#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


#009. Plot in Black and White

Filmmakers have a vast array of tools at their disposal to tell a story. Most resort to actors presenting a plot with a beginning, middle, and end. However, some go so far as to make color (or lack thereof) a key development of the story. You could almost think of color as another actor in the film. Another piece of the setting that changes with the progression of the story. And while color films have been around for a long time, and black and white films for even longer, very few films have used both to progress the plot of a film. This week’s movies are just two from a select group of films that have chosen to use color as a plot device.

Year: 2000
Rating: R
Length: 113 minutes / 1.88 hours

There have been many movies that were filmed in black and white, mainly for artistic effect. Of those who had the option of color, it was used sparingly to offset some important object (see Schindler’s List or Battleship Potemkin), or even to imitate an artistic style (see Sin City). However, there have been few that go so far as to evenly split up the color and black and white to distinguish between different plot lines. One such film that used black and white to represent flashback sequences was American History X. While that film did split up the current time and past events with this distinction, both story lines proceeded in a chronological order. Mainly, forwards. Memento, on the other hand, takes the color / black and white plot split and messes with the audience’s understanding of time.

Christopher Nolan is one of the few directors who gets people to pay close attention to his films. Just like trying to keep track of the dream levels in Inception, Nolan slowly reveals that the plot in Memento might not be linear. The main character of Memento, Leondard (Guy Pearce) has a mental condition that has taken away his short-term memory. While he does remember some long-term memories, he has resorted to using tattoos and Polaroid photographs to help him track down his wife’s killer. Each segment of Memento is broken up to give the audience the sensation of short-term memory loss, while also giving plenty of background until it becomes obvious that the color and black and white are on a collision course to a climactic middle.

Year: 1998
Rating: PG-13
Length:124 minutes / 2.07 hours

The film industry tends to progress and make technological advances long before television does. And while it took much longer for television to transition to color than it has to transition to a 3-D capability (which is still just an expensive gimmick, in my opinion), they have arrived none-the-less. It almost makes you wonder how much of your favorite films you were missing out on when you saw them on your TV, “formatted to fit the size of your screen”. At any rate, the distinction between black and white and color is almost a generational one. Many look at cinema and television filmed in black and white as old, and outdated. In fact, one of the most celebrated dual color / black and white movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz, used Frank L. Baum’s description of rural Kansas and matched it to a dull black and white, while creating a fantastic, colorful world of Oz to coincide with the author’s words. These two worlds were separated by their hue, just like the real world and the 50’s television sitcom presented in Pleasantville.

David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are a normal set of twins. Well, normal for the 1990’s. When they both get pulled into a television showing a “Pleasantville” marathon of the 50’s sitcom, they both have to adjust from their selfish, 90’s lifestyles and try to fit in to the naive culture they now find themselves surrounded in. As they start to adjust to their new personas (Bud and Mary Sue), they realize how little these simple town-folk really know. That’s when things start to change. Color starts to creep into this monochromatic world, and it brings the town to an uproar. With the color comes rain, fire, and knowledge: all aspects of their lives they’ve never experienced before. Slowly, the color spreads as more and more residents accept the change for the better. But there is still staunch opposition to the new way of thinking, as it rids the men of their authority. By the end of the film, everyone has had the moral of “Knowledge is Power” drilled into their heads, as they realize what they had been taking for granted.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 ways to use color as a plot device