Monday, January 30, 2012

Disney's The Lion King

The Lion King is probably the most beloved Disney film of my generation. When I saw the movie in theaters again for the 3-D release, everyone was going nuts during the whole movie. There was laughter, crying, and all around awe of seeing a classic put back on the big screen. There's just something about this movie that makes it so appealing to everyone. The characters, the songs, the overall story; it's just perfect. It came out at the perfect time, too. I was just nine years old and distinctly remember going to school and seeing every kid with a Lion King backpack, a Lion King lunchbox, and even Lion King folders and pencils. We even watched it at school when it came out on video in early 1995. I remember begging my parents to buy the movie when it came out on VHS. This movie was the coolest. I even had the Sega Genesis game that came out a little while after. I still feel bad for kids these days. They don't have the luxury that my generation had, growing up with outstanding animated films from Disney. Sure, Tangled and The Princess and the Frog have gotten Disney back on track, but for awhile there, kids had Home on the Range, Chicken Little, and Brother Bear. Yuck.

Disney's biggest hit of all time was first thought up when Disney was on its way to promote Oliver & Company in Europe. Katzenberg, Roy Disney, and Peter Schneider were on a plane going over the pond when the idea of a movie set in Africa came up. Katzenberg loved the idea and they started coming up with ideas for this film. Thomas Schumacher, the producer of The Rescuers Down Under, immediately latched onto the project "because lions are cool." Katzenberg put his ideas into it, basically putting in parts of his own life story. He wanted the movie to be about coming of age and death and mirror some of the events of his own life, especially his life in politics. The earliest draft of the story was penned by The Brave Little Toaster author, Thomas Disch, with the story being called King of the Kalahari. Linda Woolverton spent a year writing up a script and the name changed from King of the Kalahari, to King of the Beasts and King of the Jungle. Woolverton's story was a little bit different from the one we know today. "The plot was centered in a battle being between lions and baboons with Scar being the leader of the baboons, Rafiki being a cheetah, and Timon and Pumbaa being Simba's childhood friends. Simba would also not leave the kingdom, but become a 'lazy, slovenly, horrible character' due to manipulations from Scar, so Simba could be overthrown after coming of age." Yep. That sounds like a winner.

Directors and producers came and went and tried to retool the story, and it wasn't til Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff became the directors and Don Hahn the producer that things really took off. In two weeks they came up with a new story which had a better central theme, something Hahn felt was missing from the first draft. Along the way they realized that they could not call the movie, King of the Jungle. Why? Because lions do not live in the jungle but the savannah. The title was then changed to The Lion King. The Lion King became the first Disney animated film that wasn't directly based off something (sort of). The filmmakers claimed that the story was inspired by the story of Jospeh and Moses in the Bible and William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Now, the Hamlet one I can see in the story, but the story of Joseph and Moses is a little harder to pick out. Rewrites continued to be made, namely making Timon, Pumbaa, and the hyenas more comic characters. Once the filmmakers teamed up with Tim Rice, who had done the songs for Aladdin along with Alan Menken, they had a real production coming together.

Part of what makes this movie so great is the voice actors. It's funny because for some reason I could recognize a bunch of the voices even at my young age. Mufasa was Darth Vader, young Simba was Randy from Home Improvement, grown up Simba was Ferris Bueller, Zazu was Mr. Bean, and Shenzi was Sister Mary Clarence. I didn't know their real names at the time, just their other character's names. Well, maybe Jonathan Taylor Thomas, because every kid knew who he was. James Earl Jones is Mufasa to me. Sure he was Darth Vader but when I hear his voice, I immediately go back to Mufasa. Other well known actors that did voice roles: Nathan Lane as Timon, Jeremy Irons as Scar, Cheech Marin as Banzai, and Jim Cummings as Ed. Nathan Lane had originally auditioned for Zazu while Ernie Sabella, who voiced Pumbaa, auditioned for one of the hyenas. They ended up meeting at the recording studio, and being current co-stars in a production of Guys and Dolls, wanted to audition together for parts as the hyenas. The did so well together that Disney instead decided to cast them as Timon and Pumbaa. Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong were meant to play the hyenas but Chong was unavailable so they made the second hyena a girl and gave the part to Whoopi Goldberg.

