06 October 2012

DISNEY SEQUELS: I MAY NOT BE BRAVE, OR STRONG, OR SMART

In reviewing the direct-to-video Disney sequel, the critic would be well-advised not to spend too much time wallowing about in the question of, "how does this sit alongside the original film?" for that is a question with no happy answer. Better to do one's best to consider the sequel on its on terms, and if it holds together as an animated narrative by itself, the more humiliating fact that it surely does not hold together as a sequel can be, if not ignored, at least tolerated.

I have followed this precept with more and less success in different cases; but with The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, it's not even worth trying. Every DTV sequel to that point, late in 1998, had its issues on that front: The Return of Jafar was a tired retread, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas was thematically redundant, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World played fast and loose with character psychology. But all of them are simply weak continuations, whereas Simba's Pride is an outright impossibility. It is based, in its most basic expression, on a situation that is incompatible with The Lion King. Its successes and failures as a stand-alone narrative, as a chance to revisit familiar characters, as a work of animation, as a musical - for it has both successes and failures in each of these regards - are all somewhat immaterial in light of the degree to which, as a continuation of the massively successful and beloved 1994 original, it cannot exist.

In The Lion King, the usurping lion ruler Scar was a petty dictator hated by every single animal in the Pride Lands - in Simba's Pride, he proves to have been the leader of a group of angry lionesses so loyal to his rule that they were banished at the time of his death at the hands of rightful king Simba. "They were, um, hunting" goes the insubstantial fanwank to explain why a veritable lion army at least equal in size to the faithful Simba faction was not involved in the battle that ended the film. If we're going to take that sort of leap of faith, there's hardly a plot hole in the entirety of cinema that can't be papered over. For example, there are no continuity gaps in the Star Wars series; "Ben Kenobi" of the original trilogy is actual an imposter named Sebbi Lightstriker who never even met the real Obi-Wan, and everything he says in the first movie is improvised in a druggy haze. Easy peasey!

But let's agree to skip over that gaffe. That gaffe upon which the entirety of the sequel's dramatic conflict resides. Here's another: in The Lion King, Scar is killed within days of Simba and his future wife Nala reconnecting. Let's assume that she gets pregnant during "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" (because, at any rate, they clearly have lion-sex during one of the dissolves) - their child is thus born about three and a half months after Scar's death. In Simba's Pride, a lion who is, to all available evidence, within weeks or days of Simba's child's age, is described as being Scar's handpicked successor. Meaning, best-case scenario, that he was born right around the time of Scar's defeat, at which point the bullying, selfish, tyrant looked at the mewling cub, and said, "yes, absolutely, that's who shall rule after me".

Now, if the cub were Scar's son, all of this would make at least some degree of sense. And given that the cub has precisely Scar's coloring - awfully idiosyncratic coloring that is, at best, typical of old lions, not youths - there's no reason to assume he's not; and that's not even pointing out that lion prides are structured with one male to all the females, meaning that there would be no other possible father, even if Scar is, as seems likely, gay. But no, the film goes out of its way to make clear that the cub is NOT Scar's biological child, because he and Simba's daughter end up falling in love, which means that they're first cousins once removed having cousincest, or they are the progenitors of an even more mutated and grisly offspring in the form of that insoluble chronology. Notice that first cousins once removed are not legally proscribed from marrying in the vast majority of the world, though I suppose squeaky-clean Disney would not anyway allow a point of such technicality to serve as the justification for turning The Lion King into an inbred genetic swamp like 19th Century Europe.

So, Simba's Pride is founded on a mixture of plot holes, crypto-incest, a profound ignorance about the social habits of lions, or best of all, a mixture of all three. A decent man would simply move past and judge it on its own merits, but I am not that man.

