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Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff look back on the making of Disney's "The Lion King"

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Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff look back on the making of Disney's "The Lion King"

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You did hear the big news yesterday, right? That -- on the heels of the phenomenal success of "The Lion King 3D" (which blew through the $80 million barrier at the domestic box office yesterday afternoon)  -- Walt Disney Studios is now planning limited theatrical engagements for four other animated features. What's more, these movies -- for the first time ever - will be screened in 3D.

The quartet of classics which have been tapped for 3D treatment are:

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Mind you, none of this would have been possible if the 3D version of "The Lion King" hadn't turned into a box office phenomenon once it was released to theaters back on September 16th.

"I originally heard (that the Studio was) estimating something in the range of 12 million. When (the 3D version) topped 30 million (over its first weekend in theaters), I was shocked and amazed but also very pleased," said "The Lion King" co-director Rob Minkoff. "It's nice that audiences still love the movie."

Of course, what's kind of ironic about all this is that - when this Academy Award-winner first went into production back in October of 1991 - there wasn't a whole lot of love at the Mouse House when it came to this particular production. As Minkoff recently recalled at a virtual roundtable (which was held last month to help promote the Diamond Edition of "The Lion King," which was released on Blu-ray & DVD yesterday), this animated feature - which was originally called "King of the Jungle" - was not well regarded around the Studio.

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"When Jeffery Katzenberg announced that the studio would be split in two to make two films simultaneously, many of the top animators wanted to work on 'Pocahontas' instead of 'The Lion King,' " Rob explained. " Jefferey had deemed 'Pocahontas' the home run and 'The Lion King' the risk."

Which - to Roger Allers (i.e. Minkoff's co-director on "The Lion King")'s point of view - actually turned out to be a good thing. Given it that it then gave a lot of newer animators at the Studio a chance to step up to leadership roles on their film.

"(This production gave) some really deserving young animators their chance to lead a character. Tony Bancroft (Pumbaa), Mike Surrey (Timon), James Baxter (Rafiki) are all brilliant guys," Roger said "We lucked out!"

Mike Surrey and Tony Bancroft on the cover of "Storyboard:
The Art of Laughter" magazine

The lucky breaks continued when folks at the Studio suggested Allers & Minkoff approach lyricist Tim Rice (who was just coming off working on "Aladdin" at that time) and see if he'd be interested in writing some songs for "The Lion King." Tim not only sparked to the idea of working with Roger & Rob, he also had a very interesting suggestion when it came to who should be handling the music on this animated feature.

"It was Tim who suggested Elton (John) for the job," Minkoff continued. "(Then we landed Hans Zimmer to handle the 'Lion King' 's score. And) Hans really brought the movie to life via the music. It was his ability to combine authentic African flavor that really made ("The Lion King") come to life musically. It was a terrific collaboration."

Now where this gets interesting is - when "The Lion King" first went into production - it wasn't supposed to be the sort of movie that would feature spiritual songs like "The Circle of Life" and love ballads like "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."

Elton John and Tim Rice at the time of their "Lion King" collaboration.
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"Originally it was thought of as a Bambi in Africa. More true life adventure than mythical epic," Rob remembered. "But when Roger and I finally got together on it we imbued it with the more spiritual elements that are a hallmark of the film."

Allers backed up Minkoff's memory of the early, early versions of "The Lion King."

"We wanted to do an animal picture based in a more natural setting. A story that dealt with the issue of taking on the responsibility of adulthood," Roger said. " ('The Lion King' 's) similarity to Hamlet was noticed only after we had come up with the story structure and had been working on it for a while."

Rob Minkoff (L) and Roger Allers at the premiere of Walt Disney
Studios' "The Lion King 3D" at the El Capitan Theater on
August 27, 2011. Photo by Kevin Winter / Getty Images
North America. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Which - I know - sounds kind of weird. But Rob insisted that this particular behind-the-scenes story is true.

"When we first pitched the revised outline of the movie to Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher, someone in the room announced that Hamlet was similar in its themes and relationships," Minkoff stated. "Everyone responded favorably to the idea that we were doing something Shakespearean. So we continued to look for ways to model our film on that all-time classic."

