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DVD Review: The Lion King

By Glenn Abel

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photo Sure, the king of beasts knows every inch of the Serengeti, but let's see him try to navigate this DVD.

For the long-awaited DVD debut of "The Lion King," Disney has created one of the format's most byzantine navigation schemes to date. Kids might sense some sort of internal logic here, but most parents will be stumped and peeved.

It doesn't help that the feature-film disc opens with eight "sneak previews" and an ad for Disney World. What should be an event experience is cheapened before it begins: "The Lion King" -- a crown jewel of modern Disney animation -- unspools like any straight-to-video kiddie show.

It's a shame because otherwise, "Lion King" gets the royal treatment. The two- disc "platinum" edition (retail $29.99) contains two slightly different versions of the film (one has a new musical bit) as well as dueling audio mixes. A 15- page booklet helps keep track of the herd of extras, some first-rate, most worthwhile.

Restored and remastered, "Lion King" looks and sounds spectacular. Colors can be wildly saturated without loss in definition -- as in the Busby Berkeley-inspired "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" -- or subtle and naturalistic. (The film is in the original widescreen 1.66:1, enhanced for 16x9 screens.)

The disc defaults to the theatrical Dolby 5.1, but anyone with decent gear should switch immediately to the "Enhanced Home Theatre Mix." "It will test your home system setup," vows proud rerecording engineer Terry Porter, who gets to explain his work in an unusual but quite welcome extra. (It's on Disc 2; dig deep.)

While remixing the film for Imax and the DVD, Porter moved the listener's perspective from the audience to the middle of the orchestra -- with a lot of activity "dramatically behind you."

Some completist somewhere probably appreciates inclusion of the 1994 mix, but it's hard to imagine anyone invested in home theater preferring it. The enhanced mix blows away its predecessor, with an expanded dynamic range, wide-open sound stage, aggressive but artful rear effects and thundering subwoofer passages. Be sure to duck during the big stampede.

The audio-mix segment is introduced by "Lion King" producer Don Hahn, a self- proclaimed "DVD-aholic." Hahn gets the lion's share of talking-head time in the extras, leavening a lot of the craft-specific detail with the big picture.

Hahn joins directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff on the commentary track (recycled from the laserdisc). Viewers not interested in chasing around the DVD set to get the lowdown will do just fine here. The filmmakers give a fun-but- focused talk that covers most of the essentials. (It can be a bit hard to tell who's speaking; they all have Disney cast member accents.)

The producer and directors cover voice talent, oddly ignored elsewhere. Their highest praise goes to Jeremy Irons, who called on his background in musicals to play Scar. The African setting sparked an internal debate over whether the vocal talent should be exclusively black, but the filmmakers settled on an ethnic mix that they say reflects the film's message of universal harmony. Unfortunately, the extras don't include stars such as Matthew Broderick, Rowan Atkinson, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg.

The added song, by Elton John and Tim Rice, is explained in a making-of featurette. Rice describes the music hall-like "Morning Report" as "a lot of bad animal puns." The song, sung by Zazu the hornbill, runs less than 90 seconds and comes early in the film. It's fun, but most fans will prefer the original pacing.

John describes making the film as "one of the happiest experiences of my life." The music extras include old footage of him at the piano, tentatively unveiling "The Circle of Life" for the filmmakers.

In another extra, John suffers through an animated draft of the Oscar-winning "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," featuring Timon and Pumbaa. "I was horrified to hear it sung by the warthog," Sir Elton says, doing an imitation of the beast. "It was a shock." Traumatized fans can recover with the original music videos for "Love," "Hakuna Matata" and "Circle."

Other highlights include a piece on Julie Taymor mounting the Broadway musical, segments on the influence of African art and music, a chapter devoted to story development (see "Hamlet" and the Old Testament) and footage of Lebo M conducting his African chorus.

Kids can play remote-control games and take a "Virtual Safari" with Timon and Pumbaa. An unfortunate music video has Disney Channel stars romping through "Circle of Life."

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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