Anyway, its own merits are a bit shabby themselves. Where The Lion King was a free adaptation of Hamlet, a story that hasn't been the subject of all that many allegorical retellings, Simba's Pride adapts Romeo and Juliet, a story that... has. In a nutshell: Simba (Matthew Broderick) is happily reigning over a new kingdom and raising his headstrong daughter Kiara (Michelle Horn), when she follows in Dad's footsteps by going to the one place she's definitely not supposed to, the Outlands, there meeting fellow lion cub Kovu (Ryan O'Donohue), the son of the deranged Zira (Suzanne Pleshette), Scar's former- well, we can't say mistress, since incest, so let's go with first officer. Simba and Zira exchange bitter words, but nothing bad happens for some time, at which the now-adolescent Kovu (Jason Marsden) is sent by Zira as a sleeper agent to infiltrate the Pride Lands lion society, ingratiate himself with Simba, and then kill the older lion. But the spirit of old lion king Mufasa (James Earl Jones, with something like three lines total) has inspired the tireless mandrill Rafiki (Robert Guillaume) to arrange a love affair between Kovu and Kiara (Neve Campbell, to unite the two disparate populations once and for all.

Pop-culture savvy meerkat Timon (Nathan Lane) and farting warthog Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) are also present, being awful; they are joined by Kovu's big brother Nuka, played by Andy goddamn Dick, a character whose twitchy, scraggled design never ceased to bother the hell out of me.

The problem with Simba's Pride is simple to the point that mentioning it seems lazy: it wants to graft a romantic subplot into a universe with no use for it. Really, most of the story problems could be solved in a single gesture: instead of a heretofore unknown and logically irreconcilable band of evil lions, just bring back the hyenas. Oops, then we can't have Simba's daughter and Scar's not-son fall in love! And what a fucking shame that would be. So maybe that's the even simpler problem: Romeo and Juliet with lions is, I'm sorry, not interesting. Not like Hamlet with lions, anyway.

It's not an utter botch, anyway - indeed, it often shows up at or near the top of "Disney sequels that are actually good" lists, though how much of this is lingering affection for The Lion King, I cannot say, having no such lingering affection. Zira, while not as wonderful a villain as Scar - who is typically and rightfully ranked near the top of Disney's villain leaderboards - is still the obvious standout among the new characters, designed with an almost crocodilian exaggeration to her snarling, smirking features.


Pleshette attacks the role with complete abandon, swanning about here, ranting and snarling there, coughing out angry invective in the other place; hers is, I should even say, the only performance in the whole movie that actually lives and breathes with any kind of energy (the returning characters are especially dire in this regard: Lane and Sabella are reduced mostly to shouting, while Broderick is helplessly ill-equipped for the James Earl Jonesy profundities that he, as king, is expected to say). And some of the songs are good - really good, even. Okay, one of the songs, and as fate has it, it's Zira's "My Lullaby", written by Scott Warrender, and Joss Whedon - that one, yes - in which she coos Kovu to sleep before outlining her dreams about the blood-soaked revenge she will levy on Simba in what is, incontestably, the darkest and most fucked-up song in a Disney animated production this side of "Hellfire" from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The other songs range from decent to somewhat less decent: the love ballad, "Love Will Find a Way" is probably the highlight, owing to somewhat more inventive lyrics and a richer tune than most of the other things in the film (it is one of three songs by Tom Snow and Jack Feldman; the other two are dreadful banalities). The enthusiastically stupid "Upendi" - the stand-in for both "Hakuna Matata" and "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" in different ways - at least has silliness on its side. The opening "He Lives in You", by Lebo M, snagged from the Broadway stage version of the original movie, wants so bad to be "Circle of Life", and it at least sounds more authentically African (as does everything from Paul Simon's Graceland to "Joseph Smith, American Moses" from The Book of Mormon; hell, all the way to "Africa" by Toto); but it's awfully slow and moody to open the movie on the same "big" moment as the original, and it hurts the movie considerably that it finds space for a savagely unfunny Timon gag before the "pow" moment when the title comes up.

