It's become all too fashionable these days to hate on 3D movies. And not completely without good reason. Many films use the technology merely as a vacuous gimmick to jack up ticket prices, and just as many more employ a relatively inexpensive post-production conversion process that can result in an image that's dim and/or distractingly cluttered. I don't consider myself an advocate of 3D movies, BUT I do make a point of championing those of them that use their medium effectively. To that end, if you must pay the extra three bucks to wear those silly glasses to any movie this year, make sure it's for The Lion King 3D, a magnificent exemplar of the potential effectivity of the post-conversion process, and indeed, for 3D in general.
It's important to point out that the skillful technicians with whom Disney have entrusted their beloved property aren't reinventing the wheel here. The storyboard design of the original 2D print already made striking use of depth of field to evoke various settings, be it the vast savanna, the claustrophobic elephant graveyard, dense jungles, gaping canyons, etc. The 3D is used to spatially define and embellish these environs – in ways the 2D layout could only come close to doing – with awe-inspiring results. It also brings into the foreground animated effects such rain, steam, fire, and smoke, adding further to the sense of space.
More impressively, the 3D makes remarkable enhancements to the kinetics of the visuals. In 1994, clever cell animation techniques could implicate common camera movements like panning, tracking, pushing in, pulling out, and circling, but the shots were still composed of flat cells layered on top of one another. The application of the third dimension brings life to these simulated camera movements as though they were photographing cartoon characters on a three-dimensional set rather than drawings on a table. Particularly of note is the dynamically complex wildebeest stampede, which I vividly remember causing my hairs to stand on end when first saw it at age seven, and which is possibly even more hair-raising in its 3D incarnation.
If I sound like I'm high on 3D all of a sudden, take it all with a grain of salt. The truth is that I'm high on the movie itself. Even without the optical trickery, who wouldn't pay $14.50 for the chance to revisit this classic in its proper big screen format? The story is indelible, written with wit and a sincere attention to character, always keeping an even-keeled balance between comedy and dramatic heft. Perhaps the fact that it borrowed so much of said dramatic heft from Shakespeare partially explains how The Lion King has managed to retain so much of its emotional potency. I've seen the film dozens of times since its auspicious debut in the summer of '94, but didn't think that sixteen years later I'd still start to get misty as soon as Simba began ascending Pride Rock at the end. Sometimes it takes the immersive power of the cinema to remind one of a movie's ability to transport, engage, and connect with a viewer.
The bottom line is that the bells and whistles of 3D technology are no substitute for a damn good movie, but in this case, we can be thankful and appreciative that those bells and whistles are playing along in perfect tune with the main attraction.
**** out of ****