is a series of seven deleted scenes, all done in rough sketches and drawings. Next, there is a “Hidden Mickey Hunt” that attempts to get children to watch the film all over again by hunting down the Mickey ears and such. Then, there are Sneak Peeks at ten other Disney titles the studio shamelessly flogs on kids, a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual tests for parents to play with, sixteen scene selections, and even a preview of what’s on disc two, in case the little ones don’t notice the second disc in the set. English and French are provided as spoken languages, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Disc two contains the longer bonus items, divided into two categories, “Featurettes and “Games and Activities.” The most important featurette is “Before the Beginning: The Making of The Lion King 1 1/2,” fifteen minutes with the producer, George Mendoza, the director, Bradley Raymond, and the cast and crew. The next featurette is “Timon: Behind The Legend,” four minutes narrated by “Biography’s” Peter Graves. And the final featurette is a music video, “Grazing in the Grass,” performed by Raven. The games include “Timon & Pumbaa’s Virtual Safari 1.5,” an amusement-park ride in which you choose your own routes, with the film’s characters traveling with you, chattering on all sides. The surround sound is well utilized, the graphics are colorful, and the whole thing is more entertaining than the main feature. Then, there’s a mock TV game show, “Who Wants To Be King of the Jungle,” hosted by the real show’s Meredith Vieira; and a children’s game called “Find the Face” that asks you to identify famous Disney animated characters from their silhouettes.

The discs are housed in a slim-line keep case containing a booklet insert, the whole thing further enclosed in a colorful cardboard cover jacket. Like Disney’s opening logos, credits, previews, and menus, which take the user a hunk of trouble to get through to reach the film, the cover jacket (or slipcase) serves little purpose except to announce the set’s self-importance. But I suppose such things add a certain prestige value to the product, since all the studios do them.

Parting Shots:
Why is the movie called “The Lion King 1 1/2”? Because there’s already a “Lion King II: Simba’s Pride” out on video, and this one is supposed to fit in the middle of the trilogy. Disney is milking their golden-goose “Lion” series for everything it’s worth. Anyway, as I said in the beginning, very young kids will probably like “The Lion King 1 1/2.” It’s colorful and noisy. But I personally found that Disney had simply taken the basest, most questionable aspects of the original “Lion King” and exploited them. I was bored two minutes in.