The Lion King (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #52

The greatest adventure of all is
finding our place in the circle of life.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 88 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G

Original Release: 15th June 1994
UK Release: 7th October 1994
First Seen: VHS, c.1995

Stars
Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Election)
James Earl Jones (Star Wars, Conan the Barbarian)
Jeremy Irons (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Die Hard with a Vengeance)
Rowan Atkinson (Bean, Johnny English)

Directors
Roger Allers (Open Season, The Prophet)
Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little, Mr. Peabody & Sherman)

Screenwriters
Irene Mecchi (Brave, Strange Magic)
Jonathan Roberts (James and the Giant Peach, Jack Frost)
Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, Alice Through the Looking Glass)

Story by
Deep breath… Burny Mattinson, Barry Johnson, Lorna Cook, Thom Enriquez, Andy Gaskill, Gary Trousdale, Jim Capobianco, Kevin Harkey, Jorgen Klubien, Chris Sanders, Tom Sito, Larry Leker, Joe Ranft, Rick Maki, Ed Gombert, Francis Glebas & Mark Kausler; with additional story by J.T. Allen, George Scribner, Miguel Tejada-Flores, Jenny Tripp, Bob Tzudiker, Chris Vogler, Kirk Wise & Noni White; and the story supervisor was Brenda Chapman.

Sort of based on
Hamlet, a play by William Shakespeare.

Songs by
Elton John (The Muse, Gnomeo & Juliet)
Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Aladdin)

The Story
The savannahs of Africa are ruled by the lion Mufasa, a kindly king who is struggling to instil some sense of life’s importance in his reckless young son and heir, Simba. But Mufasa’s brother, Scar, lusts for power, and manipulates Mufasa and Simba to gain it…

Our Hero
Lion cub Simba is heir to his father’s throne as ruler of the Pride Lands, and a naughty, unruly prince who just can’t wait to be king. All that changes when he winds up outcast, and has to learn to grow up before returning to save his kingdom.

Our Villain
King Mufasa’s jealous brother, Scar, who also just can’t wait to be king. Obviously that’s not going to happen under the regular rules of succession, but Scar is a cunning and conniving sort. Well, he is the villain.

Best Supporting Characters
After running away, Simba falls in with meerkat Timon (voiced by Nathan Lane) and warthog Pumbaa (voiced by Ernie Sabella), who have a laid-back attitude to life, and raise the lion cub to have the same. So successful they had their own spin-off series and were the stars of a sequel, too.

Memorable Quote
Mufasa: “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.”
Simba: “But, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?”
Mufasa: “Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass, and so we are all connected in the great circle of life.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Hakuna matata” — a wonderful phrase, it means no worries for the rest of your days.

Memorable Scene
The opening sequence, in which all the animals gather to celebrate the birth of Simba, scored to Circle of Life, is a majestic sequence — so impressive, in fact, that Disney used it, uncut and unadorned, as the film’s trailer.

Best Song
Big romantic number Can You Feel the Love Tonight won the Oscar, and there were nominations for epic opener Circle of Life and quotable comedy hit Hakuna Matata, and you shouldn’t overlook the fun and impressive choreography of I Just Can’t Wait to Be King, but for me the best number is Scar’s Be Prepared. I do love a good villain’s song.

Technical Wizardry
The Lion King continues Disney’s integration of CGI into their animated features, this time using it to create the pivotal wildebeest stampede. A new program had to be written for the sequence, which allowed hundreds of computer generated animals to run without colliding into each other. It took the CG department three years to animate the scene.

Making of
Voice actor Frank Welker (who has over 760 credits to his name on IMDb, including originating Fred in Scooby-Doo and voicing Megatron in the Transformers animated series) provided all of the film’s lion roars. No recordings of actual lions were used.

