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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 9/25/03

The Lion King: Special Edition
Platinum Edition - 1994 (2003) - Disney

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Lion King: Platinum Edition Film Rating (both versions): A

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A/C+

Audio Ratings (Original/Enhanced): B+/A

Specs and Features

Disc One - The Film
89 mins (SE version)/88 mins (Theatrical version), G, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, THX-certified, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch/branching pause at 10:49 in chapter 3), dual-disc keep case packaging with slipcase, audio commentary (with directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn), The Making of The Morning Report featurette (3 mins), 3 deleted and abandoned scenes (Bug Football - 1 min, Hakuna Matata - 2 min, Can You Feel the Love Tonight? - 2 mins), sing-along text track, personality profile game, Disney Channel 'Circle of Stars' Circle of Life music video, video "making of" featurette, Timon's Grab-a-Grub game, Pumbaa's Sound Sensations game, promo trailers (for The Lion King 1 ½, Brother Bear, Sleeping Beauty: SE and George of the Jungle 2, Finding Nemo, Santa Clause 2, Mary Poppins: SE and Walt Disney World), preview for Disc Two, insert booklet, DVD credits, THX-Optimizer, animated film-themed menus with sound and music, scene access (24 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & "Disney Enhanced" DD 5.1) and French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English for the hearing impaired, Closed Captioned

Disc Two - Supplemental Material
Single-sided, dual-layered, 3 story featurettes (all 4x3, Story Origins - 5 mins, Timeless Themes - 4 mins, The Story Comes to Life - 3 mins), 7 film featurettes (all 4x3, Origins - 6 mins, Production Research Trip - 2 mins, Art: African Influence - 4 mins, Reflections - 5 mins, Storyboard Process - 2 mins, Production Design - 1 min, Computer Animation - 4 mins), 7 character design featurettes (all 4x3, Mufasa - 1 min, Simba - 2 mins, Scar - 3 mins, Rafiki - 1 min, Timon & Pumba - 2 mins, Zazu - 1 min, The Hyenas - 1 min), 11 film character design galleries, 5 stage featurettes (all 4x3, Musical Origins - 4 mins, Screen to Stage - 3 mins, Musical Texture - 3 mins, Setting the Stage - 2 mins, Leaps of Fantasy - 4 mins), stage musical publicity gallery, Timon & Pumbaa's Virtual Safari interactive game, 7 music featurettes (all 4x3, Music Inspirations - 4 mins, Landmark Songwriting - 3 mins, Orchestral Color - 4 mins, Scoring Emotion - 3 mins, Music: African Influence - 4 mins, Audio Sequel - 4 mins, Full Circle - 2 mins), Elton John's Can You Feel the Love Tonight and Circle of Life music video, Jimmy Cliff and Lebo M's Hakuna Matata music video, 6 animals featurettes (all 4x3, Introduction - 1 min, Lions - 3 mins, Meerkats - 3 mins, Warthogs - 3 mins, Hyenas - 2 mins, Disney & Animals - 6 mins), Leaps of Fantasy featurette (4 mins), multi-language clip reel (4 mins), International Release featurette (4 mins), international soundtrack cover galleries, international large format release gallery, promo trailer for The Lion King 1 ½, DVD Sound Design featurette (6 mins), Animal Kingdom Park promo featurette (4 mins), Animal Kingdom Lodge promo featurette (2 mins), Storyboard to Film comparison featurette (4 mins), 2 early concept reels (Timon & Pumbaa Find Simba - 3 mins, Simba's Presentation - 3 mins), 1 abandoned scene (Warthog Rhapsody - 3 mins), early presentation reel (1 mins), 11 production design galleries, 3 effects animation galleries, animated film-themes menus with music

The Lion King tells the story of young Simba, a lion cub who is destined to one day take his place as the king of the many animals living around Pride Rock. Simba's birth, while welcomed by nearly all the animals, is grating to Scar, who is the scheming brother of the current king, Mufasa. Scar, with the help of a pack of hyenas, plots to get both Mufasa and Simba out of the way, so that he can assume the throne. As the story progresses, Simba must overcome tragedy and his own doubts, and find the courage within himself to take his rightful place as king. Of course, no one every succeeds in life alone. In this case, Simba has a pair of loyal (and unlikely) friends to help him - a meerkat named Timon and his trusty warthog pal, Pumbaa.

