#293. Lions

Often described as “the King of the Jungle”, lions have consistently been used as symbols of bravery, strength and power. While they have been abused in many venues, from gladiatorial coliseums to circus tents, they still remain as one of the most dangerous forces of nature (along with tigers and bears . . . oh my). In part due to their danger to humans, they are often hunted to maintain safety as much as they are for notoriety of big game hunters; sometimes to great, public outrage, as was the case with Cecil the lion. And while the lion is used in heraldry, as a constellation, and as a rank for Cub Scouts, very few films use lions as main, or even secondary, characters. It would almost seem they’re as rare in the realm of cinema as they are in the real world. This week’s two films highlight some movies that feature lions.

The Lion KingThe Lion King
Year: 1994
Rating: G
Length: 89 minutes / 1.48 hours

Part of the reason why lions aren’t more prominently featured in movies, aside from the opening credits logo for MGM, is because animals can’t talk. It’s difficult to have a main character who can’t emote through dialogue carry a story. Therefore, one of the options to give lions dialogue is through animation. One of the earliest animated lions was Kimba the White Lion, a Japanese anime that ran from 1965 to 1967. Recently, the series of CGI-animated Madagascar films have featured Ben Stiller as Alex the Lion, an animal kept in captivity in the Central Park Zoo. Most famously, the best animated film featuring lions was none other than The Lion King (1994). Even though there was some controversy around its similarity to Kimba the White Lion, The Lion King has remained popular despite this.

Mufasa (James Earl Jones) leads a pride of lions in the Pride Lands of Africa. His brother, Scar (Jeremy Irons), has been plotting to usurp the throne from him, but once Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is born, he is now one step lower on the hierarchical ladder to become king. By using a stampede of wildebeest, Scar manages to kill Mufasa and convince Simba it was the young cub’s fault. Running away to exile himself in the jungle, Simba grows up amongst his newfound friends, Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). Years later, with the Pride Lands in ruin, Simba (Matthew Broderick) returns to confront his uncle. Learning the truth of his father’s demise and accepting his rightful place as king, Simba defeats Scar and starts the “circle of life” over again with a child of his own.

Secondhand LionsSecondhand Lions
Year: 2003
Rating: PG
Length: 109 minutes / 1.82 hours

An interesting way to play off of stereotypes is to create characters who exhibit the opposite traits. Sure, there are plenty of lions who represent strong ideals, like Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia series. Still, a cowardly lion, like the one found in The Wizard of Oz (1940), is much more entertaining because he doesn’t act like one would expect a lion to act. Similarly, Alex the Lion from Madagascar (2005) was given his meat to him by zoo caretakers, thus depriving him of any hunting skills. Even the rehabilitated lion from Secondhand Lions (2003) became more like a housecat than a dangerous predator. However, just because a lion doesn’t act the way we think it should, we are often initially cautious because of the warnings about lions we have heard time and again over the years.

Brothers Hub (Robert Duvall) and Garth (Michael Caine) McCann were content living out the rest of their remaining days shooting at travelling salesmen and performing risky stunts. Unfortunately, their niece dropped her son, Walter Caldwell (Haley Joel Osment), off at their country home. As the teenage boy and his great uncles get to know each other, they eventually grow close. After Hub orders a retired lion from a circus, he’s disappointed to learn the lioness is tame, since he wanted to hunt the beast and mount its head on his wall. Escaping from her cage, the lioness adapts to the cornfield and makes it her territory. While Walter learns that the rumors of his great uncles’ wealth and adventures are true, his mother arrives to try and claim the fortune. It’s at this point when the old lioness steps in to protect Walter, giving him the ability to separate himself from his lyin’ mother for good.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 likeable lions

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#292. Animated Classic Literature

Anyone who grew up during the late 1990’s is probably familiar with the PBS show, Wishbone. As a child soon to be headed into junior high, I enjoyed the show at face value, but deep down in my subconscious I was learning about classic literature. For years, these episodes were my only exposure to famous pieces of literature, and thus my only knowledge of their plots until I read some of them many decades later. Disney has also done a pretty good job of adapting many classic tales to the big screen. Through their animation studio, many fairy tales were memorably created and still remain almost as the de-facto versions of their source material. That being said, some of the adaptations weren’t as obvious as others. This week’s two films look at some classic literature in an animated format.

Treasure PlanetTreasure Planet
Year: 2002
Rating: PG
Length: 95 minutes / 1.58 hours

Up until the 21st Century, Disney had animated many well-known stories from various sources. From fairy tales to short stories to novels, much of their source material was in the public domain. Once the new millennium came around, they started to create some original stories like The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Lilo & Stitch (2002). While this trend has mostly continued, there were a few films animated during this timeframe that held to the formula of adapting classic literature. While being thinly veiled as something different, Treasure Planet (2002) was an almost-direct adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, Treasure Island, merely with sci-fi trappings available via new, 3-D animation techniques (with traditional, 2-D animation being interposed on top of it).

Just like any other teenager, Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a longing for adventure. While Alponian solar cruising works for the time being, when he is given a map by the pilot of a crashed spaceship, he sets out to find where it leads. Despite the final words of the pilot warning Jim to “beware the cyborg”, one of the friends he makes while aboard the RLS Legacy is none other than half-robot cook, John Silver (Brian Murray). After taking control of the ship during a mutiny he planned, Silver lets Jim and some ousted leaders of the ship escape to Treasure Planet. Once on the planet, the original crew finds a robot by the name of B.E.N. (Martin Short) who has literally lost his memory. In searching for the robot’s missing piece, Jim discovers that the map is also able to open portals, including to the center of the planet where the treasure is stored. Unfortunately, this triggers the planet to explode, forcing them to abandon the treasure.

The Lion KingThe Lion King
Year: 1994
Rating: G
Length: 89 minutes / 1.48 hours

Most kids who go to see an animated film won’t necessarily pick up on the source material like their parents will. Even famous films like The Great Escape (1963) and Seven Samurai (1954) have received the animated treatment in Chicken Run (2000) and A Bug’s Life (1998), respectively. While I enjoyed these animated films as a child, it wasn’t until I was older that I realized I’d seen these plots somewhere else before. Unlike Treasure Planet (2002), it took me some time to realize The Lion King (1994) was William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in disguise. Even though it’s not a direct adaptation, many of the main characters are there. Simba is Hamlet, Scar is Claudius, and even Timon and Pumbaa are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Obviously, some of the more violent and dramatic moments from the play were toned down in the animation, but the main thrust of Hamlet still lies there in the African plains.

Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is the male cub born to Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the leader of a pride of African lions. Because Simba is now next in line to the throne, Scar (Jeremy Irons) sets about trying to kill both Mufasa and Simba so he can become king. While his plan to use a wildebeest stampede to kill them both only kills Mufasa, Scar convinces Simba it’s the cub’s fault and forces him into exile. Simba (Matthew Broderick), having now grown up in the jungle with his friends Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), returns to the Pride Lands to confront his uncle Scar. Along the way, he is visited by the ghost of Mufasa, who tells him he is the rightful king of the land. Once back home, with the help of the lionesses, Simba fights Scar and eventually wins, sending him into exile. Unfortunately, Scar’s hyena henchmen have different plans, as they overheard him betray them to everyone.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 different Disney adaptations