With Beauty and the Beast returning to the theatres this week in the latest of Disney’s remasterings of classic animated films in 3D, let’s revisit the phenomenon of 2D animation transformed. Big-name releases like The Phantom Menace and Nightmare Before Christmas make more obvious candidates for transformation, but can the 3D gimmick really improve a style of animation that is inherently at odds with the original medium? Successes like Hugo and Avatar were clearly crafted for 3D, unlike these older films that were created prior to even the storm of computer-animation dominance. Is this another misfire from a company that hasn’t been doing the most justice to its animated classics over the past few decades? Disney’s The Lion King has already undergone the process, with encouraging results even for those who don’t want to don 3D glasses for every visit to the theatre.
On September 16th, The Lion King will be making its return to theatres briefly prior to a debut on bluray. But it’s going to look a little different—it’s in 3D. When I first heard that, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. What does a hand-drawn animated classic need another dimension for? But I caught an advance screening at the D23 Expo, Disney’s small-scale attempt at an exclusive convention, and while I still don’t believe that 3D is the future of cinema (more an unsightly detour, complete with bad fashion to accompany it), there is plenty of magic left in this film, and while 3D doesn’t transform the film it doesn’t detract from the theatrical experience.
The Lion King first hit the theatres in 1994, when I was ten years old and proud to wear a garishly colored t-shirt with images from the film to the theatre when I saw it for the second and third time—and more beyond that, if memory serves, but my pride prevents me from revealing the total. It was strikingly different from most Disney films, bucking not just the princess formula but the fairy tale model with a story that, while far from original, was more a medley of influences than a direct take from any one source.
The D23 premiere was accompanied by the co-directors talking about the inauspicious roots of the project: “It was Moses meets Joseph and Hamlet with music by Elton John” and no one wanted to work on it. The directors kept the film alive with their own enthusiasm, which definitely came through at the premiere as they sang excerpts from Timon and Pumba’s greatest hits. The D23 crowd, many clad in the orange fur “lion” headbands that had been handed out as swag, was appropriately enthusiastic.
Despite this grand affair, a film classic like The Lion King doesn’t seem to need much sprucing to earn a rerelease. But in the grand scale of changes directors have made to warrant returning films to the big screen, a conversion to 3D is actually relatively inoffensive (and also nothing new, as The Nightmare Before Christmas has already gone through this process). It’s definitely more compelling than the Star Wars approach of tossing in badly integrated CG and completely unnecessary changes. And in animation, a director’s cut is usually close to impossible.
What struck me most watching the rerelease is the sheer crispness of the image. Animation doesn’t suffer from unsightliness at high resolutions: instead, the beauty of the colors and details comes out even more. Is the 3D necessary? Not even remotely, but compared to my memories of a grainy theatre screen it is absolutely stunning. While taking live action film and converting it to 3D leads to distortion and strangely incongruous relationships between settings and characters, hand-drawn characters already provide only an illusion of perspective. And while some scenes are jarring, like a puppet theatre or paper cut-outs moving too fast against the background for the eye to easily follow, others capture a certain magic. The ghost of Mufasa is striking, and Scar’s villainous theme song has a music video style that translates well to the new form. Many scenes received loud applause, but whether it was for the cleverness and beauty of the original moments or for the new scenes
Disney’s stab at in-home 3D is not likely to make me long for a 3D TV. But it’s actually remarkably less gimmicky than most live action films, and it certainly shows how far they’ve come from the days of Muppet 3D’s cheap tricks. This will likely be but one entry in Disney’s 3D re-release list: as long as nostalgia and fond memories promise crowds in the theatres, this gimmick serves as a perfect segue into bringing films out of the vault.
Traditional hand-drawn animation is a rarity now: even Disney has mostly abandoned it, taking their latest princess movie into the realm of computer graphics. But while computer graphics lend themselves to a 3D approach with a lot of screen-popping and projected figures, the conversion of traditional animation feels more like gazing into a painted portal. The layering of mist over a scene, for instance, is raised over the rest like the watcher could peer behind it. The effect of the digital window is nothing near as headache inducing as its counterpart. I’ve experienced only one negative side effect to seeing The Lion King in 3D: my insomnia has been accompanied by mental renditions of “the world for once…in perfect harmony…” that serve as a reminder that the lyrics are as catchy as ever.