Meta humor is a lot like blue comedy: it’s an easy, surefire way to get a laugh, but if you want to make more than the lowest common denominator giggle, and/or want the joke to endure for longer than a sub-par meme, you need to be clever about it. Breaking the fourth wall and other such metatextual scenarios have been prevalent in all media since time immemorial, but it certainly wasn’t a joke used that often. Movies like Monty Python and the Holt Grail and Deadpool are two of the most famous examples of quality meta humor, showing the value in a well-written movie’s delivery with jokes that break the fourth wall and critique the medium itself.
But if there’s one animated Disney movie that has arguably the least potential to be meta (The beloved It’s a Small World joke from Zazu notwithstanding), it’s 1994’s The Lion King. Treated like a grand nature documentary at times, the animals in the movie are as far removed from human influence as Bambi was, even more so than the beatnik affect of Baloo and King Louie in The Jungle Book. However, The Lion King did have the honor of being compared to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And because Timon and Pumbaa are Simba’s hedonistic friends with little to do but assist the main character, it’s not hard to see the similarities they share with Hamlet’s buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
In 1966, Tom Stoppard staged his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and it became a prominent piece about metatheater, absurdism, and existentialism. The title characters are Hamlet’s friends, who play minor roles in the bard’s play, but Stoppard’s work has their shenanigans front and center, as though they were just killing time between their moments on stage. Not as the actors waiting in the wings, but when their function pertaining to Hamlet and his dilemma is pretty much the only reason they exist. After all, their significance is so minimal that they’re killed offstage because Hamlet doctored a letter demanding they be executed, and an English ambassador is the one who utters the line that became the film’s title.
So how do Timoncrantz and Pumbenstern avoid death? Come crash colloquially with these Kenyan companions! This is The Lion King 1 1/2…or, if you’re outside the United States, The Lion King 3: Hakuna Matata.
The plot: Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) are watching the 1994 film, Mystery Science Theater 3000 style, when the former quickly grows bored and fast forwards to where they entered the film. Eventually the two decide instead to go back “before the beginning”, and show where Timon came from, how he met up with Pumbaa, and what they were doing during the movie when the cameras weren’t directly on them.
Timon apparently struggled to fit in in his meerkat colony, with only his Ma (Julie Kavner) supportive of his efforts, and his Uncle Max (Jerry Stiller), who is barely tolerant of his ineptitude. But when Timon fails at sentry duty and hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings) attack, Timon resigns to fate and sets out on his own to find life without worry. He meets a certain wacky mandrill/baboon (Robert Guillaume) who calls Timon’s destination “Hakuna Matata” and tells him it lies beyond what he sees. Taking this literally, He sets off to find this paradise, welcoming a certain warthog primarily due to needing protection from predators. From there on out, the duo travel in search of Hakuna Matata until a certain lion cub (Matt Weinberg/Matthew Broderick) winds up in their proverbial laps.
How’s the writing?: I’ve gone on tangents before about how in their series, Timon & Pumbaa, how their traits were reduced to their less attractive qualities.
But something special happened here. It’s like the writers suddenly realized, “Hey, Timon’s not just some snarky con man, and Pumbaa’s not just some dim-witted genius with a tendency to ramble…hey have nuance!” And what’s better, the story works with that nuance.
Despite the DVD box art, this movie is primarily Timon’s, with an arc about being happy with who he is. I get Timon’s struggle: in a society where you try your damnedest to do what you’re tasked with, but it rarely works out. You do what you’re asked (digging a hole, standing watch), and you make do by putting your own zest into it to keep it interesting (Making it a skylight, choreographing a song and dance routine out of it), only to have it fall apart completely (The tunnels collapse, hyenas attack during a momentary lapse in attention), and everyone around you declares you a pariah. It’s not that he’s dumb or inept, he’s just a unique person whose enthusiasm and desire to embrace beyond the mundanity surpasses his ability to focus on simple, necessary tasks.
Timon leaves not because he’s spurning his society, but because he truly feels there’s little else it can offer him, and doesn’t even leave until his mother accepts his resolution. His goals are pretty vague, but he knows what he doesn’t want. This way, it doesn’t feel like he’s running away or otherwise leaving for the wrong reasons. His story culminates into being happy with himself, and even brings Ma, Uncle Max, and the rest of the colony into his life of Hakuna Matata. While Timon has his selfish moments, he proves he is ultimately a selfless person, and that’s something the animated series missed entirely.
The framing device works. The gags work. The character moments work. The story works. Frankly, there’s very little about it that doesn’t work. And considering the first film was a daunting act to follow and the second one was much easier, that’s a pretty impressive feat.
Does it give the feels?: In a way, sure. I feel like a lot of writers forget to add an element of emotion when they write their buddy adventures. Here are two examples from two of my favorite shows; Psych and Scrubs.
In Scrubs, J.D. and Turk had been besties only since college, but every time they meet, they hug, to the point where characters were constantly ribbing at their closeness as borderline homosexual (It was the early aughts.). They had some deep, intimate connections through their passions and interests, and they almost never fought as a result. Even though their personalities weren’t a perfect match, they helped and supported each other.
In contrast, in Pysch, Shawn and Gus have been close since early grade school. But despite various passions, it’s clear from the get-go these two get along by bickering incessantly. Their opposite traits only compensate for each other when they’re on cases, but almost never on their down time. I love these two and the show, but what irks me is how in every episode, they quibble and spar with each other, with limited emotional impact.