Production on The Lion King started concurrently with Pocahontas and many of the animators wanted to work on Pocahontas because they felt that it was the more prestigious of the two. Even the story artists were hesitant to work on The Lion King because some felt that "the story wasn't very good." It's funny when people are proven wrong on a monumental scale. As it turns out, most of the animators for The Lion King were doing main characters for the first time. In the end, over 600 animators contributed to animating The Lion King. Disney harkened back to Bambi and many of their other realistic animal movies by bringing in live representations. Lions and other savannah animals were brought to the studios for inspiration with a trainer explaining each animals mannerisms. Part of the production team even went to Hell's Gate National Park to help give them a feel for what their backgrounds and environment should look like. The Pride Lands are modeled after the park. One of the most tedious parts of the animation process for the film was the wildebeest stampede. "Several distinct wildebeest characters were created in a 3D computer program, multiplied into hundreds cel shaded to look like drawn animation, and given randomized paths down a mountainside to simulate the real, unpredictable movement of a herd. Five specially trained animators and technicians spent more than two years creating the two-and-a-half minute stampede sequence." Yeah, its a good thing this film didn't bomb.

The Lion King was released on June 24th, 1994 to rave reviews. Most praised the story along with the superb animation. Then you had others who compared it to other Disney films and felt it didn't match up. Namely Siskel and Ebert, who felt that Beauty and the Beast was a better film, and that The Lion King was just a good film. What can I say, you can't make everyone happy, and it's hard when you release a string of extremely good movies. Someone's going to complain that one is weaker than the other. Critically, The Lion King is considered one of the best animated films of all time. It didn't do that bad in the box office either. With foreign grosses added in, the film made $772.6 million in its first run. With the re-releases, it's up to $951 million. It still stands as the highest grossing traditionally animated film of all time with The Simpsons Movie behind it. The Lion King also went on to win a Golden Globe for Best Picture for a Musical or Comedy and Best Original Score. It also won Best Original Score and Best Original Song (Can You Feel the Love Tonight by Elton John) at the Academy Awards. So, I guess The Lion King did pretty well for itself. Did I mention it's also a smash hit as a Broadway musical?

Like every Disney movie in the 90's, there seems to be a little bit of controversy connected to the movie. The Lion King actually has two, and they are both very entertaining. The first claim is that The Lion King is one big rip off of Kimba the White Lion, a 60's anime TV show from Japan. Similarities include: The name of the title character, certain scenes being the exact same, and similar characters and situations. Matthew Broderick thought he was auditioning for a remake of the Japanese TV show, as he was familiar with it beforehand. Disney has officially said that all similarities are coincidental. Yoshihiro Shimizu, of Tezuka Productions, who created Kimba the White Lion, has refuted claims that Disney paid him and Tezuka Productions to use their ideas for the movie. He also explains the reason why he and Tezuka Productions has not tried to sue Disney: "we're a small, weak company. It wouldn't be worth it anyway... Disney's lawyers are among the top twenty in the world!" I have not personally seen any episodes of Kimba so I can't weigh in on this one but I'm sure there are scenes on YouTube if you are curious. The second claim against the movie is a sexual one. Remember the scene where Simba doesn't know what to do and flops down on that cliff and a bunch of leaves fly up? Well, as it turns out, the leaves form the word SEX, or at least that's what it looks like to a lot of people. As it turns out, it spells out SFX, a common abbreviation for special effects. It was intended as a innocent signature from the effects team and nothing more.

The Lion King is still one of my all around favorite Disney films, ranking up there with Aladdin, Hercules, and many of the classic films of the 40's and 50's. It's got one of the best openings of any animated film, some of the best and most catchy songs, and even some of the best characters. Who doesn't love Timon and Pumbaa? And for that matter, Ed? Who hasn't found themselves singing "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" or "Hakuna Matata?" If you didn't get to see the film again in 3-D, pop it in your VCR/DVD/Blu-ray player and prepare to be taken back to Elementary School.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Disney's Aladdin

