Imagine, if you will, a time before computer animation. When the only way of moving pictures on film was to draw them all frame by frame, usually by hand, and occasionally by xerox machine. Hard to imagine? Hundreds of people slaving over ink and paint, sketching and colouring each frame of a film destined to come together by photographing each of those frames and running them together concurrently. Yes, it’s “traditional” animation, or, more accurately, 2D animation, given the former term is used by those who consider the 3D computer-assisted films from Pixar and Dreamworks to be less artistic than those drawn with a pencil and paintbrush. In the early 90’s, the Disney Corporation unleashed upon the world four massive animated films, each made the “old fashioned way”, which became such a success that they rejuvenated the company and gave it the feeling that 2D art was going to be around forever. Beginning with Beauty & The Beast, following on with The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and finally the monster hit The Lion King, Disney had begun to claw back the prestige of it’s early days, lost to mediocrity during the eighties, with fare like The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company. Here, we’re going to pit the two indisputable giants of Disney’s late renaissance, The Lion King and Aladdin against each other; both these films are unquestionably classic, however, only can claim to be the best of the best. Will the Genie win the day, or will the lions roar overshadow them all?
Released in 1994, The Lion King can hold the claim that at one time it was the highest grossing animated film of all time, only superseded by the more recent Finding Nemo. The combination of classic animation, a little touch of digital help here and there, some inspiring songs from Elton John and Tim Rice, and for the first time in ages, an original story for a Disney film, hit the right nerve with audiences across the globe. From its jaw-dropping opening number, to the heart-soaring finale in which the reprise of Eltons magnificent melody comes crashing down upon you, The Lion King is deserving of all praise and commendation it receives. The story is relatively simple: a young lion cub, Simba, who thinks he’s all that, learns some valuable life lessons. His malicious Uncle Scar, a rogue lion who scouts the fringes of Pride Rock on the African savannah, seeks to usurp the power of the lion King, Mufasa. Simba doesn’t really want the responsibility of taking over the pride once his father (Mufasa) passes on. When Mufasa is killed by a plan Scar puts into action, Simba is led to believe that he’s responsible, and flees Pride Rock into the desert, where he is rescued from being buzzard food by Timon, a meerkat, and Pumba, a warthog. Timon and Pumba live in the jungle, using the awe-inspiring life philosophy of Hakuna Matata, which means “no worries”. Simba grows up in the jungle, trying to forget his guilt over his fathers death, until one day he encounters a former flame in Nala, who is seeking food further and further from Pride Rock. Nala guilts him into returning to Pride Rock to battle Scar, and the finale of the film sees Simba and Scar brawling it out on the steep shingles of his former home. The Lion King is a sprawling, epic animated adventure as large as the savannah in which we see this story play out: the soaring music from Elton and Tim Rice, the journeyman score from Hans Zimmer backing them up, and some brilliant and evocative vocal performances from the likes of Jeremy Irons, Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane and Rowan Atkinson. Joyous, provocative (it showed a character dead on screen, a first for a Disney animated film!) and uplifting, The Lion King has become the poster boy for animated film perfection.
I once wrote a blog article on a problem I had with Aladdin, that being I felt it was too violent for the young children it’s marketed towards. And after viewing the film again recently, I have to say, my opinion on the film hasn’t changed. It’s a brilliantly concieved and executed animated adventure, but in my opinion is way too dark for the young tots. Dark themes, a supremely evil chief villain, and a high number of scripted dialogue moments involving death and brutality, make Aladdin a definite avoidance if you have small children who are looking for an afternoons entertainment. However, as far as animated films go, Aladdin is one heck of an enjoyable movie. The film’s plot is fairly faithful to the original story from the Arabian Nights anthology, collated in the 9th century. Certain liberties and amendments were made, of course, to allow it to fit within the Disney mold of storytelling, however, the main plot points remain intact. Aladdin, a young street-kid living in the slums of Agrabah, dreams of better things, namely, being filthy rich and living in the palace of the Sultan with servants to attend to his every whim. Meanwhile, in the palace, the Sultan is having issues finding a suitable suitor for his headstrong daughter, Princess Jasmine. Jasmine, in a not so subtle plot device, dreams of being able to lead a “normal” life, away from all the trappings of being the daughter of the ruler of the country. When Jasmine sneaks into the city (without bodyguards or an escort *gasp*) to explore, she is inadvertently caught stealing an apple for a small boy. Before any harm can come to her, however, she is rescued by Aladdin, who is instantly smitten, although completely unaware of who she is. But the palace guards track her down, return her to her father, and throw Aladdin in a dungeon. Now, to make matters worse, the Sultans royal adviser, Jafar, is trying to use his position to usurp the Sultan himself, and in order to do this, he requires a mysterious lamp from a place known as the Cave of Wonders. He blackmails Aladdin into going into the Cave to get the lamp, only to have it ripped from his grasp as the Cave self implodes and traps Aladdin and his pet monkey Abu inside. When Aladdin rubs the lamp he inadvertently unleashes a manic, slightly insane Genie (voiced by Robin Williams) who grants him three wishes. After tricking the Genie to get them out of the Cave, Aladdin then sets about using the Genies magic to help him woo the Princess. Aladdin is a film filled with adventure, magic, and some great songs from Alan Menkin, and although perhaps slightly insensitive to Arabic culture, remains one of the great animated films to come out of Disney.
