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The Lion King: Diamond Edition Blu-ray + DVD Review

The Lion King (1994) movie poster The Lion King

Theatrical Release: June 15, 1994 / Running Time: 88 Minutes / Rating: G

Directors: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff / Writers: Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton (screenplay)

Voice Cast: Jonathan Taylor Thomas (Young Simba), Matthew Broderick (Adult Simba), James Earl Jones (Mufasa), Jeremy Irons (Scar), Moira Kelly (Adult Nala), Niketa Calame (Young Nala), Ernie Sabella (Pumbaa), Nathan Lane (Timon), Rowan Atkinson (Zazu), Robert Guillaume (Rafiki), Madge Sinclair (Sarabi), Whoopi Goldberg (Shenzi), Cheech Marin (Banzai), Jim Cummings (Ed), Zoe Leader (Sarafina)

Songs: "Circle of Life", "I Just Can't Wait to be King", "Be Prepared", "Hakuna Matata", "Can You Feel the Love Tonight"

Buy The Lion King from Amazon.com:
New: Blu-ray + DVD Blu-ray 3D + BD + DVD + DC 8-Disc Trilogy Collection 1-Disc DVD Edition BD + DVD in DVD Packaging
Previous: Original 2-Disc Platinum Edition DVD Platinum Edition DVD Collector's Gift Set DVD Trilogy Movie Collection

I think The Lion King might be as good as it gets. By "it", I could mean Disney animation or all of cinema, but my latest viewing of the film confirms that it's fair to say storytelling at large.

Released in the summer of 1994, this masterpiece became the crowning achievement of Disney's latest renaissance,
an era that saw the studio release the magical musicals The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin to much fanfare and adoration. The Lion King diverged from the tradition a little, setting aside humans to focus on the animals of the African Serengeti, but largely upheld the Broadway-esque design that would remain in use through 1998's Mulan.

A rarity among the Disney canon, The Lion King tells an original story, though one unmistakably influenced both by Bambi and William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Also, detractors cried foul at the unacknowledged similarities to the anime series "Kimba the White Lion", although the outrage over that definitely seems to have quieted in recent years.

Simba and Mufasa have a tender father-son moment in the early parts of "The Lion King." Simba's jealous uncle Scar has evil plans to become king.

The film opens with the anointment of Pride Rock's newborn prince Simba to the song "Circle of Life". It is a majestic and powerful opening to a production most deserving of those adjectives, as zebras, giraffes, and other local beasts assemble to pay their respects in ceremony. The young cub (voiced by "Home Improvement"'s Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is ordinary in most regards, holding appetites for mischief and adventure. His commanding but warm father Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the region's revered king, imparts values in the boy while defining the responsibilities and boundaries of their monarchy.

To the normal obligations, Simba's uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) adds grave concerns. The cunning lion, whose name is well-earned around his left eye, longs for the throne and sees Simba's birth as an obstacle. Allying with the outcast hyenas Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg), Banzai (Cheech Marin), and the giggly wordless Ed (Jim Cummings), Scar plots a way to eliminate both his brother and his nephew with the staging of a wildebeest stampede.

This life-changing event, the film's most dynamic, ambitious, and (subtly) CG-driven sequence, concludes with a guilty Simba, having narrowly escaped death, running off to exile while Scar assumes power and welcomes hyenas into the domain. Out in the jungle, young Simba finds friendship and a new life philosophy in the laid-back duo of meerkat Timon (Nathan Lane) and warthog Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). Simba grows up on "hakuna matata", eating grubs and keeping his royal tragedy buried in the past.

One day, Simba's childhood friend Nala (now Moira Kelly) shows up, reopening his emotional wounds and imploring that he claim the throne that is rightfully his. Amidst the rekindling and with some guidance from the wise baboon Rafiki (Robert Guillaume), Simba answers his call of duty, returning to his childhood home to fight for it.

Hakuna matata! Simba matures to adulthood in the company of easygoing pals Timon and Pumbaa. "Remember who you are," beckons an ethereal Mufasa in the sky.

The Lion King is a rousing success on every level. That story is rich with intrigue, tapping into some of the deepest themes and most profound emotions known to mankind poignantly and with complete respect for viewers. The five original songs, composed by Elton John and Tim Rice, are among the most memorable ever put on film, each advancing the plot in a way that dialogue alone couldn't have. Hans Zimmer's Oscar-winning score is another treat, putting to fine use the vocals of Lebo M and his African choir. Not a character is wasted, with each adding personality and making an indelible mark. The biggest personality of all may be the grand canvas on which the drama unfolds.
The flavorful settings, from Timon and Pumbaa's lush digs to the unsettling elephant graveyard to the fiery den where Scar and the hyenas conspire, certainly rank among the most evocative and sharply realized in animation history. Speaking of animation, triumph occurs there as well. The visuals pay homage to nature, with research upheld in the depictions of wildlife physics, biology, and ecology. That doesn't mean Disney's crew doesn't have fun with designs and colors, imbuing the creatures with all kinds of anthropomorphic appeal.

With all this done so right, there is basically nothing in the film to pick apart. A flatulence backstory somehow becomes the perfect subject of a didactic gospel stanza. Momentary slow-motion fighting in the climax is a little silly. I can't come up with anything else even potentially worthy of critical suspicion. The film does a deft job of balancing comedy and drama, using the latter's weight to heighten the former's impact. Though cartoons have always ostensibly been associated with the young, we can't call this film childish or ridicule adults who admire its many charms. There aren't many G-rated films that society deems acceptable of universal praise, but this is one of them, up there with The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, and Pixar's most brilliant efforts.