Next time…
As one of the biggest successes of the Disney Renaissance, The Lion King has naturally had more than its share of follow-ups. The headline has to be the stage musical adaptation of the film, which opened in 1997. It’s the third longest-running show in Broadway history, and is “the highest-earning entertainment property in history in any medium”. In 1998, direct-to-video sequel The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride was released. Apparently its plot is influenced by Romeo and Juliet. A second direct-to-DVD sequel, The Lion King 1½ (known as The Lion King 3 in some countries, including the UK), was released in 2004. It’s based on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, re-telling the first movie from Timon and Pumbaa’s perspective. I watched it years ago and really enjoyed it, an opinion supported by its strong 76% on Rotten Tomatoes. On television, spin-off series The Lion King’s Timon & Pumbaa ran for three seasons from 1995, and just last year TV ‘movie’ (it’s only 45 minutes) The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar heralded the start of a new series, The Lion Guard. It’s been renewed for a second season.

Awards
2 Oscars (Song (Can You Feel the Love Tonight), Score)
2 Oscar nominations (Song (both Circle of Life and Hakuna Matata))
2 BAFTA nominations (Music, Sound)
3 Annie Awards (Film, Voice Acting (Jeremy Irons), Individual Achievement for Story Contribution)
3 Annie nominations (Individual Achievement for Artistic Excellence (x3))
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Performance by a Younger Actor (Jonathan Taylor Thomas))

What the Critics Said
“Even the inescapable hype cannot diminish the fact that this is one great film. Consider that this movie delivers strong characters, a sophisticated story, good music, captivating visuals and loads of emotion — all within the confines of a G-rated cartoon. […] The most exhilarating part of The Lion King is that it’s not just great animation, but superior filmmaking. Outstanding character animation is a given at Disney, which handles the nuances of movement better than anyone. But the last few animated features show an increasing mastery of cinematography techniques. In The Lion King, the eye of the camera ranges from point of view to overhead to moving with the scene. The opening sequence where the plains animals trek to see the newborn cub and the wildebeest stampede scene are breathtaking.” — Bill Wedo, Philadelphia Daily News

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“Timone and Pumba [sic] are two of the more interesting comic relief characters in Disney films. I’d argue that they’re one of the most wonderful depictions of a same-sex parenting couple that I have ever seen. I don’t want to get drawn into a debate over their sexuality, but the pair are partners in the truest sense of the word, sharing a life. They sleep together, for crying out loud. I don’t care about their sexuality or anything like that, because we’ll never get an answer on that and it’s immaterial. All that matters is that they complete one another, and it’s sweet. […] Even when Simba arrives, it’s very clear that the dynamic is different – Simba isn’t an equal partner in the relationship like Timone and Pumba. They’re a family, but Timone and Pumba are more of a couple.” — Darren Mooney, the m0vie blog

Verdict

My third Disney pick is consecutive to my previous two (Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast) in Disney’s history of animated classics, which goes to show how successful their ’90s Renaissance was. (Also, when my childhood was.) The Lion King succeeds by combining a selection of memorable, hummable songs with an epic tale of royal politicking — but, y’know, in a Disney way. Unafraid to include plot twists that place it alongside Bambi in the company’s canon, but with some well-performed comedy characters to lighten the mood, it manages to be one of Disney’s most entertaining but also most philosophical (in its way) films.

#53 has… my sword, and my bow, and my axe.

Hamlet (1964)

aka Гамлет / Gamlet

2016 #96
Grigori Kozintsev | 142 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Soviet Union / Russian | U

A black-and-white, two-and-a-half hour Shakespeare adaptation in subtitled Russian? No, wait, come back! Actually, don’t bother, because if you’re turned off by any or all of that description then, yeah, this isn’t for you. If you don’t object, however, then you’ll find a film that the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, and Sir Kenneth Branagh have hailed as the greatest film adaptation of arguably the Bard’s most revered play.

I shan’t bother to summarise the plot, because if you don’t know the story already this isn’t a film for you. Even for those who have no problem with black-and-white, or Shakespeare, or subtitles, the latter occasionally race by at a rate of knots, making them hard to keep up with. Unless you fancy regularly pausing and/or rewinding, you’ll have to accept that you’re going to miss a line here or there. (If you do keep up with them throughout, well done, you’re better at quickly parsing Shakespearean dialogue than I am.)

