Lessons from ‘The Lion King’s’ new successWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
On Sept. 25, it was announced that Disney’s 3-D release of “The Lion King” had won the box office weekend for the second straight week, earning more than $22 million. This brought its two-week gross for the re-release to more than $61 million dollars. Not bad for a 17-year-old movie in an animation style many have long since written off for dead.
Now, it can be argued that the addition of 3-D to the film adds a whole new dimension (no pun intended) to the movie’s appeal, and that can explain the surprisingly successful revival. Not a chance. 3-D has been dying a slow, agonizing death for many months, with traditional 2-D screenings outdrawing 3-D counterparts on a regular basis.
No, the appeal of revisiting “The Lion King” lies elsewhere. It was first released in 1994. Many of the kids who saw and loved that film when they were growing up have kids of their own now. What better way to experience the film’s majesty once more than to share it with a whole new generation?
But “Lion King” has an even greater appeal. The tale of Simba and the Pride Land is the pinnacle of an era of filmmaking — one which saw Disney re-establish the animated feature as a viable, successful form of cinema and reaffirm its artistic status.
In the 1980s, the feature-length cartoon was all but dead. In the decades since the passing of Walt Disney, the company which bore his name had let the form slip almost into oblivion. Sure, occasionally a title would break through the haze (“The Rescuers,” “The Great Mouse Detective”), but never with the success or impact of the features in animation’s golden era.
That began to change in 1988, with the release of the family film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” a supremely entertaining send-up of 1940s detective films and a valentine to generations of cartoons. It served for many as a reminder, a nostalgic taste of the past. The seed was planted. (It wouldn’t bloom for a bit, though — Disney’s next animated film, “Oliver and Company,” would receive tepid response from critics and the box office.)
In 1989, it all started to come together. In November of that year, Disney released “The Little Mermaid.” A high-energy, entertaining fantasy, filled with memorable characters and amazingly catchy songs, “Mermaid” would become the company’s biggest breakout hit in years. But it wasn’t just the kids who were catching on. Critics also praised the film as great entertainment and the rebirth of an art form.
It was only the beginning of the renaissance. 1991 would see the release of “Beauty and the Beast,” again a commercial and critical smash, and the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
In 1992 came the wild comic romp “Aladdin.” The film wouldn’t quite achieve the same critical acclaim its predecessors did, but found remarkable success with audiences — and not just kids. Something was changing. Disney’s latest works were being seen by audiences of all ages. Suddenly, it wasn’t “childish” to watch a Disney animated flick — it was a cool thing to do.
It all came to a head in 1994, when “Lion King” grossed more than $300 million in America (barely edged out by “Forrest Gump” for the year’s highest-grossing film). It was official: The animated feature was not only alive once more, it was triumphant.
But traditional animation, on its own, would never see that level of success again. There would be high points (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” for one), but almost as quickly as it arrived, the Disney renaissance would be usurped by another entity. Ironically, Disney itself delivered that new entity to the public: Pixar.
Only a year after “The Lion King,” Pixar Animation Studios released “Toy Story,” the first film created entirely via computer. Its success would set a new bar for the animated feature, and see traditional, hand-drawn, 2-D work ushered into a hasty, undeserved retirement.
This is not to blame Pixar for the death of the traditional format. No, the blame lies with the coin-counters who tell the public what they want (“Traditional animation is dead! You all want computer stuff!”) and consumers for going along with it.
It is not the animation style which draws viewers to the work. It is the characters, the story, the themes, the songs, the passion. “The Lion King” reminds viewers of an era of greatness. And hopefully, it will inspire someone to ask, if it was that way once, why can’t it be again?
Email Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com.