A childhood classic getting the 3D treatment? A review for such a thing can consist of one question with just one answer – “how does it look?” I am pleased to report that Disney’s The Lion King 3D looks just fine, but it would probably serve Disney well to invent some kind of 3D glasses that allow you to cry and see at the same time. That sort of answers the second, more film-specific question moviegoers may have when it comes to a gussied up version of The Lion King in 3D – is it still wrenching to watch? Yes, sweet goodness, yes.
The story of young lion prince Simba is an old one – no, literally, not just in terms of how long the film has been around, but in terms of that it’s essentially Hamleton the savanna (with other sources contributing, sometimes a bit too closely, to the film’s plot, but that’s an issue for another day). Simba (voiced as a child by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and seriously, where hell is JTT these days?) is the cub prince of the Pridelands, son of the brave king Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones, in a piece of casting that is both strikingly great and thuddingly obvious) and the very lovely queen Sarabi.
Everything is really fantastic in the Pridelands, everyone is super happy and really jazzed about the birth of baby Simba, he who just can’t wait to be king – everyone except his own ugly uncle, the evil Scar (voiced by Jeremy Irons). Scar is a class-A loser – he doesn’t get to rule the kingdom, he doesn’t get to kick it on Pride Rock, he’s inexplicably facially scarred (which makes me wonder, what is Scar’s given name?), his best friends are hyenas, and so on and so forth. It’s just a miserable existence for the guy, which is why he ultimately crafts a plan to kill Mufasa, which he will he then blame on Simba, who will react in a way that either makes him vulnerable to being killed or damaged enough to run away from the Pridelands forever. There’s also singing and dancing. And now it’s in 3D.
The 3D, on a very basic level, looks fine. It’s not nearly as immersive as it could be, and the moments where it could be truly transcendent never quite reach their potential. Case in point – the whispering wind sequence where a now-grown Simba sees his father in the clouds and the leaves, an already beautiful and colorful sequence that also features a ton of on-screen movement that should translate to 3D gold. The sequence is still as lovely as ever, but the 3D doesn’t render it any more lovely than it was originally. The death of Mufasa is not more sad, the hellish gathering of Scar and the hyenas is not more scary, the final battle is not more stirring – it’s all the same, but with an extra dimension that works only in the most technical of ways.
Of course, this all begs the question – was this conversion even necessary? As in most cases with this sort of thing, I take a pretty hard line of “actually, no.”
The rise of 3D technology as of late fails to thrill me, though it doesn’t quite stir my ire the way that it does for other film writers. I don’t find it necessary, but I understand that it’s a nifty way for studios to get some inflated box office numbers (though it’s impossible to talk about presumed cash-grabs without also considering the funding that is required to actually make 3D films, it’s not like they emerge like the cinematic equivalent of Athena, fully sprung from their creators’ minds). But, that all said, yes, 3D films “make” more at the box office because tickets cost more. Is that what Disney is doing with their Lion King 3D then? Not so much, the film is in theaters for just two weeks before hitting home video (for the first time in Disney Digital 3D), making it seem more like its theatrical release is more of an “event” for fans of the film, young and old, with 3D serving as an extra dash of flavor, not the entire (antelope-based) meal.
So, if The Lion King 3D isn’t so notable for its 3D, does it work as an overall experience? Yes.
It only occurred to me that I hadn’t seen The Lion King for at least fifteen years the moment the opening credits queued up. It’s possible that I hadn’t seen the film since I first saw it in theaters as a child. I distinctly remember seeing The Lion King in theaters as a child – I was ten years old at the time, and I remember the exact theater (an old AMC on Charleston Blvd. in Las Vegas) and the exact seat (middle of middle section, left side aisle seat), and I remember that my dad skiffed off on watching the film with my best friend and I to see an actioner in the theater at the same time (a quick review of the other films out around Lion King’s release date signal that he was probably taking in either Blown Away or The Shadow). But what I remember most clearly is that The Lion King was the first film I ever cried during – real tears, consistent sobs, coming throughout the film.
Which is why I caught myself routinely lifting my 3D glasses off my face during the more hard-hitting scenes in the film (not because I was crying and the tears were impairing my vision, no no, not that at all) to see what the kids in the audience were doing. They were not crying, but they were enthralled by The Lion King 3D, the way only kids can be really enthralled by a film, truly entranced by what they are seeing on screen – on the edges of their seats, open-mouthed, leaning so far forward that it’s like they wanted to get inside the screen. Hell, if 3D enhances that experience for the whippersnappers in the audience, even me, at my most faux-crotchety, cannot object to the technology.
Are kids these days so overstimulated by television and Twitter and Facebook and smell-o-vision and movies that feature 3D guinea pigs fighting crime that they need that “extra dimension” to get them to engage with a film? I’m not quite sure, I am not a child and I don’t have any, but I think it’s unreasonable to throw such wide nets on what works for kids and what doesn’t. But what I do know is that The Lion King 3D is as wonderful a film as ever, and if it takes one more layer of en vogue technical whosiwhatsit to make it interesting and accessible to a new generation, I’m all in, I’ll stop swearing down 3D, and I’ll tell anyone and everyone to get their tails in a seat for The Lion King in 3D or Whatever It Is Kids These Days Are Into.
The Lion King 3D is in select theaters for two weeks, starting tomorrow, September 16.