The groundswell of critical acclaim that accompanied both Aladdin and The Lion King upon their initial releases could have been put down to simple bandwagon jumping, and as with most films, time tempers even the hottest ardor for any cinematic treat. Once the initial “new car smell” has worn away, and the freshness of the film is gone, you’re left with the cold hard facts: your film is either brilliant, trash, or somewhere in between. With Aladdin and The Lion King, time has worn them well; neither film has dated at all, which is something many “classic” animated film can’t claim. The two films, however, couldn’t be more different in terms of tone, style and heart. Aladdin, which aims more as a razor-sharp action/comedy, with a whiff of romance, delivers on almost every point. The action, from the desperately giddy escape attempt from the Cave of Wonders, riding the magic carpet through waves of flame and heat, flying boulders (coming from nowhere, I might add!) and steadfast buttresses, to the mighty Jafar-as-a-giant-snake conclusion, filled with thunder and lightning, Aladdin is as action packed animated film as you’d want to see. In terms of structure, the action comes in waves, a breath of comedy and romance between them, keeping the viewer waiting only for the briefest moments before the next surge hits. Even the musical numbers have a frenetic, bombastic action orientation, particularly Aladdins opening number “One Jump Ahead”, in which Aladdin is pursued through Agrabah by the Royal Guards, intent on capturing him for stealing a loaf of bread. It’s the perfect introduction to the character, since it defines his street-smart nature, his reputation within the city, and his interaction with Abu, the little monkey who travels with him. Perhaps of all Disney films, this is the most intense in it’s action: the finale sequence which puts Aladdin, a tiny boy, against Jafar, who by then has usurped the Genie’s power and turned himself into a giant cobra, could be considered to be among the most frightening moments of cinema Disney has yet produced. I struggle to think of a single other film in which our heroes are placed in even more peril than this.
Yet, just in case you think the film is not suitable for the young crowd (and it really isn’t, I might interject again) the filmmakers have come up with a smart way of just slowing down the pacing, keeping the audience in a lighthearted frame of mind: they’ve stuck in Robin Williams. In one of animations great casting coups, directors Ron Clements and John Musker cast Robin Williams as a hip, ferociously verbal, omnipotent Genie, and in a move that has now become legendary in the studios history, let Williams ad-lib a vast chunk of his dialogue and then try and animate it accordingly. Williams owns this film, from beginning to end. Cheeky, irrepressible, the Genie is Williams in more ways than Williams is the Genie. Jonathan Freeman has an absolute ball voicing the evil Jafar, his smooth, powerful voice akin to that of James Earl Jones for it’s timbre and eliciting of authority. Stunt casting for Jafar’s idiotic henchparrot, Iago, was the irrepressible Gilbert Gottfried, whose performance, alongside Williams’ Genie, are the two pivotal comedic ones in the film. And the comedy works: everything from broad slapstick to witty banter between the characters are thrown up onto the screen, the Genie providing the lions share of side-snipes and casual ironic humor, while Iago seemingly becomes the fodder for violent humor, he crashes, bashes, smacks, whacks and careens across the screen in a brilliant burst of feathers and sarcasm: Gottfried is magnificent, if a little too over the top.
However, the pivotal relationship in Aladdin is the one between the title character and his love interest, Princess Jasmine. Now, I’ll happily admit to a little man-crush on Jasmine as a character, voiced with perfection by Linda Larkin, whose tones and emotive qualities just tore at my heartstrings the first time I watched this. Aladdin is voiced by Scott Weinger, a little known sitcom actor, whose boyish enthusiasm for Jasmine is utterly palpable and true to the character. For me, Jasmine provides Aladdin with focus, focus to drag himself up out of the gutter and into a better life, to try and improve himself as a person. The themes in Aladdin are of self worth, of being that “diamond in the rough” character, a motif woven through almost every fiber of this movie. Weinger and Larkin have a great screen chemistry, their love is heard and felt in every nuance of their dialogue together: and they’re animated characters, which makes the feat even more incredible!
