Monthly Archives: March 2011

March 29, 2011

Disney Canon #32: The Lion King (1994)


ADAM That was as dated as any movie we’ve seen in the whole run. That was just a great big wallop of 90s, in a way that is distressing to me.

BROOM I’d be interested to hear you say what about it was 90s, because on the surface this is a story about animals, epic themes, Hamlet

BETH Fathers and sons, self-discovery…

ADAM It had some of the moral self-congratulation that I think of as characteristic of the early 90s. I made a joke at the beginning about how seeing the baboon greet Mufasa was like seeing Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton together. That’s obviously a silly joke, but at the same time… It had that portentous, vaguely environmentalist, vaguely multi-culturalist, heaping political correctness.

BETH It was excited about how politically correct it was being.

BROOM Wasn’t it also excited about how… some vaguer thing… it was being? — as characterized by, like, the drumbeat and the title concurring at the beginning, and at the end? “Boom! The Lion King!” That’s some kind of self-satisfaction that doesn’t have to do with any content, but it’s still… if you could tell me why that was 90s, I would think that was fascinating, because I would believe it, but I don’t know exactly why.

ADAM You agree with me, Beth, right?

BETH Yeah, it’s very 90s.

BROOM I think we need to know what the sins of the 90s were.

ADAM Let’s see if we can catalog. First of all, the songs were very 90s. They did not have the synthesizery goodness of the 80s stuff. They had this operatic grandiosity.

BETH World beat.

ADAM If you had told me that Celine Dion had covered “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” I would not have been surprised.

BROOM I think these songs are terrible. It’s not because I have a concept of what era they belong to. They’re just lazy. For the viewers at home: we watched an illicit online version that happened to have captions only for the songs, so we saw all the song lyrics onscreen. And that really clarified for me how bad the song lyrics are: really bad.

BETH The rhythm made no sense in most of the songs.

BROOM The number of times that there were “puns” — and I use the word wincingly…

ADAM The worst song was of course the baboon’s nonsense song.

BROOM “Squash banahna?” No, I think the worst song is “Be Prepared.”

ADAM “Be Prepared” is the best song!

BROOM “Our teeth and ambitions are bared / Be Prepared”?

BETH “Be Prepared” was the best song because it had some catchiness.

BROOM Oh good god! I am surprised. I will differ with you on this one.

BETH Go ahead. All the songs were terrible. But I thought that one at least had some spirit, I guess.

BROOM You agree with that, Adam?

ADAM The only thing that was legitimately exuberant about this, as opposed to fake exuberant, was anything with Jeremy Irons in it.

BETH That’s right. I think it’s because Jeremy Irons was singing that song. That’s the only reason it came off as palatable.

BROOM I remember finding it very embarrassing then. And just thinking of it as failed, now.

BETH I thought everything that was happening during that song was embarrassing, visually.

ADAM With the Leni Riefenstahl shout-out?

BROOM Honestly, I thought that it looked like they had produced and produced and produced to try to squeeze some something out of the stone of that worthless song with worthless lyrics.

ADAM You commented, when we watched Aladdin, that Jafar was basically Jeremy Irons-ish, and then they just decided to go ahead and get Jeremy Irons. It was great. He’s great.

BROOM “You’re weird / You have no idea” is the high point of the movie. [ed: only upon reading the Times review later in this session do we all learn that this is a lift from Reversal of Fortune.] And probably the high point of their villains from now on. That’s gonna be it. I don’t think they have any more mincing villains after this.

BETH Really?

ADAM There’s the weird, prudish priest in Hunchback.

BROOM That’s right, but he’s more like the guy from “Tosca.” Scarpia.

ADAM I don’t mean to give anything away, but the villain in Tangled is pretty satisfying. But that’s gonna be, like, six years from now.

BROOM Well, this was our longest gap yet, and watching one of these movies after a long gap, I was aware, for the first time in a while in this series, of just how lush a thing a Disney animated movie is. There’s so much color and life to it, even when it’s not satisfying or good. I understand why kids watch The Lion King all the time: you can really go there, and it surrounds you with stuff.

