Chances are pretty slim that you’ve never seen Disney’s The Lion King. Originally released in 1994, it has since become the Mouse Kingdom’s biggest 2D animated hit, spawning several direct-to-video sequels, franchised toys, and a hit Broadway musical that has run for 14 years and counting. It is one of the peak cinematic achievements of 2D animation the old fashioned way – painted cel by cel. Before Pixar conquered, Disney was still king of the animation jungle.
Now Disney is theatrically re-releasing The Lion King in 3D. Audiences may be skeptical – how, exactly, does one make a three dimensional image from 2D cell paintings, that never had 3 dimensions to begin with? And will the film suffer from the darkness and dinginess of most movies converted from 2D to 3D in post-production?
I am happy to say all these worries are unfounded. The Lion King’s picture is crisp, bright, and now full of realistic depth. The opening moments are breathtaking, with flocks of birds flying in multiple depths of field, and sweeping vistas rendered realistically. Whether it is zebras in the distance or ants in the foreground, it all seems perfectly made for 3D. Even smaller, intimate scenes display the three dimensions and contours of a lion’s face, or a mouse, or waving grass. Disney went all out on this one, getting the visuals exactly right.
It is quite the technical achievement. How, for example, did they get depth to come out on Simba’s snout, which seems to protrude in layers from the base of his face to the tip of his nose? The answer lies with Robert Neuman, the “3D Stereographer” of the film. To achieve the depth, different values of numbers were given to portions of the image with certain pixels popping out, and others receding to varying degrees. This was used in combination with grey scale and a very powerful computer, and months of painstaking work by a team of over 60 artists. The results are staggering.
I only noticed one flaw, which happened during Scar’s musical number about taking over. As Scar rose on a rapidly growing pillar, the 3D had a hard time keeping up, resulting in an image that was jolting and jumpy. But this was a mere seconds of the entire film’s running time and not nearly enough to ruin the experience.
The film itself is a classic – no surprise there. The music is some of the best ever released for a Disney film. And the story of Simba returning to claim his kingdom is iconic and timeless. If you have children who have never seen The Lion King (what’s wrong with you?), this is the perfect introduction. Though I don’t believe every animated film should get retrofitted with 3D, The Lion King seems custom made for it.