I think at this point it is fairly safe to call "The Lion King" a classic. A cornerstone of Disney's so-called second golden age of animation, it has become ingrained into pop culture to the point that you can walk up to someone, say "hakuna matata" and not have them look at you like you were a crazy person.
"The Lion King" has been re-released for a limited two-week run and been given a 3D makeover for its return to the big screen.
While the 3D is surprisingly effective on the 2D, hand-drawn animation, the real treat is getting to see this movie once again projected up in all its larger-than-life glory.
For those of you with bad memories or those who managed to spend the past two decades avoiding humans under the age of 10, "The Lion King" loosely cribs from the plot of "Hamlet" and imagines lions as, quite literally, the kings of beasts.
The movie holds up amazingly well (although those goose-stepping hyenas seem a little much in hindsight), to the point that if it came out today it would be the best animated movie released in 2011.
But as I once again watched the trials and tribulations of Simba (voiced as a cub by Jonathan Taylor Thomas and as an adult by Matthew Broderick), I was struck by how influential "The Lion King" actually wound up becoming.
When it was originally released in 1994, it was a continuation of the rejuvenating run Disney animation enjoyed in the early 1990s, following up on the release of "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin."
But what sets "The Lion King" apart was how it became the blueprint for pretty much all big-budget animated films that would follow.
First of all, this was the first animated movie to pack the cast with recognizable actors. In addition to Broderick, James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons handle all of the dramatic heavy lifting while a solid comedic ensemble of Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Nathan Lane, Robert Guillaume and Rowan Atkinson keep the movie from lingering on the somber side.
Granted it's not a group that has to chase off hordes of paparazzi, but when you consider the most recognizable names you'd find in a Disney cast beforehand were Buddy Hackett and Angela Lansbury, it's a pretty noticeable step up.
Next to get the A-list treatment was the soundtrack, with a host of songs co-written by Elton John that were solid enough to win an Oscar and make a successful transition to Broadway, where the stage version of "The Lion King" became a smash hit.
Mix in a solid moral and a handful of jokes that parents are more likely to chuckle at than the kids and you have the formula that everybody from Pixar to Dreamworks has painstakingly followed for the past 17 years.
Personally, this viewing of "The Lion King" proved to be a bit more profound than I had anticipated. It occurred to me that the first time I had seen the movie I had taken my then 6-year-old sister to see it in the theater.
I saw that same little sister married off this past June and when I looked in the theater seat next to me, the little girl whose eyes were glued to the screen, watching Simba battle his evil Uncle Scar for the fate of the Pridelands, was now my 4-year-old daughter.
The circle of life, baby. The circle of life.
"The Lion King" is rated G.
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