ADAM It does have the effect of going into Photoshop and turning up the saturation all the way.

BETH I liked a lot of the nature long shots, like trees silhouetted against the dusk. Things like that. But the movie…! It was slow, too.

BROOM I think the movie is all screwed up, and I can characterize it. It occurred to me in the sequence when Rifiki, the monkey, says “I know da way! Follow me!” and he goes into a tangled maze. And it’s just at the point of the story where Simba’s in this pit of self-pity, and so he goes on, oh, guess what!, a voyage of self-discovery, symbolized by a quest through a maze. A tangled spiritual cave into which he has to journey to encounter himself. It was so schematically that. It’s like when writers say they read Joseph Campbell to learn how myths work, what the basic stories are: “The hero has to go on a journey of self-discovery!” It ends up feeling so calculated. Yes, it’s exactly the right thing to have in a movie like this, but they didn’t do it intuitively. Those things recur in stories because they have some intuitive meaning to the people telling the stories. Here it felt like all that stuff was just happening because it had been calculated and read about, and they knew they were supposed to do it. The reason those things are meaningful in Bambi and other movies is…

ADAM Because they come from the subconscious.

BROOM Because they have the quality of having come from the subconscious. Which means not a lot of dialogue with puns, and not a lot of music constantly explaining the significance of every moment, which is a holdover from the Broadway aesthetic that was brought in with Beauty and the Beast. It felt like it was saying “Now we’re going on the mythic journey!!” None of it felt truly mystical, which animation totally has the capacity to do. I felt like if they had just turned down the music and had the characters shut up for a while, the part where his father appears to him in the clouds… it might be laughable now, but there’s a concept there; they almost get it. If it just had cooled off and let us feel that we were watching a dream, I felt like the movie would have had so much more to offer. But it never did. That is my objection.

ADAM Other things that were extremely 90s: if you knew that there was a movie that featured the voice talents of James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and Matthew Broderick… could it get any better?

BETH That hyena looked like Whoopi Goldberg.

BROOM It did. And the other hyena?

BETH … Danny DeVito?

ADAM Cheech Marin.

BROOM Why do you think he said “Que pasa” for no reason at all?

ADAM It felt like the film version of a Maya Angelou poem.

BROOM It felt like the inaugural animated movie.

ADAM That’s what I mean by portentous, like: “A Rock, A River, A Tree.” That’s an actual quote. That is from the inaugural poem. “A Rock, A River, A Tree / Hosts to species long since departed.”

BROOM From which year?

ADAM From the Clinton administration, from the 1993 presidential inauguration.

BROOM So this movie was already underway at the time; it synchronizes with that.

ADAM But it was very much in the zeitgeist, this, like, “Africa is a home of wonder and moral gravity.” That’s very early 90s.

BROOM The other night in bed, I was singing to myself, in my head, some songs from Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” 1986, and thinking, “those are really thoughtful songs, and you can say that he was being a cultural pirate and stealing this stuff, but it’s also aesthetically thoughtful in its own right, and I like it.” That’s 1986, and then by eight years later, that has congealed into… this.

ADAM Think about the difference between this movie and The Jungle Book in terms of the portrayal of basically the same kind of story.

BROOM The same everything. Well, there’s no father in The Jungle Book, which is crucial. But yes.

ADAM Baloo and Timon-and-Pumbaa are the same character.

BROOM Half of the elements are the same. They go to the same elephants’ graveyard.

BETH But this was so much less fun!

ADAM We had, in college, a special awards ceremony — we had a fake graduation where they gave a special degree to Nelson Mandela — do you remember this?

BROOM I remember choosing to take a nap instead of go, and being told that that reflected how terrible my life attitude was. I still don’t regret it.

ADAM Probably by Madeline, right?

BROOM By you too! “Instead of seeing Nelson Mandela, huh?” I was very sleepy in those days.

BETH Honestly, that was a bad choice.