For those in a position to appreciate it, however, this is a great version of the play. Based on Boris Pasternak’s translation, it moves through the narrative with reasonable speed, but without losing anything fundamental (as far as I was aware). Director Grigori Kozintsev expressed a particular interest in the political themes, in contrast to their de-emphasis in Olivier’s 1948 film (which I’ve not seen). He particularly highlights Elsinore’s role as a prison, framing characters through bars, constraining Ophelia in a metal corset, and staging Hamlet’s dismissal to England on a courtroom-like set. I felt like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had bigger roles here than in other versions I’ve seen, with Hamlet’s plot to have them dispatched also given focus. Ophelia’s storyline is more present than normal too, whereas the roles of Gertrude and Horatio felt consequently reduced. This is partly down to which sections of the text are used, but Kozintsev also features dialogue-free realisations of elements of the story, which build up these parts further.

In the famously complex lead role, Innokenty Smoktunovsky gives a Hamlet who you really feel is more intelligent than everyone else around him — like a student fresh home from his studies, who has surpassed his parents and old acquaintances in sheer learning and attentiveness to philosophical topics, but doesn’t yet have a firm handle on his swirling thoughts. It’s possible he’s going genuinely mad with it, too, rather than the playfulness some choose to interpret in the part. Anastasiya Vertinskaya embodies sweet innocence as Ophelia, who Hamlet seems to genuinely care for, but has a poor way of showing it. Conversely, Mikhail Nazvanov makes for a somewhat neutered Claudius — he’s almost bumbling, outwitted by Hamlet but with enough innate power (he’s King, after all) to mask it. I suppose that emphasises the “student who’s outstripped his parents” point, but it doesn’t exactly make for a powerful villain. Still, different interpretations are always interesting.

As a film it looks incredible, with Jonas Gritsius’ cinematography bestowing grandiosity on the striking castle set (built on location over six months), without losing sight of the characters who inhabit these spacious environments. Nighttime scenes are a visual standout — it’s a time of day that’s always set to look good in black-and-white, with light cutting out details from the pervading darkness, and Gritsius doesn’t waste the opportunity. The outdoor staging of the play-within-a-play, and the events around it, is a particularly memorable sequence. Whereas Branagh would use editing to guide us around the various observers in his film, Kozintsev more often achieves it with well-chosen pans and tilts. The visitation of Hamlet’s father’s ghost is another tour de force moment, the kind of visual impact that benefits not a jot from being described in text.

I don’t normally comment on my method of viewing when reviewing a film, but the UK R0 DVD of Hamlet has at least one aspect worthy of note: in an era when widescreen TVs are the norm, someone at Mr. Bongo had the bright idea to release this 2.35:1 film in fullscreen, and to let the subtitles fill the black bar underneath the picture to boot. Practically, this means you have to watch the film in a small box in the centre of your TV — and, at 2.35:1, that’s a very small box. It’s not as if Mr. Bongo do it with all their releases, so goodness knows what made them think it was a bright idea in 2011 to release a fullscreen DVD of a widescreen film. However, I was fortunate enough to catch BBC Four’s screening, in HD, as part of the current BBC Shakespeare Festival. If you missed it, it’s unfortunately not available in HD on iPlayer, but I’d wager the BBC’s SD version is at least the equal of the DVD in terms of resolution, and it doesn’t have the problem of stupidly-placed subtitles.

In many respects this is a 5-star adaptation — it brings vitality to the text, there are several strong performances, the staging is highly cinematic — but the language is something of a barrier to entry. This is most certainly not a neophyte’s Hamlet. But then, why should it need to be? That’s not a fault of the film, just a factor in deciding when to watch it. Even with the subtitle issue feeling like an obstacle to engagement, this was perhaps the most enjoyable Hamlet film I’ve seen. Maybe that’s because it has an advantage in that I’m now more familiar with the play (something which hindered Branagh’s version, as that was the first time I’d seen it), but it speaks to the film’s overall quality that it has more to offer than just Shakespeare’s words.

5 out of 5

Hamlet is available on BBC iPlayer for another seven days.