We've finally made it to one of my favorite Disney movies of all time (the other being Hercules). This film was the first one that I saw more than once in theaters. For me as a child, that was huge. It had great songs, funny lines, larger than life characters, and a big snake that scared the crap out of me (I made a vow not to call any bully a snake, as I feared they would in turn say, "lets see how snake like I can be!" and proceed to morph into my worst nightmare. I had a very active imagination). Though something that stuck with me after watching it those two times, more than the songs and characters, was the ultimate moral of the story: be yourself and everything will be fine. Aladdin tried, through a mystical being, to change himself into what he thought would be acceptable to others, when in the end, he was accepted more for being himself. In fact, the princess Jasmine doesn't quite fall completely in love with Aladdin until the truth comes out about his real character. Besides the overarching moral, the movie struck on the very real struggle with feeling trapped. Aladdin was trapped in what he perceived as an inescapable life as a "street rat." Jasmine was trapped in her life as a princess, unable to do what she really wanted in life. Genie was trapped not really by a situation so much as a responsibility to the lamp, tethered to it until someone wished his freedom. Even Jafar was trapped in his role as the royal vizier, doing the sultan's bidding. The movie showed that even though you may feel trapped by your current situation, there is a way out, as long as you get out the right way.

This movie wouldn't of been possible had it not been for Howard Ashman, the lyricist that had worked on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Ashman, way back in 1988, pitched the idea of doing a musical adaptation of the story of Aladdin. There was a little bit of interest, so he and fellow lyricist Alan Menken started to write songs for their proposed Arabian Nights adaptation. Linda Wooverton eventually hashed out a screenplay and even The Little Mermaid's directors, Ron Clements and John Musker signed on to direct. The directors had the choice between three projects, the others being Swan Lake and King of the Jungle, and they picked Aladdin (I'll give you one guess what King of the Jungle eventually turned into). Musker and Clements worked on the screenplay and eventually handed it in to Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg looked it over and determined that it "didn't engage." Katzenberg did eventually greenlight the production, but it was only after the screenwriting duo of Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio rewrote it. Clements and Musker, along with everyone that had worked for quite a long time on the storyboards and screenplay affectionately called the period during the rewrite as "Black Friday."

Many things were thrown out of the first draft, namely about characters and not about plot. Aladdin, who was modeled after Michael J. Fox was changed into more of a Tom Cruise looking character with a rougher attitude like a young Harrison Ford. Katzenberg stated that in no concievable world would Jasmine be interested in Aladdin if he was a Michael J. Fox type character. He remarked that what they had was Julia Roberts and Michael J. Fox, which doesn't work. What they needed was Julia Roberts and Tom Cruse. The crew still didn't want Aladdin to be a big buff looking idiot, so they made him just a big older and athletic looking. They wanted to retain the boy like charm that was going to make the character likeable. Jasmine's character was also changed, becoming a stronger and more bold character. I figure that after Beauty and the Beast, Disney couldn't bear to have a female lead be a passive damsel in distress like they had in the past. Iago, initially meant to be a proper, British accented bird, was changed after the crew had seen Beverly Hills Cop II and seen Gilbert Gottfried's performance. Iago would ultimately become a loud, annoying bird. Aladdin's mother was a big part of the original screenplay, but the new writers found her to be unnecessary, so Aladdin became an orphan. So sad. There were minor changes to the story however, as some plot points changed to be more like the 1940 film, The Thief of Baghdad.

The characters of Aladdin were, for the most part, all based off of work by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld (trust me, you've seen his work). The production designer Richard Vander Wende found the style appropriate, as it bared similarities to the swooping lines of Persian miniatures and Arabic calligraphy. I said almost all were, as Jafar was not, his supervising animator, Andreas Deja, wanted Jafar to be contrasting. You can see by the picture to the left that they kept each character design to a specific geometrical shape, keeping with a more caricaturist drawing. Each character was animated alone, with animators working together when scenes called for it. This proved difficult as some animators were in California, and some in Florida, so some animators like the ones for Aladdin and Jasmine had to keep faxing or sending designs to each other. In terms of broad animation, the layout was based off of the layout supervisor's hometown of Isfahan, Iran. Inspiration for the rest of the scenery came from old Disney movies from the 50's and 60's, plus the movie The Thief of Baghdad. Coloring of the cells was once again done by the CAPS process and computer animation was used in several scenes, namely the tiger's head of the Cave of Wonders and the Cave of Wonders escape scene.

Aladdin really has more of a star-studded cast than the last couple of films. Beauty and the Beast had Angela Lansbury and a bunch of people you've never heard of. The Rescuers Down Under had three fantastic actors that you've probably heard a little about from your parents. And The Little Mermaid had...well....Buddy Hackett. All recognizable to our parents, but not for us, unless your parents made you watch Murder, She Wrote. For the most part, Aladdin's voice cast was recognizable to its young audience. Gilbert Gottfried, who voiced Iago, was in Problem Child, which I had seen a bunch of times before Aladdin came out. Scott Weinger, who voiced Aladdin, was D.J.'s boyfriend Steve on Full House. Frank Welker, who voiced Abu and Raja, voiced Fred in Scooby Doo plus a bunch of other characters from our childhood. And of course everyone recognized Robin Williams providing the voice of Genie. Jim Cummings provided the voice of Razoul, the palace guard, whom you may remember as the voice of Pete in Goof Troop and Winnie the Pooh from...well everything with Winnie the Pooh in it since the early 80's. The one casting I find humorous is the one for Jafar. Jonathan Freeman (left), who provides Jafar's voice, doesn't look like he could conceivably make that voice come out of his mouth. In fact, Jafar's supervising animator (right) looks much more like he should be the voice of Jafar. I mean just look at him! He's got the facial hair and everything. Maybe I'm just crazy.

A little refresher for all those not privy on how animation works: the voice actors do their lines, then the crew animates it. If it went the other way, then you wouldn't of seen such a great performance from Robin Williams. Most of his lines were ad-libbed, which was extremely rare for animated pictures. The crew just gave him a subject to work around and let him loose. The crew ended up having to go through hours of material from Williams and taking out the parts that were funny enough, or on topic enough to make it into the film. Williams was actually pretty hesitant to do the film, though the genie part was written with him in mind the whole time. It wasn't until Clements and Musker put one of his stand up routines to the genie animation did Williams agree. Things did not end to well between Disney and Williams however. Because Good Morning, Vietnam had done so well, it being a Touchtone film which is owned by Disney, Williams agreed to do Aladdin for SAG(Screen Actors Guild) scale pay ($75,000). He had a few conditions however: that his name not be used for marketing and his character not taking up more than 25% of advertising artwork. Disney, for financial reasons went back on the deal on both counts. As a result, Disney and Williams had a bitter falling out and Robins refused to do anything Disney. So, you can blame Disney for Williams not voicing Genie in Return of Jafar or the Aladdin TV series. After Katzenberg left however, the new president Joe Roth issued a public apology to Williams. Thus, Williams did provide the voice of Genie in the second Aladdin sequel, King of Theives, for considerably more than scale. Dan Casteleneta, who you may know as the voice of Homer on The Simpsons provided the voiced of Genie in Return of Jafar and the TV series. Castellaneta did all the voice work for Genie in King of Thieves, but after Williams agreed to do the film they erased all of Castellaneta's voice track. Don't feel too bad for Castellaneta as I'm sure he got paid for his work and I'm pretty sure he gets a pretty penny for doing The Simpsons.

The original story of Aladdin comes from Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, one of the tales in The Book of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. In the story, Aladdin lives in China as a young impoverished boy. Aladdin is tricked into following a sorcerer around since the guy claims to be his dad's brother. The sorcerer claims that he is going to take Aladdin away to make him into a wealthy merchant. Aladdin's mother falls for it and lets him go. The sorcerer's real motive however is to have Aladdin go into a magic cave of wonders full of booby-traps to retrieve a wonderful oil lamp. Aladdin finds out too late that he is being tricked and is trapped in the cave. Bummer. Luckily for Aladdin, the sorcerer unwittingly gave him a magic ring. When Aladdin happened to rub it for no conceivable reason, a genie sprang out of it. Carrying the lamp, Aladdin is whisked away back to his mother by the genie. His mother decides that she needs to clean that ruddy old lamp so she's going to rub it with some cloth. And of course a more powerful genie pops out of the lamp. I guess everything houses a genie in this story! Anyhoo, so Aladdin, without any limit to his wishes, becomes rich and powerful leading him to marry Princess Badroulbadour. Hmmm...OK from now on she is going to be referred to as Princess Bad.

The genie even builds Aladdin a palace more elegant and exquisite than the sultan's. The sorcerer's doesn't like that Aladdin's all rich and powerful now so he sets out to steal the lamp. He somehow gets to Princess Bad and convinces her to swap the magic lamp for a new one. Princess Bad doesn't know the significance of the lamp, because I guess she has been ignoring that big genie that her husbands been palling around with, and trades it away. I mean, really?! How would she not notice a genie building a palace?! That's it, her name is now Princess Brick, and for obvious reasons. The sorcerer orders the genie to take Aladdin's palace to his home in Maghreb. Aladdin, still having the magic ring, has the lesser genie take him to Maghreb, since the lesser genie cannot undue magic. Aladdin flies to Maghreb and totally gets Princess Brick and the lamp back. I'm not sure how, but I'm guessing that the story failed to mention that Aladdin was also a ninja. Oh, and Aladdin totally offs the sorcerer. Hey man, that's what happens when you mess with Aladdin. That's not the end however, as Princess Brick tries her hardest to screw everything up again. The sorcerer's older and more powerful brother seeks revenge, so he dresses like an old lady and tricks Princess Brick into letting him stay at the palace. Unfortunately for the guy, nobody told him about Aladdin having two genies. One of the genies tells Aladdin about the threat and Aladdin sneaks into the guys room and kills him ninja style, I would assume. Then Aladdin becomes sultan. The End. So, in summation, if you encounter a genie, the rest of your life will be cake.

The two stories are a bit different as you can tell. The book version is a little weird on the offset because it takes place in China and not in a Middle Eastern country like you would think. My only guess is that this is an alternate China where it is inhabited by Muslims instead of Buddhists and functions as an Islamic country. Also, the book version has a lot of annoying plot holes. Plot holes that make Aladdin seem invincible and the luckiest guy in the whole world. Disney realized that the original story's moral sucked. Ron Clements explains that, "the original story was sort of a winning the lottery kind of thing. When we got into it, particularly coming in at the end of 1980s, it seemed like an Eighties 'greed is good' movie. (...) Like having anything you could wish for would be the greatest thing in the world and having it taken away from you is bad, but having it back is great. We didn't really want that to be the message of the movie." Aladdin would of been a much different film if Aladdin literally got everything he wanted and there were no consequences. Instead, Aladdin only gets three wishes, two out of the three don't really bring him any happiness, and nobody actually likes him when he's pretending to be someone else. The only wish that does work out in the end is his decision to free the Genie and do something completely unselfish. Good job, Disney.

Aladdin premiered on November 13th, 1992 and didn't get a wide release until the 25th. It did reasonably well over its first weekend by grossing a little over $19 million, coming in second under Home Alone 2. With that competition, it didn't reach number one until eight weeks later. It hit number one five times during its twenty-two week run and ended up grossing $217 million domestically and over $500 million worldwide. It was then the highest grossing animated film of all time, and highest grossing film of 1992. It would later be beaten by The Lion King for highest gross for a traditionally animated film. It is now third behind The Lion King and The Simpson's Movie. Most critics praised Robin Williams' performance and the movie as a whole. Legendary animator Chuck Jones even called it "the funniest feature ever made." Aladdin is widely loved by critics and audiences but it is not without its detractors. Some found the characters to be too bland and just cookie-cutter characters. Roger Ebert praised the movie, but said its musical numbers were not as good as The Little Mermaid's and Beauty and the Beast's and that Aladdin and Jasmine were pale and routine.

Aladdin is also not without controversy. Though we may not have given the line a second thought as children, our parents probably thought the line, "where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face," was pretty odd and just a bit racist. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee lobbied Disney to have the lyrics changed and all releases now have the line, "Where its flat and immense and the heat is intense." Animation fans have also pointed out the similarities between Aladdin and the long suffering production of The Thief and the Cobbler. Though The Thief and the Cobbler came out after Aladdin, it had been in production since the 60's and many find that some ideas and characters were lifted from the stalled production. Since The Thief and the Cobbler came out after Aladdin, it has now been labelled a poor copy of Aladdin, which is really too bad because the movie is really quite good. Some of you may have seen The Thief and the Cobbler when you were young, but don't know the messy history behind the animated masterpiece that was to be director Richard William's Magnum Opus. I'll get to the story here eventually, as I have to get through all these Disney films first. Next up is everyone's favorite, The Lion King!