ADAM They did a whole fake graduation, they put up all of the graduation banners and the chairs and everything, in, like, October, to give him an honorary degree, which was only like the third time they’d done that in history. They did it for George Washington. And, you know, Nelson Mandela’s a good guy! But, I don’t know, he’s not, like… George Washington. But everyone in the 90s was very self-congratulatory about having this figure of greatness in our midst. And this movie is all about, sort of, very self-congratulatory greatness.

BROOM All right — thesis, to be rejected, that I just came up with: exoticism is this running theme through all of aesthetic history. There’s always some Orient that you want to portray. And we’ve become very self-hating about that. And so there’s this idea that if you just love it, all, you’re allowed to be exoticist. As long as you say “Africa is a place where people are real!” you get to do all the same shit. And that’s what this attitude is for. It’s an excuse to do something that we would do, one way or the other; at least we can say that we’re doing it responsibly… by showing that “Da monkey man — He know da secret! I know da way!”

ADAM Well, yeah. I acknowledge that it’s going to read really badly when I compared Nelson Mandela with a baboon.

BROOM No! They did it! It was in this movie. The only character who spoke with a remotely African affect was the monkey.

ADAM The Magical Negro. To use a term that I did not invent.

BROOM Everyone in this movie was presumably African, but only he was black.

ADAM Except, interestingly, for Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick. It’s like they understand that —

BROOM Or Rowan Atkinson and Jeremy Irons.

ADAM But they’re not real characters, they’re comic or villanous characters…

BROOM Or Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella.

ADAM The sympathetic and noble characters, i.e. the lions who are not the villain lions, are all black…

BETH Except for the women.

ADAM No, they were all black! Nala was black, and Sarabi was black. And Simba’s singing voice was black. But it was like it was too much to have an actual black actor voice Simba.

BROOM And the only reason this is offensive is because they’ve already entered into this devil’s pact where it’s purporting to be “responsible, respectful Africanism” blah blah blah, in the first place. If it was just the old-fashioned attitude of like “It’s going to take place in Africa with a lot of animals from Africa,” and then of course they were all white, Sterling Holloway or whoever, we would just think, “yeah, they just told a story in their own terms and borrowed a few exotic elements that were exciting to them.” But once they claim, “No! We explored the true meaning of blah blah blah…” then we say, “No you didn’t; you’re bullshitting.” And that’s what becomes offensive.

ADAM Yeah, I agree with that.

BROOM Let’s go to Beth’s experience watching it for the first time, not knowing what was going to happen.

ADAM You knew what was going to happen!

BROOM Did you? Did you know that the father was going to die?


BROOM From the beginning?

BETH Pretty early, yeah. I think they foreshadowed that pretty well.

BROOM When Simba asks, “will you be around forever?” and he says, “Well… the stars…”

BETH I think even before that, I was thinking, “this is clearly going to be one of those things where the kid…” oh, because as soon as the brother’s introduced, and you know that he’s not going to be the king, and the kid will…

ADAM What Shakespeare play is this?

BROOM Hamlet.

ADAM Oh right.

BROOM But in Hamlet, the mother conspires with the uncle.

ADAM That’s true, but that would be too much. That’s a little heavy.

BROOM Also, in Hamlet, everyone dies at the end. As opposed to him holding up Hamlet Junior, and then “Boom! HAMLET!”

ADAM I felt bad for the other species that they all had to bow down to the lion. Like, don’t the zebras have their own king?

BROOM You said the same thing about Bambi! “It’s creepy that they have to come and say hello to the young prince.”

ADAM Well, I mean that. Like, have some spine, people! They eat you!

BROOM It was totally Bambi plus The Jungle Book.

BETH I didn’t get sad when the dad died, which is weird. I think which means that the movie was flawed somehow.

ADAM Yeah. I couldn’t wait for the dad to die.

BROOM Even when he crawled under the paw of the dead body and tried to curl up?

BETH I cry at everything. I really do. I didn’t even get close to crying at this movie. I think it’s because of what you were saying before: it was so schematic…

ADAM I couldn’t wait for Jeremy Irons to rip Simba’s face off. I mean, I always used to root for Tom and for Wile E. Coyote, but this really — I mean, how could you root for James Earl Jones? You know? “This is CNN!” What are we rooting for, here? That’s like rooting for…

BROOM A rock.

