The Lion King returns in 3D

IT IS TIME! Again?

The Film Kid asks why Disney classics are returning to our screens in 3D, and if it even matters at all.

I ironically cried in The Lion King 3D, three times. The first was during the ‘Circle of Life’ opening when I realized I’d actually paid to have my cherished childhood experience ruined. The second time was when Mufassa died, and finally, when the credits rolled and I was reminded that I’d just paid to have my cherished childhood experience ruined, I cried again.

It may sound a little overdramatic, but considering Walt Disney home videos taught me how to use the remote control from the tender age of four, watching an old favourite 17 years later in 3D did something to taint that nostalgia. I found the visual conversion distracting, the catchy musical numbers I knew all the words to suddenly looked and felt like cheap stunts and worst of all, it crushed any faith I had in modern movie magic meeting the standards of days gone by.

When I left the cinema I snapped my 3D glasses (fuck… that cost me a dollar) wondering how anyone could have let such a travesty take over our screens. Why was it necessary to convert a perfectly good 2D film into 3D? And who in their right mind, with any respect for the original film, would buy into this molestation of a classic?

Timon and I share similar facial expressions when confronted with 3D re-releases

While my outraged questions were rhetorical, the positive figures at the box-office had the answers. Intended as a publicity prelude to The Lion King’s Blu-Ray DVD release, the 3D film extended its two week promotional romp on the big screen after a stampede of Disney fans pushed it into the number one spot at the box office. Grossing $61.7 million in the US and almost $100 million worldwide within ten days of its debut, it looked like the global success of The Lion King 3D had made it possible for Disney executives to ‘Hakuna Matata’ for the rest of their days.

It was an outcome no one had expected. Since re-releases of films had seen low success rates previously, Dave Hollis – Disney’s executive VP of theatrical exhibition sales and distribution – admitted to Inside Movies that Disney had expected the film to ‘do somewhere in the low-to-mid teens in its first weekend.’ Quite frankly, I thought so too. But when ticket sales exceeded these expectations, it was enough for Disney to give the green light for Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. to undergo 3D conversion in time for their theatrical re-release in 2012 and 2013. Having tested the waters with The Lion King, Disney was confident enough to get this money-raking trend running at full speed.

While all of this can simply be shrugged off as another profit-driven link in the Hollywood Circle of Life, Disney’s move towards 3D shows considerable shifts in the history of animation, according to background animator, Barry Dean. Unlike me, Dean couldn’t understand why people were so excited about The Lion King when it was first released. What Dean did have nostalgic attachments to was the traditional 2D practice of painting and hand-drawing animation that soon became overwhelmed by digital technology and corporate priorities.

After 17 years, Simba maintains his youthful looks thanks to 3D surgery

Having worked in the Sydney-based Disney studio for 10 years before it was shut down in 2005, Barry took part in creating 175 animated TV episodes and sequels to The Lion King, Peter Pan and Aladdin, using nothing but art tools and his two bare hands. It was the rapid change in technology and a shift in Disney’s production costs that pulled the industry in a different direction.

“The DVD market was not profitable enough for us to hang around and that’s probably exactly why they’re turning to these 3D trends,” says Dean. “Layouts, backgrounds, all of the animation had been done on light boxes and colour was still being hand painted on cells until our last production. So right here, in Sydney, we were the very last 2D, wholly owned Disney Studio in the world. Now the films that we worked with were not necessarily designed for 3D, and how they will be enhanced as a product by converting them is questionable.”

From an artistic career immersed in the 2D format, Dean believes 3D is only worth using if it improves the quality and value of the storytelling. Regardless of whether it is an aesthetic, a gimmick or a revolutionary tool in the industry, 3D needs to be used with greater consideration, according to Dean.

“To the degree that 3D enhances the entertainment value and the story value, I think it’s a great thing. But to the extent that 3D is just hung on – the way re-releasing an old product might do – then I think it’s just monopolizing on a current fad. It always comes back to the idea that if you’re creating a film specifically for 3D, you’re going to have a good product. If you’re going to try and force something onto something else, then I say good luck to them.”

From pencil to computer generated imagery and now the 3D evolution, there’s no doubt technological advances have had a profound effect on the way animations are created. But could we say the same about the technology’s impact on our viewing experiences?

From his research in spectatorship theory, digital cinema and contemporary Hollywood, author of Towards a New Film Aesthetic, Bruce Isaacs, can see how critics and commentators would want to believe 3D is a genuine evolution in film history, and why they would want to be believe this especially now.