Timon and Pumbaa had been more like the latter for the ten years they had been around by the time this movie came out: just two buddies there purely to be the funny guys. But because the movie decided to establish their relationship, having these two just team up wasn’t going to cut it. So instead, they broke down the heartbreak Pumbaa endures from his loneliness and used it. At first, Timon accepts Pumbaa as a bodyguard, but comes to welcome him as a friend after they spend time together and Pumbaa shows how badly he needs someone like Timon.
Later on, their friendship is tested when Simba leaves, and the pair become split on how friends are to treat each other in Hakuna Matata, and at last we see just how much the two mean to each other, and it’s pretty special. Amplified even more when we switch to them in the theater, and the two hug.
Who makes it worth it?: For whatever reason, I’ve always loved Timon and this movie would have been something I would have loved to have seen as a kid. I even remember wanting to know why Timon was an outcast like Pumbaa, since it seemed pretty ambiguous why the meerkat was on his own. The closest I got was some text in a Lion King adaptation comic from Disney Adventures back on 1994 (Which, I later found out, was basically the deleted verse from the original draft of “Hakuna Matata”). Still, I loved his smart aleck nature, his one-liners, even his design, done by supervising animator Mike Surrey.
Timon is much more vulnerable here, as shown in his colony, where it’s clear he really cares, and he really wants to do right, but due to personality quirks out of his control, he just can’t adapt. Only after he strikes out solo and partners up with Pumbaa do we see him coming into his own, even when it’s obvious he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. There’s extra weight given in the third act when he bumps into Ma and Uncle Max, still dressed in his Hawaiian garb. By this point, Timon becomes more self-assured and focused, and even his mom seems to notice her boy has changed (I assume she thinks it’s for the better, but her ambiguous statement is just a setup for a uncle Max to point out her son is wearing a dress).
Best quality provided: I got hooked onto this movie back when it come out for one reason: the animation was gorgeous.
You have to understand: when these sequels were released by Disneytoon studios, the animation quality was almost always terrible. They were an animation studio used to animating television series, which meant a limited budget. A limited budget meant flat colors, less technical effects, stiffer (or looser) movement, and characters going off-model. Here’s Belle in the original 1991 classic:
And here’s a brief but noticeable frame found in Belle’s Magical World:
Yeah, the sequels often felt like a $5 knockoff at a discount bin. Even 1998’s The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride looked pretty meager compared to the grandiosity of its predecessor. But then comes this irreverent third entry, and its animation looks almost like it was made by the original studio! The character models were on point, the movement fluid and natural, the lighting and shading looking professionally done, and the colors had life.
Another thing I loved on my DVD was the inclusion of a hidden Mickey hunt. While hidden Mickeys and other Easter eggs in Disney films are the norm, this movie went the extra mile and stuck in 20 of them and made it a game for viewers. Words can’t describe just how passionate one has to be to beg to craft various tree shapes, cracks in the ground, and even stars into the shape of our mouse overlord.
Lastly, the curtain call at the end is beyond amazing. As they rewind the movie to watch again, Ma, Uncle Max, Simba, and Rafiki all pop in to do the same. Then some more colorful characters slip into the theater…and it’s a gallery of friends from various animated movies! Peter Pan, Belle and the Beast, Stitch, the Mad Hatter, Genie, Dumbo, Terk, and more pop up, as if it were an outtake from House of Mouse. Even my favorite bruin from Georgia pops in! Take that, naysayers!
What could have been improved: The third act needed some work, and sadly, I don’t have any suggestions on how to fix it.
First and foremost is the movie’s premise that Timon and Pumbaa were present at most notable event in the original film. After the pair do the hula bit, we don’t see them again until they bowl through a fracas, and then later they free Zazu and Pumbaa quotes Taxi Driver and In the Heat of the Night.
However, in the sequel, Timon and Pumbaa instead plan to distract Shenzi, Banzai, Ed, and other hyenas, and have Ma and Uncle Max build collapsible tunnels beneath the hyenas. The scene goes on for several minutes and contrasts what we know happened. Even if we allow some license in the ambiguous timetable of the climactic battle at Pride Rock, there is one very conflicting element. Timon and Pumbaa get Shenzi and the others’ attention as Simba rushes off to corner Scar. From then on, They have the hyena’s full attention, and don’t leave until the tunnels dump them away, and seconds – literally seconds – before Scar is thrown from the top of Pride Rock. If you recall in the first film, the trio just happened to eavesdrop on Scar when he blamed them during Simba’s confrontation. More to the point, they apparently were already lingering on the ground when Scar fell, so they could corner him and…well, you remember. Not, as this movie suggests, that they were suddenly dumped there.
I guess this could be seen as nitpicking. And that’s fair. The movie’s priority is to tell a good story first, but the entire premise is that everything in this movie happens concurrently with the original movie. But what’s funny is…the movie does such a good job setting up and paying off Timon’s arc and the story progression with his family that it’s completely forgivable if you never caught on. How can I be upset at this movie for having what is essentially a minor oversight if the end result is a well-executed third act? It’s like getting mad about the exhaust port logistics of Star Wars.
Verdict: Disney sequels reek of cheapness as the company clearly just wanted to shell out as many as possible as fast as possible, and most of them suck. But Lion King 1 1/2 was not one of them. The writing is funny, the story is great, the animation is beautiful, and it stands strong on its own even though it needs viewers to have knowledge of the 1994 movie in order to understand it. Without a doubt, this one is my favorite of the DTV sequels because there was clearly passion and fun put into this. I give this one a resounding eight digga tunnahs out of ten.
I guess if you’re gonna watch The Lion King all over again in a different movie, might as well watch it with commentary and animals that can emote, right?