ADAM … a United Airlines commercial.

BROOM Well, I wasn’t rooting for Scar. The whole hyena subplot — that’s where the racism would usually slip into it, but it wasn’t even fully fleshed out. What was their relationship to the hyenas, and what was Scar’s special relationship to them? They were the outcasts? They’re just hyenas. I don’t know what it meant.

BETH They were from a desolate place, and wanted the riches of the plain.

ADAM Yeah, they didn’t want to work for it.

BROOM And then they drank it dry? It was the hyenas’ fault?

BETH Yeah. It got overpopulated and they used up all the resources.

BROOM That’s why all the water was gone?

BETH I think so.

BROOM As Adam said in the middle, that has nothing to do with hyenas. Hyenas just are scavengers, so the whole thing was BS.

ADAM I would like to have seen a little more of the overlordery of Jeremy Irons. If they’re going to make him into Hitler, it would have been satisfying to see him smack Simba’s mother across the face a couple times. Yes, I know he did that once.

BROOM He wasn’t Hitler. They just ripped off the goosestepping because that song was desperate. They just wanted stuff to put in there. It’s tasteless.

BETH I guess you’re right, but that’s a weird direction to go.

BROOM I mean, how tasteless is it really? I don’t know… but still, it’s tasteless because of the desperation.

BETH And this was one year after Schindler’s List?

BROOM Well, Schindler’s List was also just a movie.

ADAM I made a joke about this, but it is interesting to think about this in terms of Schindler’s List. They have the same kind of feel, watching them, in a sort of weird way.

BROOM I’m willing to hear this out… but I don’t see it.

ADAM I don’t know, like… don’t you feel like the point of Schindler’s List was to come out and be, like, [hushed and exaggerated] “That was so moving. The Holocaust was awful.” I mean, this is a Disney movie, of course, and it’s not as good as Schindler’s List, but it’s still aiming for the same kind of cheap gravity.

BROOM I gotta say, I think that Schindler’s List — and I haven’t seen it in ten years or so — is pretty good and pretty smart. The things that struck me hardest in Schindler’s List were all these specific awful moments, things that really happened. The point of it was less this generic sanctimoniousness, “wasn’t the Holocaust awful” — it was the horror of the immediacy of these situations. They shot three people in a row and you were next in line, and you lived, but you knew those people… All these horrible, exciting, horrible-exciting things. The kid climbs down into the outhouse pit, and that’s how she escapes being found — someone’s grandmother really did that. That was what was gripping about Schindler’s List. Which I suppose you could say is in poor taste for a different reason. But I didn’t feel like it was a weepy “oh, we all deserve a pat on the back for watching a movie about a terrible thing.”

ADAM That’s fair. Admittedly my views of Schindler’s List are probably retroactively colored by Life is Beautiful in a way that is unfortunate.

BROOM Yes; they are not the same movie! Whereas this, I felt, really was — maybe sanctimonious isn’t the right word, but self-congratulatory for its seriousness.

ADAM And it’s the generic-ness of it that makes it distasteful. It’s so trope-ic, if you will, that it’s hard to see it as anything other than, you know…

BROOM That’s how I felt at the time: like, there is no “Simba.” There is no “Mufasa.” There is no “The Lion King”! It’s “that one with the lions,” but there’s no core to it. That’s how I feel about this movie.

ADAM And then to have all of that with a little bit of ‘tude in the middle is especially jarring and of its time.

BROOM “What do you want me to do, dress in drag and do the hula?”

ADAM That was very Tiny Toons, that cut-away. And the lyrics.

BROOM You knew it was Nathan Lane, right?

BETH I didn’t. I would have been even more annoyed.

BROOM The two of them are totally Ren and Stimpy rip-offs. Not that they act like them, but they look like them.

BETH Yes. They do.