And thus we have only to discuss animation, and this is the point where I run into a difficulty. For the film looks lush; there is absolutely no denying that. It has the shaded colors, the broad but subtle palette, the show-off lighting technique of the last movie in spades.

There's not a single frame of the movie that looks television-animation cheap, in the way that every single Disney sequel before this did either frequently, or intermittently.

The problem is that animation, though a combination of many, many single frames, is about the way those frames are linked together, not the way they stand in isolation; and Simba's Pride, for all its soft shading and eye-catching colors, is not a very well-animated movie; and this the same year as Pocahontas II, which, accounting for the budgetary reasons which force us to grade on a curve, is. Of course, Pocahontas II was made at a different studio - like The Enchanted Christmas, the animation was produced at Disney's Paris studio, while Simba's Pride came from the Australian studio where the great bulk of Disney's future animated sequels would be made, after it was renamed DisneyToon Studios.

A lot of this, undoubtedly, is that the characters all but demand that we compare them to their original Lion King incarnations, and that being perhaps the finest example of Disney's character animation in the entire period between Walt Disney's 1966 death and the present day, it's particularly unfair to ask what was, after all, a glorified TV movie to stand up to that. Still, the stiffness of the characters' movements from time to time, or the way that large groups of animals have an unerring tendency to all move in exactly the same way, or the eerie impression that Simba's mane is slightly out-of-synch with the rest of his body, are all limitations that, unfair advantage or not, make Simba's Pride look clumsy and cheap when the primary visual appeal of The Lion King is its unmatched fluidity and precision.

And even without that, the animation hasn't been done with as much narrative integrity in the first place: where, in The Lion King, the animals were carefully, even obsessively drawn to be as close to their wild forms as possible, there are many places in Simba's Pride where they are, for all intents and purposes, fuzzy humans.

(And please note, even in that still shot, the way the animation doesn't quite land: it doesn't look like Kiara is kissing Kovu's cheek, but that she is displacing his face with her mouth).

Accusing a cheap movie of being cheap is an easy game to play, I know; and Simba's Pride is, regardless, impressive in the context of the Disney sequels that had preceded it. Still, that context does not make anybody very happy in the first place, and by coming up short on the animation as surely, if not to nearly the same degree, as it comes up short as a continuation of the first film's drama, the film manages to be an ineffective sequel in the two ways that are most important: it does not live up to the original's visual legacy, and it does not expand the characters or setting in a meaningful or consistent way. It looks pretty and it tells a busy, action-packed story, but it's all surface-level, a film that clearly exists only because the blockbuster success of The Lion King made a sequel a commercial necessity, not because there was an intelligent or interesting thing for that sequel to do with itself.

11 comments:

Andrew Testerman said...

I think I'm about ready for Titus Andronicus with lions, or Troilus and Cressida with lions, though I would do with The Winter's Tale with lions in a pinch.

Vilsal said...

To be fair, the original wasn't lacking in undertones of lion incest either. Nala pretty much had to be Simba's half-sister.

Sssonic said...

Again, we're generally in agreement on this one (which should tell you something about the extent to which enduring affectin for the original "Lion King" has an effect on one's opinion of this follow-up, as I know you're not one of the original's biggest fans while I absolutely love it). Like you, I find the weakness of the whole premise-an over-done concept built in such a way as to be completely impossible as a continuation of the same story-all but inescapable, and likewise that while the colors are lush, the animation is frustratingly stiff.

It's also weird how many of the characters here wind up being kind of useless in the long run. Like, I got the function in-story for just about every character in the original movie; here, I'm hard pressed to understand why we needed to give a surprising amount of screentime to, say, Nuka's quest for Parental Approval which feels like it exists within a self-contained universe all its own for all the impact it actually has on the plot; the intent seems to be to make Zira a more sympathetic antagonist, but it fails pretty hard in that respect, and its only lasting effect is making Zira that much more determined to do the thing she already wanted to do in the first place.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I really get the impression that the incest business only occurred to someone at the last minute, resulting in them hastily wedging it in even when it just makes the movie nonsensical. They make such a whole fucking massive deal about how omg, did Kovu inherit Scar's evil ways can he escape his legacy blah blah, and there's even the bit where he sees his reflection morph into Scar's in a pool of water, and this makes approximately zero sense if he's not actually Scar's biological son. Surely the filmmakers can't have been oblivious to the problems here, but the fact that they apparently just said, aw, fuck it, good enough really rubs me the wrong way.