The Lion King, on the other hand, has it’s own “genie” character in Timon, the tiny meerkat voiced by the sublimely talented Nathan Lane, whose work I have never been able to fault in anything I’ve seen him in. The Lion King opens, majestically, with a sunrise on the African plains, a beatifully rendered “time laspe” shot (animated by hand, of course) followed by an onslaught of equally majestic shots featuring African animalia descending upon Pride Rock; the powerful African rhythm of Lebo M, Carmen Twille, and an African choir all combining with Elton John’s powerful theme in The Circle Of Life. A mandrill holds aloft a tiny lion cub to the view of the gathered throng, the music soars, almost angelic in intensity and primal in its soul, and then with a crash, the title card appears: the audience literally has the breath thrust from their body by the sheer exuberance of this opening scene. It is perhaps the single greatest opening scene in film history, alongside luminaries such as Star Wars, Once Upon A Time In The West, and The Matrix. We are introduced to a very young Simba, voiced by Home Improvement wunderkind Jonathan Taylor Thomas, a character we think of as an everyman; he is belittled by those in authority around him, save his father, his cocky attitude is indifferent to his actual ability, and when pushed, actually runs away from his problems. Throughout the film, Simba is constantly battling his own inability to confront his demons, he is never assured of a confident outcome so he simply bolts away. His father, Mufasa, voiced by the magnificent James Earl Jones in what is perhaps is most iconic performance after Darth Vader, tries to teach his son to be brave, to face up to his actions, no matter the cost. However, when Mufasa is killed in a stampede of wildebeest as part of a plan set in motion by his brother, Scar, Simba’s sense of direction is perverted, lost, shunted aside for power and glory by the elder lion.
Getting back to Timon, for a moment, and his irrepressible sidekick Pumba (voiced by Ernie Sabella), these two characters are, in as much as Williams is in Aladdin, the comedy of the film. Their verbal jousting, from Timons’ usually incorrect assumptions that he’s right, and Pumbas ignorant statements (which, funnily, always appear to be correct… “balls of gas burning billions of miles away” indeed!) seem to gel in a way that gives them both warmth and depth. Timon and Pumba are fast friends, a kind of pseudo de-facto relationship which is strengthened when they find an exhausted Simba on the desert floor, and decide to raise him in their image… carefree and footloose. Simba develops a warped sense of the world, to a degree, a little like Tim Roths title character in The Legend of 1900. Cut off from accurate information from his own family, Simba develops according to Timon and Pumba’s skewed outlook, and it’s this problem that eventually leads him into conflict with Nala when she arrives to bring him back to the pride.
The central plot of The Lion King seems to reflect the traditional Disney values of family, friendship, overcoming your fears and taking control of your life, something of a less inclined narrative in Aladdin, yet still indicative of the plight of the young street urchin. Whereas the themes of Aladdin tend to be overwhelmed with the musical ferocity of Menkin’s score and Robin Williams lightning dialogue, as well as the stunning animation, in The Lion King there’s a sense of more relaxed technique, an assured languidity to the story that allows us to really enjoy and appreciate what the film has to tell us. Some have called The Lion King (and to a certain extent most Disney films) of pandering to the social and politically correct crowd and refusing to go out on a limb: that’s the whole point of a Disney film, you imbeciles, it’s to teach young kids to be good little people, to respect your elders and help old ladies cross the road! Aladdin veers wildly into the violent extreme, it must be said, it’s more adult tone underlying a shift from Disney’s previously family friendly fare into a darker, more modern outlook (something not entirely required from a company that was seemingly stuck in the past until that point). However, with The Lion King, the bright shiny colors and effortlessly beautiful artwork simply dazzles in a way that has, to my mind, been unmatched in 2D animation either before or since. Never before has a film looked as gorgeous as this in animation: only Sleeping Beauty’s magnificent widescreen frame has adequately captured the majesty of it’s own unique world as perfectly as The Lion Kings does. I’d almost throw Pinocchio into that mix as well. But it’s the story, the heart of the film, that truly captured the imagination of people around the world, inviting us into the struggle of a young lion to discover his true place in the circle of life.
