Few companies throughout the history of the world have been so shameless in their pursuit of the almighty dollar as the Walt Disney Company. After breaking the mold in 1934, Disney has never shied away from creative marketing and release strategies to wring every last dollar out of its most beloved pieces of intellectual property. Each week, we’ll look at the House of Mouse’s various sequels, prequels, spin-offs and various misadventures relegated from the silver screen to the small screen. Is there any artistic merit to be found? Or was each film mostly conceived as an excuse to print more money? Join me as we search for the answers from the wonderful world of Di$ney.
Why does this exist?
Who among us hasn’t wasted their nights away, A Beautiful Mind-style, wondering why a meerkat and a warthog are best friends? And who among us hasn’t pondered endlessly about the origins of their signature mantra, hakuna matata? Thankfully the folks at Disney were here to answer all of our questions in 2004 with The Lion King 1 ½. It had been six years — a lifetime in Disney years — since the release of Simba’s Pride, their biggest hit in the direct-to-video market.
As great as Simba, Nala, Mufasa and all the other main characters were in the original films, the secret ingredients were Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, who respectively voiced Timon and Pumbaa. The comic-relief characters not only added a jolt of levity to the heavy procedures of The Lion King but raised critical awareness for clueless kids that didn’t know that meerkats and warthogs were indeed real animals.
I’ve already discussed the original Lion King‘s tenuous relationship to Hamlet and how Simba’s Pride picked up with a more direct homage to Romeo and Juliet. Faced with that theme, the folks at Disney could have easily found another of the Bard’s famous plays on which to riff. But instead of straining another narrative through the works of Shakespeare, the filmmakers went in a different, more experimental direction. And the end result could be Disney’s most meta film ever made.
What’s going on here?
I can’t imagine that even the nerdiest kids in the early 2000s were familiar with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the Shakespearean satire from the 1960s that focuses on the side adventures of two minor characters from Hamlet. Admittedly, I only know of the work through indirect reference, so I found the gimmick to be a refreshingly meta take from the often closely plotted folks at Disney.
The film even goes a step further to open with Timon and Pumbaa literally watching and rewinding through the original tape, Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style, and providing occasional commentary. The Lion King 1 ½ serves as an origin story for the duo of Timon and Pumbaa, beginning with Timon’s early life before the events of the original film, when he was a screw-up outsider among the meerkat colony. He’s coddled by his mother (voiced by Marge Simpson herself, Julie Kavner) and derided by his uncle Max (Jerry Stiller), so he sets out on his own to make something of himself.
He soon crosses paths with Rafiki, who tells him to “look beyond what you see.” Of course, Timon interprets the advice literally and he ventures to Pride Rock, where he crosses paths with a kindly warthog. It’s disappointing that Pumbaa never gets the same backstory treatment as Timon; rather, the filmmakers lean hard into an off-color reference from the song “Hakuna Matata” to explain his origins.
No sooner do the two meet up than the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern comparisons come to the forefront, as it’s clear that Timon and Pumbaa begin indirectly affecting certain events from the original film. All the animals bowing to Simba as he’s held up on Pride Rock, the pile of animals falling during “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” and the wildebeest stampede are all presented as direct results of the duo’s accidental hijinks. There are new bits here and there, especially in the second half with Simba as he grows older. But The Lion King 1 ½ is mostly recycled material for everyone in 1994 that wondered, while watching one of the greatest American animated movies ever, “I wonder what Timon and Pumbaa are up to right now?”
How much of the original is preserved?
This section is practically irrelevant for this entry because of the very nature of the film itself. It literally repurposes footage from the original, including most of the songs and dialogue. It’s definitely a smart gamble on Disney’s part: Here’s a way to produce a new film without having to shell out for at least half of the animation, music and voice acting while still charging full price for the product.
Outside of Timon and Pumbaa, there are some original bits of dialogue from Matthew Broderick as Simba, but it mostly comes from tertiary actors like Whoopi Goldberg and Robert Guillaume. Disney has always tried to give its audiences more of what it thinks they want with their sequels by expanding the cutesy / comedic side characters. The Lion King 1 ½ may be the first instance where Disney gave the reigns over to them entirely. The Rosencrantz angle mostly works, especially for people that are unfamiliar with the bit, but wears a little thin by the end of the film — which only gets to 82 minutes with credits.
Does this ruin the original film?
The “theatrical viewing” bit, with Timon and Pumbaa watching and commenting on the film, is an inspired choice that didn’t even need to be included. Rather, the film could have simply opened with Timon’s early life and evolved naturally into what was already planned for the film.
The DVD reportedly features a dearth of special features, revealing that Disney went all-out to put out a worthwhile product, including a riff on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire featuring Meredith Vieira. As they tended to do, Disney re-released the film on DVD and Blu-ray and bundled it with the other two in the trilogy. I could never see myself shelling out the big bucks to own them all (although I’ll always be an advocate for physical media over streaming). But because of the creative angles the series has taken, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose this franchise over any other that we have covered — or will cover — in this column.
- Next Time:
Me: “The voice cast for Mulan II, which features BD Wong, Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Harvey Fierstein and George Takei can’t possibly be bad, can it?”
**Narrator Voice**: It definitely can.