REVIEW: Lion King 3D Makes Refreshing Use of Extra Dimension
The Disney Digital 3D™ification of The Lion King for its theatrical re-release, a limited run meant to herald the arrival of new Blu-ray and 3-D Blu-ray editions like a baboon waving a newborn lion cub around at the top of a cliff, has prompted at least one blogger to suggest that this is an instance of the company "trying to ruin" her childhood. And while childhoods are very fragile things in the Internet age, prone to explode with the merest hint of contact with George Lucas's latest doings or a Point Break remake or a Monopoly movie, I suspect in this case the outrage is as manufactured as the demand for these animated classics that are always being jerked back into the Disney Vault to be kept fresh for the next generation of susceptible children and their nostalgic parents. For most of the young audience members getting their first exposure to The Lion King, any theatrical experience, 3-D or not, is going to be dwarfed by repeated home viewings on TVs and smaller screens, again and again until the very cadences of the lines are etched permanently into their grey matter ("When he was a young warthog--" "When I was a young warthooooooooog!").
Anyway, The Lion King's new incarnation as a 3-D experience doesn't downgrade the experience of watching it. After-the-fact 3-D conversions of live action films have proven to be, to put it gently, a mixed bag, sometimes adding nothing more than a few bucks to the ticket price and sometimes, as in the case of Clash of the Titans, making a lousy film even worse. The Lion King's traditional cel animation (with occasional computer animated assists, as in the sequence in which the herd of wildebeests stampedes through the gorge, nearly killing the film's young protagonist) actually opens up well, if inconsistently, to 3-D.
Broad landscapes like the ones showcased in the "Circle of Life" opening offer the best opportunities for use of depth of field, and shots like the one of a flock of birds flying over reflective waters have an added lushness to them. There are perspectives that seem almost made with eventual 3-D in mind -- ants crawling on a branch in front of what's revealed by a shift in focus to be a group of zebras traveling past, elephants lumbering toward the camera over the crest of a hill, Zazu the hornbill swooping over the gathering animals up to Pride Rock.
But those are all sequences of spectacle, for which 3-D is best suited. In less flashy scenes, the effect gives the film a not as impressive but not certainly not problematic pop-up picture book quality, the flatness of the animated characters becoming more obvious. It's really only with the more stylized visuals that accompany some of the songs that the 3-D becomes a distraction, the geometric, kinetic look becoming dizzying in the added dimension -- the goosestepping hyenas in "Be Prepared," the zoologic choreography of "I Just Can't Wait To Be King." For the most part, being in 3-D provides a minor refresh for a style of animation that was the big-screen norm 17 years ago, and that doesn't seem dated these days so much as simply different.
Revisiting The Lion King on a large screen, what's evident is how it's unabashedly a film for children -- and that's no criticism. There's far less of that contemporary frantic quality born out of fear of losing the short attention spanned or the occasional over-the-kids-heads pop culture reference asides for the benefit of bored adults in the room. And there's not the sense you can sometimes get from Pixar features, as incredible as most of them are, that it's grown-ups the creators actually had in mind the whole time. The Lion King isn't adapted from a fairy tale the way many Disney films were, but it has the simple moral arc of one, the exiled princeling growing up and growing into his responsibilities, the kingdom physically decaying and the environment out of whack due to his deposition. (It may couch it in terms of cycles of nature and balance, but The Lion King is all about the divine right of the monarchy.)
It also shows a fairy tale's dark sense of justice -- a little girl at my screening wailed when Scar was eaten by his hyena allies after betraying them, a development that may not be on par with the incinerator in Toy Story 3, but qualifies for being at least a little upsetting. It is, in other words, still universes better than the average current kiddie flick, animated or live action, and none the worse for the 3-D tweak. I doubt anyone will be able to say the same about the forthcoming Top Gun 3-D conversion.