06 October 2012
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.