Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Lion King Then and Now

I was 10 years old in 1994 and still new to the awesome concept of double features. I had been to one the previous year, seeing Free Willy with my parents and sister at a 99-cent hole-in-the-wall movie theater in Margate, Florida, the Margate Twin, it was called, according to this article from 1991 ( I remember that the concession stand was such tight space, with the entrance to theater 1 right as you walked in, and theater 2 merely a few feet away. It closed that same year we went, so my family and I must have been a few of the last patrons. We were nearly the only ones in theater 1.

Our intention had been to only see Free Willy, but I wanted to see Heart and Souls as well, which was being shown after, and I somehow convinced my parents, during Free Willy's end credits, to stay for it. The plot, about a man inhabited at various times by his childhood guardian angels, didn't matter. Nor did Robert Downey, Jr. or Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard or Kyra Sedgwick. In fact, I didn't even know who any of them were, though David Paymer, who played the bus driver, is now one of my favorite judges on The Good Wife (Denis O'Hare, as Judge Charles Abernathy, is the other). I just wanted to sit through another movie. To see two movies in one day sounded like a good deal.

Heart and Souls was fairly decent, and the physical comedy Robert Downey, Jr. employed when he was inhabited by his guardian angels was entertaining, but it mattered nothing compared to the double feature we went to in 1994. I remember explicitly the ad for it from Walt Disney Pictures in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in July: "Come for Angels in the Outfield, stay for The Lion King." The theater closest to us was the GCC (General Cinema Corporation) Coral Square Cinema 8 in Coral Springs, not far from our condo. And we had to get tickets in advance, because no way there would be empty seats for this. And as we pulled into the parking lot on the evening of the double feature, either one or two Saturdays before Angels in the Outfield was released on July 15, I saw a sign taped to the admissions window that announced that it was sold out. And this wasn't the relatively organized sold-out we know today by way of stadium seating. There was no stadium seating back then. Right up to the screen and all the way to the back, the seats were at the same height. And the theaters seemed bigger as a result, or maybe it was just my sense of perception at that age. But I had been to GCC many, many times during their summer movie program with Mom and then-five-year-old Meridith, usually the first ones to arrive before the theater opened for that business in the morning. They showed Hook and Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (from 1977), to name the two that I can remember. I also remember, after one particular showing, walking out of the theater and seeing on the marquee (and these were paper marquees, not digital), the logo for In the Line of Fire, which was rated R, and so I couldn't see it, but I was always curious about it, and in later years, it tied in nicely into my interest in the presidents, real and fictional, as it was about a cunning assassin (John Malkovich) going after the president, and the Secret Service agent (Clint Eastwood), who had failed to save JFK, who was chasing him.

The concession stand at GCC was arranged in a circle, and we may have gotten popcorn and soda, but I don't remember. I just wanted to get into the auditorium, and it was very crowded. I think we were seated in the middle, but what mattered most was being there for this double feature. The last time I saw Angels in the Outfield was the first time, and I still remember Danny Glover, Christopher Lloyd, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and that Levitt was an orphan, and there was an adoption at the end, but that was it. I remember vividly the entire theater completely filled, kids and adults all around. And then, the rush.

The women's restroom on the left outside that particular theater, near the video games, and the men's restroom on the right, next to more video games, were completely crowded and there was a huge line while the reels for Angels in the Outfield were rewound and replaced with the reels for The Lion King. Yes, kids. Reels. They were run through projectors which shined light on each frame, which then appeared on the screen in motion, one right after the other. Freaky, huh?

(It says something about the advancements in technology today that I'm only 27 and I can already reminisce like this.)

My biggest excitement, just like the Free Willy/Heart and Souls double feature was that I was going to see a second movie! And it was the evening! And it was an animated Disney film, which, for us Disney fanatics, was pure joy. My favorite sequence of that particular showing was "I Just Can't Wait to be King." The vividness of the animation was so wonderful to see, so cheery, so much fun.

Now it's been 17 years since first seeing The Lion King, and in the ensuing years, I've owned it on VHS, seen it in IMAX, bought the 2-disc Platinum Edition DVD set, and yesterday, I saw it in 3D.

The Lion King 3D is a tribute to two sets of artists: Those who created it, and those who created the 3D effects for it based on what was there. And 3D technology is getting a lot better. Thus far, this is the pinnacle. The 3D for The Lion King brings the movie much closer to your eyes, giving you a much more personal experience. Despite an audience around you, it does feel like you're watching it on your own, that you're surrounded by it. And with it being so close to you, the original animation is much more noticeable. Timon and Pumbaa's paradise oasis is stunning, like you could dive into it yourself and live among the waterfalls and that deep green grass, laying there like they do, staring up at the stars.

When I saw The Lion King in 1994, and on VHS, and in IMAX, and on DVD, I didn't even notice shooting stars in the scene where Simba, much wiser, begins running back to Pride Rock. There they are, two of them, making you see how much these animators cared about making the best film possible. And not only did they do so, but so did the artists who created the 3D effects. The rain that washes over Pride Rock toward the end is so close to your eyes that you feel like you're almost caught up in it. Meridith told me that when she went to see Tangled, the rain effects ended right before they got close to you. These are very close, and they're why I wish Disney had not only released Beauty and the Beast 3D at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood for a week. That deserved a nationwide release too, and if Disney works it right, puts The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Tarzan in 3D, they may very well hit upon a profit goldmine. Imagine Tarzan tree-surfing in 3D. How about the instances in which Pegasus flies?

As Meridith and I left Edwards Valencia 12, after I met her after her showing of Dolphin Tale 3D, I told her that John Lasseter, the executive producer of this 3D edition, had better be smart and re-release Monsters, Inc. in 3D ahead of the 2013 release of its prequel, Monsters University. Can you imagine the climactic doors sequence in 3D? That screams bloody murder for 3D conversion! They've done it oh so very right with The Lion King, and now it's time for other Disney animation to get the same treatment. I would happily pay to see those in that form. It is the next generation of Disney entertainment, and The Lion King looked a lot better than Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The animation teams know how to use 3D much better. And based on The Lion King being #1 at the box office for the second weekend, it's time to give the animation division carte blanche on converting past movies into 3D. It works. Now it's time for more.