“It’s far bigger than anything anyone anticipated because 3D’s been around for decades. It was significant in the fifties and there have been famous 3D movies like Jaws 4 when I was a kid, watching it with those red and blue glasses. People have even traced it back to very early cinema, and I’m talking the early 20th century, because 3D is just a product of a technology that is able to put two depths of field together at once so that you can see both in relation to each other. So the technology’s been around for ages to do it, but because of Avatar, 3D has become like all of those great evolutions in film over 100 years where if it’s viable and lucrative it then defined the next wave of cinema.”

Having watched The Lion King close to 20 times with his nieces while they were growing up, Isaacs is skeptical as to how 3D conversion could provide a more profound experience of the film by simply adding depth. Where the appeal comes from, according to Isaacs, is largely in 3D’s ability to offer us escapism.

“In some ways, The Lion King 3D is asking me to re-think my relationship with the old text but I don’t think 3D is going to profoundly affect people’s first engagements with those films,” says Isaacs. “Even if 3D could reconfigure that, the idea that 3D can take me closer to an experience is wrong. Instead, we get a thrill from being somewhere outside ourselves because we get to put on these glasses and in a sense enter a world rather than sit outside of it. It’s just that idea of ‘I’m shifting what I am’, ‘I’m changing my mode of perception’ or even ‘I’m changing what I am.’ I think that’s a major part of what 3D is.”

Capitalizing on this appeal, other major studios have also been talking about converting their popular past titles to 3D for a re-run at the cinemas. Some of Hollywood’s highest grossing titles, such as Titanic, Top Gun, Star Wars and The Matrix have already begun exploring 3D conversion as a way of tapping in to an already existing fan base and introducing the films to a generation who may not have had the chance to see them on the big screen.

One such person, who missed out on The Lion King’s first cinematic release in 1994, was Empire Magazine editor and film critic, David Michael Brown. After being lent a VHS of The Lion King and not realizing it was a bootlegged copy until the final credits rolled, David says he appreciated the 3D re-release in comparison to his first, and rather dodgy experience of the film.

“I think the only truly great thing 3D has done is get bums on seats because there’s no real way yet to replicate seeing something on a massive screen in 3D. That whole showmanship is what’s being sought after because of all the downloading, watching it on the internet and iPads and all that. It gets you to go and see it with friends and turn it into something more special than just sitting at home or getting it off the internet.”

Since 3D television hasn’t quite kicked off, and bootlegging a 3D film is just absurd, it is true that 3D theatrical releases have encouraged people to take part in the traditional film-going experience. Hollywood industry gatherings and movie theatre conventions have lauded 3D as the most beneficial change to the business of film production and exhibition with the sudden surge of revenue in 2007 being almost entirely attributed to 3D films. An increasing number of theatres now come with the necessary equipment to screen 3D movies, and thanks to James Cameron’s Avatar, the production techniques of subsequent 3D films have strived to offer audiences an experience they just can’t get anywhere else.

Having collected a few 3D tickets in their wallets and seen The Lion King on VHS, the Broadway stage and in all its sequel forms, older audiences may have known exactly what they were going to get. The children growing up with 3D movies, on the other hand, are viewing The Lion King for the first time without the childhood comparisons that can shape how much the older members of the audience love or hate the conversion.

“The screening that I went to see had a lot of kids in the audience, and the minute the film started they put their glasses on and there was just … silence. They were all entranced, laughing at the right places,” says Brown, who reviewed the film in the midst of a younger audience, arguably more challenging to please than any other critic in today’s entertainment business.

“With kids’ films in 3D, you do limit yourself a bit because they can just take their glasses off and start throwing them around if it’s not entertaining enough. But the kids I saw The Lion King with, they seemed to love it.”

As children filing in to the cinemas for The Lion King 3D will surely tuck the experience away in their fond memories of family movie outings, Isaacs sees the 3D conversions as more than a passing trend.

“I actually think 3D is going to be an aesthetic norm for children,” says Isaacs. “When I was eight I remember going to watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and at the end of that movie I was just overwhelmed. If 3D gives you that sensation as an eight year old, why would you even go to watch a 2D film? It would look like some debased, old-fashioned image in the same way that I struggle to get people to watch black and white movies. Like colour, 3D now appears to be that kind of thrill, or closer move towards reality. I mean, the normative move hasn’t happened yet but who knows in the future.”

When Rafiki catches a whiff of Simba in the breeze and declares “IT IS TIME!” the ideas of new beginning and change are unshakeable. Like the return of the young lion cub, fully grown and ready to take over the animal kingdom, it seems like 3D has developed into a production technique strong enough to define a generation’s experience of the cinema. As film-goers are enjoying The Lion King in its 3D make over as much as I did watching the VHS back in the early nineties, it will be interesting to see how successful the 2D to 3D trend will be in winning hearts and dollar figures until a new trend takes its place as King.

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