Which turned out to be a somewhat problematic production model. Since "Hamlet" is one of those Shakespeare tragedies where virtually every character dies in the end. Which obviously wasn't going to work when it came to the storyline of this family-friendly animated feature.

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"(Which is why Roger and I) found ourselves constantly re-balancing ("The Lion King") to make sure there were enough comic elements to lighten the mood after the tragedy of Mufasa's death," Minkoff said. "Timon and Pumbaa really came along at the right time to give the film a lift and make it a more satisfying whole."

The end result is an animated feature that not only wowed crowds back in 1994 but has now been winning over audiences once again in 2011 thanks to "The Lion King" 's new 3D version.

And if you'd like to learn more about how this acclaimed animated feature originally came together, then you should definitely consider picking up a copy of the Diamond Edition of "The Lion King." Which features delightful special features like "Pride of the Lion King," this 36 minute-long visit with the crew of this animated feature. Not to mention "The Lion King: A Memoir," where producer Don Hahn looks back on the often tumultuous production of this feature-length animated film.

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Getting back to yesterday's news (i.e. that - on the back of "The Lion King" 's recent box office success - Walt Disney Studios will soon be releasing 3D versions of several classic Disney & Pixar animated features), what was the secret behind the "Lion King" 's super-popular translation from 2D to 3D?

"We screened the movie without sound, watching for the scenes of greatest potential, and called them out to someone who was furiously taking notes," Roger admitted. "Rob, Don Hahn and I also watched the 2D version to determine which scenes could be pushed in 3D to enhance the storytelling and emotional content."

Well, here's hoping that the folks who are handling the 3D translations of Disney's "The Little Mermaid"  and Pixar's "Finding Nemo" & "Monsters, Inc." actually follow Allers & Minkoff's playbook. So that the Studio can then enjoy even more "Lion King"-sized box office returns when it comes to these upcoming 3D releases.

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  • I'm afraid I feel that the reason that this re-release garnered so much reward was not the 3-D conversion, but the film itself. It is a beloved classic, and I know many people that lamented that it wasn't coming back out in 2-D in their theater.

    Don't get me wrong, the 3-D conversion was... well, serviceable. It was really well done in the larger landscape shots, but in most of the movie it didn't have so much impact. Going into films like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, I imagine there will be even less impact; those films are on a smaller scale than The Lion King in general.

    How it will work with the Pixar films is another matter entirely. I can picture Finding Nemo really benefiting from the conversion, as all CG animated films I've seen in 3-D have demonstrated the best aspects of the technology - that of creating a three dimensional space.

    Just a couple of my musings. To summarize: don't think the conversion is really all that wonderful an idea for the 2-D films (they should just re-release them normally), but looking forward to seeing the Pixar films in a new dimension.

  • One really only needs think of the scenes in these movies to imagine what they'd look like in 3D.

    Ariel swimming at the "camera" during the "Part of their world" number, Beauty and the Beast's ballroom scene, the door-ride sequence from the end of Monster's Inc, and any scene in Nemo in which the characters bob and float around whilst completely in-frame (so, 90% of it.)

  • I can't believe Beauty & the Beast 3D still hasn't got an American release yet! It was released in Australian cinemas, I kid you not, over a year ago!

    There's a slight inaccuracy in this article. I listened to an interview with Tim Rice recently, and he said something along the lines of, "Aladdin was never really my project. I was working on Lion King when Howard died, and they were just lucky I was around, they just asked really nicely if I could put some lyrics together for the last couple of Aladdin songs, which I did." (That's paraphrased, obviously, but it was something like that) So he was working on Lion King first.

  • I think Nathan raises a good question.  What if they could have raised $80 million (or more) by just re-releasing the "plain old" 2D version, and without having to go through the conversion process?  it would be a bad idea to jump to conclusions about what was the driver here.  It seems like it's at least worth a test...

  • Well, they do have some 2D numbers for comparison purposes but maybe it's that a straight rerelease isn't enough when most of the audience owns a copy of the movie already?

  • how do i contact roger allers

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