The Caustic Ignostic said...

Man, Tim, I absolutely love that you take Disney animation so seriously that you took the time to explain why this cash-in is so narratively broken and morally perverse. Made my night.

K Wild said...

To me, the most annoying thing about the sequel is that Simba, despite aging several years, still looks like the same callow youth as in original. Shouldn't he be approaching Mufasa's size?

Runner-up is that Simba's daughter was permitted to inherit the throne in a universe that was clearly male centric, if you go by the first movie. If the lion "line" isn't male-line primogeniture, then one of Simba's "sisters" would have inherited the throne before Scar, and Scar's reign of terror would have never happened.

Tim said...

Andrew- Titus Andronicus with lions would be the best Disney movie ever.

Vilsal- EW, I NEVER THOUGHT OF THAT.

Sssonic- A good point about the characters having no function: what baffles me most is that even characters who apparently should, like the other girl cub, Vitani or whatever, end up just being window dressing. And the movie's utter inability to give Timon and Pumbaa anything to do but wander around and joke is strange.

GeoX- And it's worth noting, the lines clarifying that he's not Scar's son are done in such a way that they could easily be overdubs. You're right, it makes no sense at all; but then, neither does any part of the existence of BATB: The Enchanted Christmas, so I'm not inclined to give Disney too much benefit of the doubt.

Caustic Ignostic- Thanks! I hold it as a self-evident truth that every movie deserves to be met on its own ground and considered intelligently.

K Wild- Your point about primogeniture is even better than the one I decided not to make, which was "But! But! There AREN'T female-led prides!", because obviously this movie is SO concerned with the behavior of lions in the wild. But you're completely right, it's another huge break in story logic.

Part of me wonders if the idea came with Simba's son, not daughter, and the plot was built around that, and then they decided that the marketing would work better if they had a Lion Princess.

Joel Bocko said...

Agreed with CI, this is a rather magnificent example of a studious, wide-ranging, and compulsively readable take on utter triviality (an approach I've something of a fondness for myself). I love how you cover everything from the plot holes to the animation flaws.

"Notice that first cousins once removed are not legally proscribed from marrying in the vast majority of the world, though I suppose squeaky-clean Disney would not anyway allow a point of such technicality to serve as the justification for turning The Lion King into an inbred genetic swamp like 19th Century Europe."

Especially peculiar when you note that they had absolutely no problem in embracing the equally outmoded politics of 19th Century (or earlier) Europe for the original Lion King - the biggest hit of 1994 was bona-fide monarchist in its political bent, at least if you take it at face value...

Daniel Silberberg said...

Presented without comment: http://www.spike.com/video-clips/i4pl0a/nbcs-snl-tv-funhouse-bambi-2002

jjjonatron said...

That Ben Kenobi theory is pretty solid. Old dude seems crazy high throughout all of A New Hope

Pan MiluĊ› said...

What made me hate Simba Pride from the start it's how small it felt compering to the first one.

In Lion King everything was so big. The pride land - Dear Lord was it grand! Here? It's almost makes claustrophobic.

And then the whole "Ow look there are those evil lionesess that waren't in the first one but Simba know who their are and they have a child that looks like Scar but it's NOT his son despite the fact how obvious it is and now we going to have Romeo and Juliet thin"... give me break.

And yhe. Your right - The only fun thing about it was Zira character and I kindof like Rafiki's song, but that like 20% of what's a very bad sequel.


A terrible siquel to a great film (even if Lion King isn't among my personal favorite)