Both newly available in multi-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo editions, Dumbo and The Lion King were each developed during one of Disney’s two periods of greatest creative flourishing.
Dumbo came at the height of Disney’s early Golden Age, amid the four towering masterpieces—Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio and Bambi—that laid the foundations for all subsequent Disney feature animation.
The Lion King came at almost the height of the 1990s Disney renaissance, following the early successes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, and preceding the diminishing returns of Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan and finally Fantasia 2000, which can be regarded as the final nail in the Disney renaissance’s coffin. (See my earlier two-part post on Fantasia and Fantasia 2000.)
Both Dumbo and The Lion King are much beloved, though in my opinion they’re both overrated and comparatively disappointing.
Little more than an hour long, Dumbo always struck me as a slight, cruel, unimpressive effort, almost more an anthology of animated shorts than a bona fide feature film, and strangely out of place amid its Golden Age counterparts.
The Lion King, on the other hand, is a self-consciously grandiose and operatic effort clearly striving to be a masterpiece of mythic proportions—but it falls flat, in my opinion, mostly due to a boring, passive, unconflicted protagonist who only acts when he’s told and never thinks for himself. (For more on my heretical views on these films, see my new review of The Lion King and my refurbished review of Dumbo, both with new Product Notes on the latest editions.)
Be that as it may, both films look and sound terrific in the new Blu-ray/DVD editions, and the bonus features on the new Blu-ray/DVD editions offer quite a bit of extra value, so fans won’t be disappointed.
I was particularly interested to learn some more of the back story of Dumbo from a half-hour making-of documentary, “Taking Flight: The Making of Dumbo.” I had known that Dumbo was made on the cheap after the financial setbacks of Fantasia and Pinocchio, neither of which were initially box-office successes. What I hadn’t known was that the film was the work of a team of old-school Disney animators who all hailed from the pre-Snow White days and really were short-format animators.
Both editions feature a number of deleted scenes, or sketches for sequences that were never developed, generally illustrating, as such bonus features often do, that deleted sequences were usually deleted for a reason. One of Dumbo’s deleted sequences is a lurid fantasy narrated by Timothy Q. Mouse tracing the elephant’s proverbial fear of mice to a prehistoric time of dinosaur-sized mice terrorizing helpless elephants—like “Pink Elephants on Parade” wasn’t scary enough already!
The Lion King’s deleted sequences includes an icky scene in which Scar, as king of the pridelands, chooses the grown Nala as his queen—an exhausted cliché that takes away Nala’s initiative in fleeing the pridelands to search for food and to find help, since Scar winds up exiling her when she refuses.
It also weakens the film’s naturalism, since a pride comprises a male and a number of females who are all the male’s mates. Understandably, the finished film glosses over this, emphasizing Mufasa’s relationship with Sarabi and Simba’s relationship with Nala as if they were monogamous relationships. Still, I appreciate that the film doesn’t explicitly establish this.
Incidentally, note that we see Nala as a cub with her mother (whom the credits name as Sarafina)—but who is Nala’s father? The only onscreen candidates are Mufasa and Scar. If it’s Mufasa, you’ve got a serious Luke and Leia thing going between Simba and Nala. And if it’s Scar, then that deleted scene becomes much, much more messed up. (According to Allers and Minkoff, a version of this sequence wound up in the stage version; I wonder how it plays there.)
Chronologically, The Lion King stands between the striking triumphs of the early Disney renaissance (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin) and the bumpy deterioration of the latter 1990s (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, etc.). One way or another, it’s at the turning point between Disney’s creative renewal and its eventual decline. Fans might locate it near the pinnacle, along with Beauty and the Beast, but I don’t feel the love.
Somebody has to say it: Made at the height of Disney’s early brilliance alongside Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Bambi, Dumbo is the odd weak link in the chain.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.