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The Lion King:Disney Special Platinum Edition

Voices of Rowan Atkinson, Matthew Broderick, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Guillaume, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella. Directed by Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers. Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 (anamorphic). Two discs. Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French), 5.1 Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix (English), THX. 88 minutes. 1994. Walt Disney Vista Home Entertainment 62971. G. $29.99.

Picture ****
Sound ***
Film ***

Although Disney's admittedly wonderful Beauty and the Beast was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, the studio's The Lion King is quite possibly the best hand-drawn animated movie ever made. It was also the highest-grossing animated film of all time (until Finding Nemo passed it this summer). In the mid-1990s it appeared on VHS and laserdisc, including an exceptional four-LD, Deluxe CAV Letterbox Edition.

DVD fans have had to wait. In their usual deliberate fashion, the Disney powers that be elected to do one more theatrical re-release last year, including showings in IMAX theaters, presenting the film in an expanded "Special Edition." But finally, more than six years into the DVD revolution, The Lion King is on DVD. And it's spectacular.

The story is based on a timeless classic: Hamlet. The cub of a lion king is entangled in a family power struggle. Tragedy ensues. Years later, the grown cub fights to regain his rightful place and save his pride. Along the way he meets up with the sidekicks that have been classic features in Disney animated fare since Pinocchio's Jiminy Cricket. But the two here have become instant classics: Timon the meerkat and Pumba the warthog. The story never flags, the music is outstanding, and the animation is gorgeous, which only makes it more amazing that, as is revealed in the extras, this was originally intended as a "B"-level feature.

The video transfer is superb. The disc includes both the Special Edition mentioned above, and the original theatrical cut. You can choose to watch either. There isn't a huge difference; I prefer the original version. The colors are vivid, the image is sharp and detailed throughout, and there are no distracting artifacts or obvious edge enhancement.

According to the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), The Lion King was theatrically released in both 1.66:1 and 1.85:1 aspect ratios. But according to the same source, the US laserdisc releases were 1.80:1. As I write, the cover art for the DVD is not available to provide clarification, but Amazon.com states that it's 1.66:1. On a set with no overscan, that would mean thin but visible black bars at the sides. But there were no such bars on either of the displays on which I played it (a 51-inch Hitachi widescreen PTV and the Sharp XV-Z10000 DLP projector). While purists may wrinkle their brows about this, at no time did I sense that any important information was being cropped from the image, or that the composition looked wrong in any way.

When Disney re-released this film last year to IMAX theaters, it went back to the original elements and remixed the 5.1-channel sound. According to the extra features, that remix, combined with further processing, formed the basis for one of the audio tracks offered here: the Dolby Digital–based 5.1 Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix. What the sound crew appears to have done is to redirect more effects (good) and the primary non-ambient instrumental score (not so good, in my judgment) into the surrounds for a wraparound, in-the-orchestra sound. They've also effectively enhanced the bass and performed some additional equalization; the mix sounds less bright than the original. But for no apparent reason except perhaps to impress those listeners who think louder is better, the level of the new mix is 3–5dB higher than that of the original.

The more solid low end and better overall balance of the new mix—audible as a more cohesive soundfield across the front three speakers—work for me. On the other hand, the updated surround envelopment sometimes tries too hard, particularly with the film's exceptional music score; I prefer to be 15 feet away from an orchestra, surrounded by its ambience—not in the orchestra, surrounded by the instruments. But the new, more macho surround channels are tolerable, particularly if you use diffuse surround speakers, properly balanced. In any case, the sound on either track is respectable, but even the remix can't quite bring the result up to the level of more recent Disney and Disney-Pixar efforts such as Lilo & Stitch and Monsters, Inc.

The set is loaded with extra features, particularly disc 2. I have no complaints about these features, many of them aimed at adults, some at children (there's an interactive game called Virtual Safari)—only about the way they're organized. You can access them either from vertical icons (Story, Film, Stage, Virtual Safari, Music, Animals) or horizontal ones (one for each of the six continents). But there's a lot of repetition across the two approaches. I recommend following the continent route, then going through the vertical icons to spot-check for anything you might have missed.

Either way, it's like a treasure hunt. Under "Asia," for example, you'll find information on the stage production of The Lion King. The music is discussed under "Africa," while the sound design (and re-design) is found under "North America: Burbank." You'll either have fun with this or find it maddening. I longed for a single menu button labeled Play All, but it doesn't exist.

But these are quibbles. We've waited so long to have the film itself on DVD that nothing else about the set is really important. Now, bring on Aladdin! (It's scheduled, we're told, for this time next year.)—TJN

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