The Lion King is arguably the most successful animated feature film of all time. It is certainly one of the most profitable. The film succeeds largely because of a fluky convergence of elements that, to this day, even the creators don't fully understand. When the story was first in development at Disney, it was considered a less than desirable project to work on - pitched as Bambi in Africa. Much of the so-called A-talent at the studio passed on it to work on Pocahontas instead. But then, some interesting things began to happen. Rather than working from pre-existing material, as was the norm at Disney, the producers crafted an entirely new story - a coming of age tale set in the world of the animal kingdom. Originally, the film wasn't intended to be a musical, but Tim Rice was brought on board to write a number of songs, and Elton John came soon after to put those lyrics to music. The resulting musical numbers were so good, that they inspired the animators and producers creatively to take the project to the next level. Add to this mix the amazing cast of voice talent, and the accomplished scoring by Hans Zimmer and Lebo M., and suddenly the film began to take on an amazing life of its own. The Lion King went on, of course, to thrill audiences right from the very opening note and visual image.

Given the importance of this film to Disney fans, it was absolutely critical that the film look as good as it's possible to achieve on a DVD. I'm very pleased to say that the technicians at Disney have absolutely nailed the video quality. Presented in all its anamorphic widescreen glory, this film looks simply amazing. Colors are lush and vibrant, contrast is excellent with deep blacks and wonderful shadow detailing, and there's nary a spec or mark to be found anywhere. Edge-enhancement is thankfully absent and digital artifacting is also not an issue thanks to a nicely maxed-out average video bit rate (it seldom drops below 7 Mbps). You'll notice subtle film grain, which is entirely appropriate, and the picture looks quite natural overall. This film is a delight to watch on DVD - probably as good as a non-computer animated film can look on this format. You should also know that, via the miracle of DVD's seamless-branching capability, two versions of this film are available on Disc One (you might notice a slight pause when the branching happens). You can choose to watch the original theatrical version, and a minute-longer "special edition" version which appeared in IMAX theaters last Christmas. The sole difference between the two is the addition of a single musical number, The Morning Report, written and animated by the very same people who worked on the film originally. The new song matches the rest of the film beautifully and is, for me at least, a welcome addition to the story.

Regardless of which version of the film you choose to watch, the available audio options let you choose between the "original" Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, and a new "Disney Enhanced" Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which has basically been sweetened to make the mix more expansive in the home theater environment. The new mix is much more active in terms of surround use and panning, with more of a push in the .LFE channel as well. There's no doubt, it sounds fantastic. But I actually preferred the original mix to a degree, if only because a number of subtle sound cues and effects I remembered from the theatrical experience have been de-emphasized in the new mix - the sounds of various animals in the opening sequence for example. Still, both of them are great examples of superior film sound on DVD. One mix is simply more "accurate", and the other is more immersive. Which you prefer will be a personal choice.

Unfortunately, the extras on this two-disc set are a mixed bag. The basic problem here is that Disney is trying to satisfy two different audiences with the same disc - the moms and kids on one hand, and animated film aficionados on the other. There was a time, not so very long ago, when Disney created two different versions of its films on DVD - one for each of those audiences. I'm thinking of the fantastic special editions of Tarzan, A Bug's Life, Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Now however, in a move to maximize profits, we get just a single edition on disc for everyone. As a result, there are extras here that film fans are going to find irritating, and extras that moms and kids aren't going to give two rips about. What's more, those of you out there who purchased The Lion King: Masterpiece Edition laserdisc box set are going to have to hang on to it a while longer. There are a number things on that set that did not make the transition to DVD, including the documentary on the making of the film hosted by Robert Guillaume, many of the storyboard pitches and breakdowns, some of the early concept featurettes and more.