Hamlet (2009)

aka The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet

2009 #90
Gregory Doran | 183 mins | TV | 12

Hamlet (2009)It doesn’t seem like 18 months since the RSC brought Hamlet to the stage with British TV’s biggest star actor (probably) as the titular Dane, but it is (more or less). Thanks to sold-out performances and largely positive reviews (theatre critics seem even less keen to agree on anything than film ones), we’re now treated to this film adaptation, shown on BBC Two on Boxing Day and released on DVD (but not Blu-ray, boo*) earlier this week.

Hamlet hangs primarily on its central performance — so we’re constantly told, anyway; this being only the second production I’ve seen I can’t confidently assert so for myself, but I can certainly see where the consensus comes from. Equally, I can’t accurately compare David Tennant’s performance to any other, which often seems to be a central consideration in any review of the play. In near-isolation, however, it’s a thoroughly convincing performance. He glides seamlessly from withdrawn and grief-stricken in his first appearance, to intrigued and excited by the ghost of his father, to clever and wily as he plots, and finally to an alternation between assumed madness and serious introspection as he enacts his plans.

Any number of scenes show off Tennant’s abilities, particularly the way he treats other characters. He resolutely takes the piss out of both Polonius and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, but plays each in subtly different ways: the former is like someone intelligent teasing with someone who doesn’t get it, which sounds distasteful but is enjoyable because of Polonius’ plotting and influence; while the latter is like a cat toying with a pair of treacherous mice, who are aware they’ve been caught out but struggle on regardless. Hamlet’s pair of ‘friends’ can be seen as insignificant characters by some — it’s part of what led Tom Stoppard to pen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, after all — but with a few silent additions around Shakespeare’s dialogue and the way Tennant, Sam Alexander and Tom Davey choose to play the original lines, their roles seem to have increased importance.

The other notable facet of Tennant’s interpretation of the character is humour. Hamlet’s madness here is almost unrelentingly funny — even in deadly serious situations, like capture following a murder, Tennant’s Hamlet can’t resist taunting the other characters, keeping the viewer onside by keeping his apparent insanity entertaining rather than scary or darkly intense. If anything, however, this screen version fails to capture just how funny Tennant was on stage. Perhaps it’s the loss of a bigger audience, or the energy of performing on stage, or perhaps Tennant has reined in, switching from Stage Acting to Screen Acting. He’s still funny, certainly, but its not as striking as it was live. In fact, more laughs are earnt by Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius. As his lines dither on like many a real forgetful old man, it’s difficult to imagine the part played any other way.

The other stand-out is an award-winning Patrick Stewart in the dual role of Claudius and the Ghost, though the fact he plays both feels relatively insignificant. His cool politician of a King makes a perfect contrast to the crazed energy of the Prince, the latter constantly bounding around while the former remains still and collected. In my view it’s a shame Stewart has a beard in the filmed version (a necessity forced by his concurrent appearance in Waiting for Godot, I believe) — on stage he was clean-shaven and therefore somehow more reminiscent of numerous other political villains, both real and fictional, whereas his bearded visage is more reminiscent of a traditional Kingly role. Still, it’s a minor aesthetic point that doesn’t hamper his wonderful performance.

Director of the original stage production, Greg Doran, also helms this version. It’s a convincing adaptation too, making good use of sets, locations and, vitally, camerawork, rather than employing static shots of the original theatrical blocking. A quick shoot (18 days for an over-three-hours film) and single location combine to reduce the number of on-screen locations, unfortunately, though the main set is fairly well rearranged to stand in for a number of rooms. It does branch out occasionally, but it’s a shame this couldn’t have been done more often, as consecutive scenes on the same slightly-redressed main set occasionally confuse whether we’ve changed location or not.

