Thursday, 28 April 2011
The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride
Disney’s sequels don’t have a reputation for being high-quality stuff. Disneytoon would churn these things out, and other than a watchable sequel for Aladdin, they were – and are – pretty dire. But TLK2, although of course nothing to the original, has a fond place in my heart as, for me, the most impressive direct-to-video sequel Disney ever made.
Two things make The Lion King II distinct, in my view: the first is Shakespeare, and the second Lebo M. The former because as a sequel to a film that took many of its cues from Hamlet, this one drew from Romeo and Juliet, and the latter because several of the songs were not actually written for this film at all, and thus stand alone better than might be expected from songs for a direct-to-video animation.
Let’s look at this historically. After the huge success of The Lion King in 1994, a CD was released by Disney of songs that were inspired by the film but not part of its soundtrack. All of the tracks but one (by Elton John but cut from the film) were written or interpreted (or both) by Lebo M, who was responsible for the Swahili segments in the original film, including the famous opening to ‘The Circle of Life’. This CD, released in early 1995, was called Rhythm of the Pride Lands. Several of the standout tracks made their way onto the soundtrack of the Broadway adaptation of the film, which opened in 1997, including the original ‘One by One’ and the hauntingly beautiful ‘Lea Halalela’, based on one of Hans Zimmer’s themes, which with English lyrics by the stage version’s director Julie Taymor would become the superb ‘Shadowlands’.
‘He Lives In You’ was the standout original composition. As well as being in the musical (twice), it opens the sequel, echoing the role of ‘The Circle of Life’, which was always going to be a hard act to follow. The rest of the film’s songs are either somewhat mindless, like the sappy ‘Love Will Find a Way’ or the extremely cheesy but eventually rich ‘We Are One’, or character-driven, like the enjoyably overblown ‘My Lullaby’ and ‘He Is Not One of Us’ with all its silly ensemble voices. I’m sure getting Robert Guillaume to sing seemed a good idea in a board meeting, too, but in practice…it isn’t a highlight.
So that is the progression of the music from original to this, the 1998 sequel. I was very eager to get the VHS tape when it was released, pre-ordering and getting a poster and little toy Kiara for my efforts. I was part of the early Internet fandom at the time, in the days of dial-up and only about 10 kids in the school having an email address, so I was quite alone in my excitement, though managed to persuade some friends to be interested too. The film was not quite everything I’d hoped, but it pleased me, and I’d happily watch it again today – far more readily than I would The Lion King 1 ½.
The story is that the little lion baby we see at the end of the first film grows into playful cub Kiara. She is adventurous and smart, and in an act of rebellion against an overprotective Simba, sneaks into the Outlands. There she meets a cub called Kovu, child of the sinister Zira, who was exiled by Simba for supporting her beloved Scar. Kovu was fairly obviously conceptualised as Scar’s cub, but presumably because of romances between cousins (once removed) not being something Disney was keen to promote, he is suggested to be not related to Scar, but instead chosen by him as successor. Zira, along with her other cubs Nuka and the awesome Vitani (who sadly had several lines cut for release, which exist only as animated storyboards), plots to use Kovu to get close to Simba in order to get revenge, but where will Kovu’s loyalties ultimately lie?
The plot is no great piece of innovation, but it does allow for a nice developed cast, solid pacing and a strong climax. It does not have the stature, production values or smartness of the original, but few can have expected it to. Released shortly before Disney’s traditional animation department went into its 2000s slump, it could perhaps have had a little more heart and soul, but for what it is, it could certainly have been far, far worse and I for one rate it highly.