Without delving into every single thing on these two discs (you'll find a complete listing of them all above), I'll just mention the highlights, and the pluses and minuses of each. Disc One features an excellent audio commentary with the producer and directors of this film. It's entertaining to listen to, as they talk about the origins of the story, the process of how it developed, the inspiration that the music provided to the production team and many other issues. Disc One also includes a look at the making of the new musical number for the special edition, and a trio of brief deleted or abandoned sequences from the film with introduction. They're not lengthy, but they're cool to see and the story behind the original version of Can You Feel the Love Tonight? is definitely amusing. Disc One also includes a number of interactive games for the kids, a sing-along subtitle track and a tons of preview trailers for other Disney DVD titles (oddly, however, nowhere on either of these two discs will you find trailers for The Lion King). Irritatingly, the previews run automatically when you put the disc in your player - you can skip them, but it's still irritating.

Disc Two is where the majority of the extras are located, and you can choose to view them in one of two ways. You can "journey" through various topics, including Story, Film, Stage, Music, etc, or you can "journey" through the same material organized by continent; Asia, Africa, North America, etc. Each different path consists basically of a host of short featurettes. By "journey", I mean to say that you can play all of the featurettes in that path together, or you can view them one at a time. It's all a bit more complicated than these menus really needed to be, and it makes you think there's a lot more substance to the material here than there really is. Part of the problem here is that none of these featurettes goes into any kind of depth on the subject they cover. The longest of them is 6 or 7 minutes, but most clock in at well under 2 minutes - barely enough time to even address the subject, much less tell you anything interesting about it. They're more like EPK pieces. We're treated to new interviews with many of the behind-the-scenes production team members, including Tim Rice and Elton John, but completely missing from this DVD are the reflections of the voice cast. Nowhere to be found are the thoughts of Matthew Broderick, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Moira Kelly, Ernie Sabella, Nathan Lane, Robert Guillaume, Rowan Atkinson, Madge Sinclair, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings and others. It's a rather surprising omission, and I can only assume this was a financial decision, because there doesn't seem to be any other reason for it. We're also given new interviews with a number of Disney studio executives, talking about the phenomenon that The Lion King became, but frankly I just don't care much what Michael Eisner has to say. No offense, Michael.

This unfortunately leads to the second disc's other major weakness. Rather than crafting a comprehensive look at the making of The Lion King as an animated film, much of the space on Disc Two is devoted to looking at The Lion King phenomenon. So we get to see how the animated film inspired a pair of soundtrack CDs, and then how the soundtrack CDs in turn inspired the creation of a Broadway musical. We learn about the Broadway musical, and how that in turn inspired the creation of the new musical number for the re-release of the film into IMAX theaters and on DVD. Fine and good, right? Sure... if you care about the soundtrack CDs and the Broadway musical. But as a fan of the animated film The Lion King, all I wanted to learn about was the making of the animated film The Lion King. While you get some of that here, particularly in a plethora of production and character design galleries, you don't get nearly enough. And I do have to say that while I'm sure the creators of this DVD were inspired by the whole "circle of life" idea when they decided to look at how the film begat the CDs, begat the musical, begat the new song in the film... it's rather easy to see it as a pretty shameless way to cross-promote those other things on this DVD. I was willing to give the disc the benefit of the doubt, until I found promotional "travelogue" featurettes for Disney's Animal Kingdom Park and Animal Kingdom Lodge in the Orlando section of the North America path on Disc Two. I mean... come on. Seriously.

Disc Two also includes another interactive game for the kids - a particularly cool "virtual safari" in which you can navigate around a Jungle Cruise or Indiana Jones-like theme park ride with Timon and Pumbaa as your guides. There are lots of different twists and turns you can take, lots of scary and funny stuff pops out at you, and all of the audio is a nicely immersive Dolby Digital 5.1. Kids will love it. But as someone who approaches DVD through an interest in film, interactive games don't particularly do anything for me.

So that's The Lion King on DVD. Thankfully, the film looks and sounds truly amazing, which is really the whole point of a DVD anyway. The family crowd and casual fans will, of course, be blown away by the sheer volume of content here, as well as the interactive games and other features. But I'm sorry to say that this just isn't the DVD special edition that most serious Disney animated aficionados would have hoped for. Remember those first Disney special editions that blew everyone away, and that raised the bar in terms of thoughtful and thorough content? Well that approach to special edition treatment seems to have abandoned by Disney, an apparent victim of the very success of the format we all love so much. Let me tell you... about five minutes into the "virtual safari," I sure missed it.

Bill Hunt
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