BROOM There’s just a lot of ripping off going on here, and no shame about it. No sense of better standards. And you know, honestly, if the SFX department actually spelled out “SFX” in the dust, we shouldn’t be angry that it looks like it says “SEX,” we should be angry that these movies are so in-jokey self-involved. Who is thinking about the children?

ADAM “It’s a small world after all…” “Anything but that!”

BROOM Even when he says that thing about “my baby brother,” it’s lines out of that twins movie that I just watched.

ADAM “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” “Like you?”

BROOM “Oops.” So what were you going to say about the quality of the artistry?

ADAM I feel disappointed. I remember this as being one of my favorites. I think of this and Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast as being the really good ones.

BROOM Those three and this were the uncontested resurgence of the golden age. What’s next after this, Pocahontas? Which was, I think everyone agreed, a failure in a lot of ways. These were the four where everyone was saying “Disney is on a roll!” After this they get more ambivalent.

ADAM Sorry, Beth.

BETH There are just so many more!

ADAM But they get more interesting.

BROOM I found this very interesting to watch.

BETH Really?? I didn’t find it interesting. Why did you find it interesting? Because you hadn’t seen it in a while?

BROOM Because of that thing I said before about my objection. It’s art without sincerity at a very elaborate level of execution.

ADAM I’m going to rest on “a filmed Maya Angelou poem” as my expression of why it is dated.

BROOM Appropriateness for child-rearing?

ADAM Highly.

BROOM Even the part where Nala looks up at him? You agreed with me when you saw the shot, didn’t you?

BETH Yeah. Because it lingered a little bit too long on her sexy look.

ADAM Well there’s no other males in the pride, you know…

BROOM How does that work?

ADAM They drive out the adolescent male lions, right? Isn’t that what happens in real life?

BROOM I don’t know.

ADAM I’ll tell you when I get back from Africa!

BROOM I’m surprised that you guys don’t find in watching a thing like this that there’s some sense — maybe not of “satisfaction”…

ADAM I found it very engaging to be seeing this even as I was disapproving of it.

BETH I was a little bored, but not… it was fine.

BROOM I feel consistently that as bad movies go, these are really exceptionally skillful bad movies, and lively bad movies, and interesting to watch.

BETH Well, they’re skillful, I agree. Those people are pros at making the bad movies look like accessible, entertaining…

BROOM They’re like bad rollercoasters — you’re going to get pulled around these curves no matter what. And playing the game of guessing how it’s going to work — even now, because I don’t always remember, because it hardly matters. At the end, when you guys were guessing moment by moment how things would play out, that’s us playing along, and I enjoy that game.

ADAM So do you prefer James Earl Jones as Mufasa, or James Earl Jones as the king in Coming to America?

BROOM I haven’t seen Coming to America.

BETH I haven’t seen all of Coming to America.

ADAM It is so good. I love it. Of course I love this too.

BROOM Do you still love it? Or do you feel disappointed.

ADAM Well, no. I feel disappointed, but I can understand why I loved it. Look, portentous liberalism was very appealing to me when I was fourteen! I drew pictures of President Clinton and Hillary Clinton on the lawn of the White House, and put them in my notebook.

BROOM Flying on an eagle.

ADAM Basically, yeah.

BROOM That’s cool. Do you still have those pictures?

ADAM Yeah, in my file.

[we read the Times review]

ADAM I think the 90s had a sense — this was the period in which history was over, right? And we sort of mistook shallowness for greatness during that period, in a way that is depressing but very much characteristic of a time of basic peace and prosperity. That period between the fall of the Berlin wall and September 11th, everyone referred to it as a sort of parenthesis from history. This just has that feel of… faked seriousness.

BETH Yeah, but I think it was innocent. I think it was genuine.

ADAM I don’t think it was malevolent. I agree with that.

BROOM I think that was Janet Maslin’s best yet. I think she nailed it. And I respect her for it. We said we wanted to make a point of including this: she said it had a “very 1990s ethos,” which made Adam go “woo-hoo,” and I wanted to go “woo-hoo” when she said it was far more calculated than the ones before. I felt like we were all validated. By Janet Maslin agreeing with us.