Double Feature: The Lion King (1994) and Prometheus (2012)

I’ve long been intrigued by the concept of the double feature. Common in movie theaters until television captured the eyeballs of the public the early 1950s (and nearly destroyed the film industry in the process), it essentially offered the public a chance to see two films for the price of one. But little thought actually went into the pairings, since the distribution mechanism of that period meant that the theater managers had to show whatever was available, generally an A-title and a B-title, the latter often a sweeping epic starring Francis the Talking Mule or Ma and Pa Kettle.

Today’s home theater fans can link any pair of movies together for a movie night, ranging from those with common themes (Das Boot and Crimson Tide, or perhaps Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous) to the bizarre (Jurassic Park and Gosford Park).

The pairing under review here has nothing in common aside from the fact that I bought both of them last week on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray at Best Buy. I already owned the standard Blu-ray version of both. Yes, the studios have enticed me yet again into buying my movies for the second time or, in the case of The Lion King, for the fourth time: the deluxe laserdisc boxed set, the DVD, the Blu-ray, and now the UHD Blu-ray! And freebees weren’t involved this time. Astonishingly, Disney didn’t promote this new UHD with review samples, perhaps assuming that 4K UHD is still relatively unknown to most consumers (even now, DVD titles outnumber standard Blu-rays by at least 5-1 in my local, small town Wal-Mart!).

A movie night pairing of these two films would certainly be odd, but they could each be paired with more suitable companions: The Lion King with any of the Disney hand-drawn animated features from the early 1990s, Prometheus with any of the Alien films to which it’s related, however obscurely. For an audience unfamiliar with any other films in the Alien franchise (where have they been!) I’d recommend the first Alien from 1979— though after 4+ hours of the Alien nation your guests will be unlikely to head home humming the scores.

But my reasons for buying these two films yet again was different for each of them. The Lion King was, for me, the best of Disney’s late 80’s to mid 90’s hand-drawn animation (justifiably dubbed a second Disney Golden age) before computers revolutionized the business. Yes, better even than Beauty and the Beast, the latter favored by most critics. In fact, Beauty and the Beast’s Best Film nomination at the 1991 Academy Awards so rattled the Academy that it thereafter relegated animated films to a separate award purgatory: Best Animated Feature Film. (To this day there’s still no award for best voice actor in an animated feature.)

Immediately after I loaded this new version into my player, watching on a 65-inch LG OLED display, my jaw dropped and didn’t fully recover until the movie was over. The resolution and colors were incredible and the HDR eye-popping. To quote the villain, Scar, the experience was to die for. Detail was also excellent, at least insofar as the hand drawn animation allows. Close-in detailing (such as, in this film, the lions’ fur) is difficult to render consistently in hand drawn animation from one frame to the next, so it was seldom seriously attempted prior to the transition to full computer animation.

The sound, redone here in Dolby Atmos (I listened to it in basic 5.1) still has a little of the edginess common to many early 90s productions. Some recent Disney films fare much better in this regard, the gorgeous soundtrack on Tangled being one of my favorites. But I’m splitting hairs here, most viewers will be thrilled by the sound on The Lion King, including its brilliant music score.

The only distraction was a lack of smooth motion, common to hand drawn animation and now more obvious when seen against what we’ve become accustomed to in the computer variety. That’s likely due to the reduced frame rate typically used in hand-drawn animation. This stood out even more when I re-watched part of the film on a bigger screen using a (pixel shifted) JVC 4K-capable projector.

But if you love this film as much as I do, and have 4K UHD-compatible gear, you’ll find this disc irresistible. Best Buy sells it in an exclusive steel case edition, but the movie itself should be identical no matter where you purchase it. But beware. At my Best Buy the price was the typical discount UHD price of $30, but I’ve seen it on Amazon for $45 or even more.

My only regret is that guests for movie nights often turn up their noses on animation in any form, even a classic. The “animation is just for kids” meme is a stronger pull than the greatness of any film—even one clearly inspired, as this one was, by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Prometheus couldn’t be a more different movie. It’s serious throughout and far from a classic, but I’ve used it frequently in equipment reviews to judge black level and shadow detail. In those regards this 4K UHD version is an even better tool. This time I watched it on a 96-inch (wide) screen using the above-mentioned JVC projector. I haven’t yet tried it on the smaller OLED display but have no doubt it will be as amazing there as well. Projectors can’t do HDR as well as flat screen sets, but I never felt deprived. The scenes in the caves on the alien planet were particularly striking. The bright highlights in the surrounding gloom, from flashlights to the lighting in and around space-suits’ helmets, popped in a way that the standard Blu-ray barely hints at.

The sound was as superb as on the original, though not noticeably different. DTS-HD Master Audio is the top option here, with neither Dolby Atmos nor DTS-X offered—a missed opportunity. But the price was right at Best Buy. Had it not been included on a rack full of reduced price UHD catalog titles I might never have grabbed it. The Lion King, however, was full price. Classic Disney titles are rarely discounted! The Lion King has also been adapted for the stage, and a live action film version is also scheduled for launch in 2019— though the latest trailers for it, available on-line, suggest that it's a computer generated remake rather than full live action.