Doran’s main screen gimmick, however, is security cameras. Every so often our viewpoint switches to a grainy black & white high angle as we survey the scene via CCTV. It’s a neat idea to convey the concept of Elsinore as a place where everyone is under constant scrutiny, and it’s occasionally used very well indeed — during the Ghost’s appearance to Hamlet, for example, or when he rips a camera down to declare “now I am alone”. Unfortunately, it’s not as consistently thought-out as one might like. When Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet and Ophelia, for example, they do so from behind a two-way mirror (as in Branagh’s film, incidentally) rather than, say, from a control room with a bank of security monitors, an idea which seems to naturally flow from the presence of CCTV. Following this, when Polonius talks to Hamlet he delivers several asides to camera — not the security camera, mind, just to the audience. It would have been more effective to have him offer them to a security camera, knowing Claudius to be viewing in another room. It’s moments like these that turn the omnipresent video surveillance from a clever idea to little more than a gimmick. And by the time it’s cut to during the climactic sword fight, you just want it to go away.

It’s almost certain that this production will be remembered as “The Doctor Who Hamlet” thanks to its leading man. Whether that’s unfair or not is another debate, though it shouldn’t mean this version goes ignored. Tennant’s excellent performance reminds us that he was an accomplished performer with the RSC long before he gained televisual fame, and a strong supporting cast ensure this can’t just be dismissed as a popularity-seeking vanity venture by the RSC. Indeed, if there’s one good thing about the “Doctor Who Hamlet” label, it’s that the potential viewership is increased massively, bringing some to Shakespeare who never would have bothered otherwise. Surely no true theatre aficionado could argue with that.

4 out of 5

* A Blu-ray was eventually released in April 2010. ^

Hamlet (1996)

2008 #50
Kenneth Branagh | 232 mins | DVD | PG / PG-13

Hamlet (1996)Following his success with Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh tackled arguably Shakespeare’s most revered play, Hamlet. And he didn’t do it by half. It’s the first ever full-text screen adaptation, which means it clocks in just shy of four hours; he unusually shot it on 70mm film, which means it looks gorgeous; and, while he grabbed the title role himself, he assembled around him a ludicrously star-packed cast from both sides of the pond — in alphabetical order, there’s Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gerard Depardieu, Nicholas Farrell, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, John Mills, Jimi Mistry, Rufus Sewell, Timothy Spall, Don Warrington, Robin Williams and Kate Winslet — not to mention several other recognisable faces. Even Ken Dodd’s in there!

But, with impressive statistics and name-dropping put to one side, what of the film itself? Well, it’s a bit of a slog, especially for someone unfamiliar with the text. While there is much to keep the viewer engaged, the high level of attention required can make it a little wearing; certainly, I took the intermission as a chance to split the film over two nights. Amusingly, the second half uses the original text to provide a sort of “Previously on Hamlet“, which was very useful 24 hours later. None of this is the fault of Branagh or his cast, who do their utmost to make the text legible for newbies — for example, there are cutaways to events that are described but not shown by Shakespeare, which, among other things, help establish who Fortinbras is (Rufus Sewell, as it turns out) before he finally turns up later on.

That said, some of the performances are a bit mixed. Branagh is a good director and not a bad actor, but his Shakespearean performances are variations on a theme rather than fully delineated characters. While there a new facets on display here thanks to the complexity of the character, there are also many elements that are eerily reminiscent of his Henry V and Benedick. The Americans among the cast seem to be on best behaviour and generally cope surprisingly well, while Julie Christie achieves an above average amount of fully legible dialogue. Perhaps the biggest casting surprise is Judi Dench, appearing in what is barely a cameo — one wonders if the film-career-boosting effects of a certain spy franchise would have changed that.

The best thing about this version, however, is how it looks. Much credit to cinematographer Alex Thomson for using the larger 70mm format to its full, loading every frame with vibrant colours and packing detail into even the quietest moments. Not every frame is a work of art — there is, after all, a story to be told — but there’s more than enough eye candy to go round. Also, a nod to the editing (the work of Neil Farrell), which makes good use of long takes — many of them full of camera moves — but also sharply edited sequences, such as the all-important play. The fast cuts make for a joyously tense scene in a way only cinema can provide, which I suppose is rather ironic during a ‘play within a play’.

For fans of Shakespeare, I suspect Branagh’s Hamlet is a wonderful experience, finally bringing the complete text to the screen and executing it all so well. For us mere mortals, it’s a beautifully shot and engagingly performed film, that I’m sure would benefit from a greater understanding of the text.

4 out of 5