The themes of the film are equally matched, and enhanced, by Elton Johns terrific songs, and Tim Rice’s pitch perfect lyrics. From “The Circle Of Life”, to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and even “Hakuna Matata”, The Lion King has some of the most hummable, perfectly toned signature themes ever recorded for a feature film. They’ve been shamelessly whored out by the Disney Company ever since, of course, which distracts from the true beauty of hearing these magnificent songs for the first time, but if you remove your modern layer of cynicism and commercial overexposure, you can’t help but admit that they are indeed perfectly suited to this film in ways that are hard to explain. Hans Zimmers score is equally up to the challenge, his use of African rhythms and motifs a magnificent accomplishment to the film, and the music ended up scoring the studio an Oscar. Of all Zimmers’ scores, this is perhaps his most influential, and his most beautiful.
As far as stories go, both Aladdin and The Lion King have their own unique outlooks on life, their own sense of moral justifications and ethical centers. The Lion King prides itself (ha, that’s a joke!) on a more animal-centric set of principles: survival of the fittest, the circle of life, the good of the one for the good of the whole. It is, however, injected with a thoroughly human outlook. It’s a combination that shouldn’t work, but does. I guess anthropomorphizing the African animal menagerie to suit a thoroughly human story is a little flakey in it’s blatant commercialism, since kids and their branded Happy Meal toys will keep the studio afloat for yars to come, but the story is more than simply making a film on which you can base a range of product. Aladdin, containing predominantly human characters, doesn’t have as much a market for cute, cuddly plastic molded paraphernalia, with the exception of perhaps Jasmine’s pet tiger Rajah, so it instead has to rely on a more emotionally human interaction. Jasmine and Aladdin both have enormously wide eyes, an old animation trick played upon so well by the Shrek guys with Puss In Boots – you know, the bottom lip-trembling Puss who steals your heart before tearing it from your body. There’s a reason big eyes work so well: they’re the window to the soul, and if you take that analogy and run with it, the wider the window, the more you see. Perhaps that’s why Manga as an artform has taken off….. Aladdin is also drawn with an impossibly bright smile, that dazzling combination of good looks and a personality to match ensuring that we always think “he’s not that bad” event when he’s doing bad things.
Both films rely quite heavily on the assistance of digital animation: The Lion King with the exciting wildebeest stampede as a prime example, and Aladdin with much of the films dazzling special effects, such as the magic carpet and various other special effects. The Cave Of Wonders that opens the film was, and still is, a real highlight, and coupled with Frank “Megatron” Welkers dynamic vocal rendition of the Cave, is a brilliant opening stanza. For me, though, the precedent set by Beauty & The Beasts now-classic chandelier moment ensured that “animation” as an artform was now always, forever, interlaced with computer assistance. No longer do we see the artistry and complexity of artisans pouring over drawing water and other minutia of life: this is all handled by computers and made to look like somebody drew it. The Lion King keeps this precedent to a minimum, it must be said, trying hard to embrace the technology to enhance the story more than Aladdin, which seems to revel more in the “look at what we can do” mentality. That’s probably overstating it a little, but the point remains. Every time this computer animated footage appears on screen, it doesn’t quite gel with the other animation, and it does tend to drag you from the film a little. Suddenly you’re not watching an animated film, you’re watching effects in an animated film. That said, the purity of The Lion King remains. Given the year gap between the two films, it’s a great leap of faith to allow the animators themselves to produce some great work, rather than a computer, in The Lion King. So from a technical point of view, I think The Lion King wins this round.
However, the fundamental basis for this cinematic tussle is to determine which film is the better, and this involves more than just what it looks and sounds like. Which film has the most heart, the most to say to the viewer? We want to be taken on a journey, an exciting journey into a world we don’t normally see, and in both films here today, we get that. In abundance. And while both films allow us to do this brilliantly, only one does it better.
Okay, so The Lion King will obviously take the prize for being the more recognized of the two films on offer here, but does it deserve the straight up win? While it may have the bigger wallet of earnings, it’s certainly not quite as action packed, and a more purely entertaining film you might find in Aladdin. Aladdin is an explosive, overtly adventurous and romantic film, one with a great deal of raw cinematic magic to delve into. To me, though, Aladdin doesn’t quite hold up as far as character balance and heart go, and while the Genie might have something to say about it, this time around I’m going to give this one to The Lion King. It’s not the cakewalk you might think: a little more depth and some simply gorgeous animation make The Lion King the outright champion over a serious, serious contender.
The Lion King: