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"Lion King 1 1/2" Aims Low and Still Works

I realized recently that Disney could have saved itself a lot of grief had they just admitted to their Shakespearean references in The Lion King point blank before anyone else could, as opposed to calling it "Disney's first original story". Not only would it have pre-empted all of the eventual reviews where people pointed that out, but it would have silenced the Tezuka fanboys who screamed anime rape by staking claim in works of art far older than Kimba the White Lion. Still, better late than never, I suppose; The Lion King 1 1/2's DVD insert has a whole schpiel about the references within the LK universe. There is, however, no mention of Tom Stoppard, the brilliant playwright whose masterpiece Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the obvious forebear for this film. Oh, well. One step at a time.

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Of course, a discerning viewer will notice how the LK universe both adapts and reverses its theatrical grandparents. The Lion King has its Hamlet character actually STOP being neurotic when being confronted with his father's ghost, as opposed to the other way around. Instead of the lovers' death inspiring the reconciliation of the warring families, The Lion King II: Simba's Pride's main characters have a love that won't die, causing far greater hatred between the sources. And here, instead of the Stoppardian meditations on how minor characters have no further existence or life than the one the playwright grants in the story, The Lion King 1 1/2 insists the very opposite: that these minor characters have fuller, richer lives than we could have dreamed, and that they were far more present than we'd have guessed. In addition to that, the film is a full-out parody of the first film, in both deflating key moments by Timon and Pumbaa's presence (or responsibility for) and in crafting essentially a redux of the Simba story via Timon. Timon is clearly the main character here, with Pumbaa fulfilling Nala's role; not as a lover (unless you really want to think so - you sicko [;)]), but as a best friend, confidante, and conscience. In fact, replace the first film's theme of responsibility towards your kingdom and birthright to responsibility towards your friends, and there you go.

I suppose the most important thing to note is that the film is, basically, a success. It is not a bad film, and for Disney cheapquels, that says a lot. It really doesn't have much depth to it, which I'll get to later, but it's essentially a comedy. And for a comedy, it's pretty damn funny. It helps that the cast is back yet again, especially Lane and Sabella, whom are both utterly irreplacable. We get a couple of new characters in Timon's main family: his mom (Julie Kavner) and Uncle Max (Jerry Stiller). Both are quite brilliant and are excellent and hilarious additions. In fact, the casting and treatment of these and other meerkats sorta confirms what I'd suspected for many years since the very first film: meerkats are the Jews of the animal kingdom. Dig tunnels for protection constantly, neuroses up the wazoo about predators (like those goose-stepping hyenas, anyone?), and basically the food for other animals. Boy, I felt right at home with these guys. I think I even do some of that scurry/sniff/flinch stuff, and I'm not even a meerkat.

But despite it all, I'm a little disappointed. It's an odd thing to say when I hadn't expected much in the first place, but once I saw what this film was, and looked back upon it after finish, I couldn't help but feel that something could have been done better. My problem is the film's form of commitment to multiple goals. The thing the film does best is parody the first film. The Lion King is mocked by the idea that Timon and Pumbaa are there the entire time. It's a fairly brilliant notion. But the most annoying thing about the film is how it feels it necessary to try and justify itself as a legitimate explanation for certain events in the first film. To be precise, it "explains" the bow at Simba's birth, the toppling of the animal tower during "I Just Can't Wait To Be King", and how the hyenas got to the place that Scar would be thrown by Simba. The problem is this: did any of these three things really need to be explained? By chaining itself to the format of the first film, and the idea that it must fill in these so-called blanks from the first film, The Lion King 1 1/2 shortchanges itself by making itself subordinate to the "more important" film. This doesn't help parody. That's why the climax of 1 1/2 is inherently less powerful than the first film. It has to be; there's another, more important story apparently going on.

You know what would've worked best? Doing away with the pretension of justification. It doesn't need to be justified. More importantly, it actually can't be justified; by taking the path it does, it subverts continuity by making Simba age from birth to mischievious childdom in one night, along with introducing Timon to Rafiki far too early (whatever happened to "Who's the monkey?!"). Why pretend that this story can really be shoehorned into the existing one? Timon's manning the remote control, after all, and he's being made out into this heroic character. The biggest missed opportunity was for allowing Timon the freedom to utterly warp, skew, and screw up the story of the first film in his favor. Imagine Simba gravely muttering, "Murderer...." while approaching Scar, but then being pushed out of the way by Timon. "No, Simba. This is MY fight," Timon solemnly states as he glares at the villainous lion. Then the meerkat takes the shady monarch down with one blow! And then Simba pops into Timon and Pumbaa's silhouette area, looking mighty peeved. It'd have been brilliant. I'm not a writer for Disney, though, so too bad. Really, then, what I wanted was for this film to deliver the laughs more consistently. Binding it to the reality of the first film, I think, did it the most harm.

Three stars (***) out of four (****)

A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on Feb 23, 2004

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