My high estimation of the film is shared by many. The Lion King became one of the top-grossing films of all time in theaters, then went on to sell more VHS copies than any other title. If there had been any doubt over the film's enduring popularity, the current theatrical rerelease has removed it, having grossed $80 million in eighteen days, the strongest showing put up by a reissue since the 1997 Special Edition of the original Star Wars. Undoubtedly, Lion King's return engagement, especially impressive considering it is primarily in 3D at a time when audiences have shunned the surcharges of that format, would have soared even higher if it were not released to Blu-ray today. Alas, it is, as the fourth entry in Disney's elite Diamond Edition line.

The movie is made available in a 2-disc Blu-ray + DVD, a 4-disc combo that adds Blu-ray 3D and digital copy discs to the mix, and an 8-disc trilogy collection which adds debut Blu-rays and new DVDs of The Lion King II: Simba's Pride and The Lion King 1 to those. If you want just the DVD (and there is a good chance you won't), you'll have to wait until November 15th. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray + DVD was the only edition we could get from Disney for review. We look at that here.

The Lion King: Diamond Edition Blu-ray + DVD combo cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray only: 7.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD only: Dolby Digital 5.1 DEHT (English)
Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 Disney Enhanced Home Theater (French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish; BD-Only: English
Extras Subtitled; DVD and Extras Closed Captioned
Release Date: October 4, 2011
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy ($49.99 SRP), 8-Disc Trilogy Collection ($100.99 SRP), and BD + DVD Combo in DVD Packaging ($39.99 SRP); Coming November 15: 1-Disc DVD Edition ($29.99 SRP)
Previously released as 2-Disc Platinum Edition DVD (2003), Collector's Gift Set (2003), and 3-Movie DVD Collection (2004)


Presented in 1.78:1 and 7.1 DTS-HD master audio, The Lion King looks and sounds perfect on Blu-ray. The film was made in hand-drawn animation but by the 1990s that tradition was making extensive use of computers with CGI integrated through Disney's CAPS system. That renders the presentation a direct digital one, which you can tell from the stunning flawlessness. As you would guess, the current 3D theatrical engagement is the basis of the transfer. That means that the original blue Walt Disney Pictures logo, previously replaced for the film's 2002 IMAX engagement, is updated with the current CGI castle. Restoration credits appear in the closing scroll. The dedication to Frank Wells, the Walt Disney Company COO who died in a helicopter crash two months before Lion King's premiere, has been moved from the film's opening to the end credits. The mostly mild animation revisions/"enhancements" (e.g. curiously redrawn crocodiles, urban legend admission/diffusion) performed for the 2002 stint remain in place. The deleted number "The Morning Report", brought to life for the movie's 2003 Platinum Edition DVD where it unfortunately played by default, is no longer integrated in the film, not even as an option.

Grown-up Simba and Nala reunite near a jungle waterfall.

Some fans will be annoyed that we do not get the true original cut that made such waves in 1994, and I share their disappointment, though much less voraciously than I did in 2003 when I figured it inevitable that the theatrical cut would be supplanted by updated ones. Other than that, though, I can't imagine anyone being less than delighted by the Blu-ray's feature presentation. Brimming with color and detail, the sharp and immaculate picture is a feast for the eyes. Even the intensive wildebeest stampede sequence, with all its movement, evades any perceivable compression artifacts. Not all movies scream out for the gains of 1080p, but this one does and becomes immediate demo material.

The 7.1 soundtrack is as satisfying as the picture. Like everything else, sound assumes greater than usual importance here and the mix acknowledges that with its potent distribution of dialogue, music, and effects.
This lively, engulfing track may not be entirely true to the film's original design, but it did not feel unfaithful or gimmicky. The audio unleashes the wild on your home, with nature sounds seeming to emanate from different parts of your living room. The songs are performed at a volume higher than the rest of the film and perhaps a touch too loud for comfort, but everything emerges with crispness, clarity, and fitting directionality. As with the video, you'll have to look long and hard for a catalog movie providing as much aural pleasure as this.

The DVD's anamorphic, Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation cannot be faulted in any major way either, but it clearly lacks the impact of the Blu-ray's picture and sound. It also shows some, but not many compression artifacts during the stampede scene.

Still from The Lion King: Platinum Edition DVD - click to view screencap in full 720 x 480. Still from The Lion King: Diamond Edition Combo Pack DVD - click to view screencap in full 720 x 480.

Screencap from The Lion King's Platinum Edition DVD, released in 2003

Screencap of the same frame from the movie's DVD in the new Diamond Edition combo, released in 2011

Side-by-side comparison of the DVD transfers finds
miniscule framing differences and more noticeable color variations.

Compared to the 1.66:1 Platinum DVD, this transfer loses a small amount of frame height by matting the film slightly to 1.78:1 and getting closer to the 1.85:1 ratio of theatrical exhibition. More noticeable than that are the differences in color. The new transfer offers different hues, sometimes more muted but usually more vibrant. Either way, we can assume the new presentation is in line with the directors' wishes, as they supervised color correction for this year's theatrical engagement. This, coupled with improved techniques and a higher bit rate, allows the new DVD to exceed the old in quality. But if that was of any interest to you, you've probably moved on to Blu-ray.

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Bonus Features, Menus, Packaging, and Closing Thoughts

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Related Interviews:
Directors: Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff | Producer: Don Hahn | Pumbaa's Supervising Animator: Tony Bancroft | Voice of Adult Nala: Moira Kelly

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Reviewed October 4, 2011.