The Science of Spectacle
It goes without saying that a good film usually has a good story. You’ve probably heard the something along the lines of “all visual, no plot, no substance” to describe mindless summer blockbuster CGI orgies. And that’s a valid criticism. However, what about movies where visuals ARE the storytelling, and provide the substance? I have long believed that visual creativity is as important a component to movies as having a strong story. Some of my favorite movies bank on this.
Take my childhood movie (as in pretty much the only movie I watched from 7-10): “The Lion King”. It’s widely beloved, as its recent two-week reign atop the box office 17 years after its release attests. But compare it to other Disney animated classics. Its storytelling is cut-and-dry as it gets. There’s little exposition. We learn all we need to know about the characters from the archetypes they embody. They develop and change on the fly, through musical numbers and inspiring speeches.
It has none of the elegant emotional complexities and yearnings that featured so prominently in “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”. Ariel was having an identity complex that culminated with her transforming half her body. Belle was filled with wanderlust, and gave it up to save her father before falling in love with her captor. “The Lion King” is revenge tale. The biggest emotional conflict is Simba hemming and hawing ab0ut whether not he should return home.
Addtionally, its music isn’t as strong as “The Little Mermaid’s” or “Beauty and the Beast’s”. The score is majestic, but most of the individual songs don’t quite glue themselves to your brain like “Kiss the Girl,” “Be Our Guest”, “Under the Sea”, or “Gaston”. Lyrically, Tim Rice is excellent at telling stories through music (I particularly love his work in “Jesus Christ Superstar”), but he’s not as skilled as Allen Menken and Howard Ashman at the playful, creative rhyme schemes and wordplay that I love in “Mermaid’s” and “Beauty’s” music. I also think “Be Prepared” was the weakest song in the modern Disney revival catalog until it was shoved aside by everything in “The Princess and the Frog”. But that’s for another time.
Despite all I just wrote, I love “The Lion King”. It’s easily my favorite Disney film. Why? The spectacle. “The Lion King” was an exercise in producing images that could only be achieved in animation, and Disney’s team would be damned if they didn’t blow your mind. One of the advantages of animated storytelling is that incredible images feel completely organic. We don’t think “that’s just special effects” because the whole movie is technically special effects, without any uncanny valley. Scenes like Simba’s conversation with his dead father have more impact in an animated film, because as far as we care, this is really happening.
Hans Zimmer’s score would be overwrought in most movies, but it’s completely fitting for this film. You better believe that I want this movie to end with swelling music as Simba ascends pride rock, followed with a happy ending with the title card ending the film on a drumbeat.
“The Lion King” fuses visuals with its storytelling. Its story might be kind of rote, but with visual creativity like this, any story seems fresh. Directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff weren’t compensating. They were telling this story the way it was meant to be told, with giant, bold visual strokes. They didn’t just succeed. They created a movie that represents the apex of American animation.