Lion King 1 1/2 Makes Sense If You Were Raised on Home Video

The team behind the straight-to-DVD movie banged on the wall between Disney feature animation and…

Lion King 1 1/2 Makes Sense If You Were Raised on Home Video

The team behind the straight-to-DVD movie banged on the wall between Disney feature animation and Disneytoon Studios until a perfect sequel fell out.
Photo: Disney

In 1994, Disney premiered a cartoon spinoff series of its two-year-old hit, Aladdin, understanding the Pandora’s box (cave of wonders?) the show would open. In lieu of kicking it off with a few episodes bridging the events of the movie and those of the spinoff, its directors pitched an idea: string the first episodes together into a “movie” and release it on VHS before the series premiere. Home video had become a reliable moneymaker for Disney. Its ’92 rerelease of 101 Dalmatians and initial home release of Beauty and the Beast were two of the best-selling VHSs of all time (they would soon be surpassed by Aladdin). Disney shrouded these films in an air of prestige and rarity, nesting them under its “Classics Collection” or “Masterpiece Collection,” and releasing them from the “Disney Vault” for a limited time only.

But The Return of Jafar was neither prestigious nor rare, and wasn’t given the “Classics” imprimatur. Execs were unenthusiastic about the concept. It was Disney’s first-ever direct-to-video animated sequel, and it looked and sounded like it. (More cheaply made than Disney’s other releases, it had to get Dan Castellaneta to sub in for Robin Williams.) Yet it grossed $100 million domestic on a $3.5 million budget, and so Disney embraced the straight-to-video sequel. For the next 15 years, the studio churned them out for every property it could, as improbable as their premises sounded: Bambi II explored Bambi’s troubled relationship to his absent father; a Mulan sequel gave us an Eddie Murphy–less follow-up all about her wedding plans. One high point — sandwiched between Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World and Hercules: Zero to Hero — was Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, a worthy follower that matched the ’94 original’s Shakespearean self-import with its own Romeo & Juliet generational-conflict story and capitalized on a formula that worked: songs by Lebo M. and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, beautiful scenery, a sense of grandeur.

But that’s not Disney’s most impressive straight-to-video sequel. Because five years after that, and ten years after The Lion King hit theaters and The Return of Jafar hit stores, Disney made a straight-to-video sequel so irreverent, so formally playful, so queer, and so full of fart and booger jokes. It’s the animated home video that questioned what it meant to be a home-video sequel. It’s 2004’s The Lion King 1 ½. 

Not quite a spinoff and not quite a prequel, 1 ½ is technically a midquel, taking place during the events of the first film, presented from Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa’s (Ernie Sabella) point of view. If Lion King was positioned as Disney’s Hamlet, 1 ½ is its Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It uses the same high-postmodernist approach as Tom Stoppard’s play, taking advantage of its audience’s familiarity with the source text in order to parodize and build on it — only in this case, the audience was unsupervised children and the great text of dramaturgical canon was Disney IP. For all the seriousness with which Disney treated this particular franchise — think of how Lion King’s release lined up so perfectly with yuppiedom’s “world music” boom; think of the Julie Taymor play and its grasps at cultural “authenticity” — The Lion King 1 ½ refracted those images into something wholly silly. It drew constant attention to not only its own cartoonishness but to its status as a DVD movie.

In a characteristically cheeky making-of featurette, producer George Mendoza says the team worked on the film for four years, placing the start of its development around 1999, the year after the successful release of The Lion King II, and during the final year of Walt Disney Television Animation’s three-season Daytime Emmy–winning Timon & Pumbaa cartoon. “When I was offered [the project], it was called Lion King 3 at the time. We didn’t even have a script yet,” says Lion King 1 ½ director Bradley Raymond. “The concept came from, if I’m not mistaken, Tom Schumacher, who was head of Feature Animation at the time. It was his concept: What if we retell Lion King through the eyes of Timon and Pumbaa? Which I thought was a brilliant idea.”

By 2004, Walt Disney Feature Animation was in a slump. 1 ½ was released on DVD between critical flops Brother Bear and Home on the Range. Roy E. Disney had dramatically left the company the year before, and he wanted Michael Eisner out. But far removed from the doom and gloom was Disneytoon Studios, a separate division strictly devoted to the business of making direct-to-DVD sequels. (And it literally was far, far removed: Disneytoon worked out of a studio in Australia.) “We knew we were doing sequels to the features,” Raymond recalls. “Our relationship with feature animation was we didn’t interact with them day-to-day, but they gave us all the information, model sheets, and any kind of artwork.”

Prior to 1 ½, Raymond directed the sequels to Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame. Directing a Disney sequel, he says, requires engaging with the source text like a fan — or more aptly, a Disney Adult. “I loved all of the features of the movies I directed sequels to, so it was fun to get to know the different artists and animators and producers to find out what was in their heads, and what other ideas they had that we might be able to use.” This happens fairly often in Disney sequels — storyboard sequences getting scrapped at the animatic stage only to be repurposed for later films. “There was a song that was left over from Lion King called ‘Warthog Rhapsody.’ It was written by Elton John. We were lucky enough to be able to listen to the demo,” Raymond says, “and then we got Tim Rice to come in and write lyrics to it using the same music, and he just fit the lyrics into what Timon’s ‘I Want’ song was.”

The end result is “That’s All I Need,” an extended riff on Lion King’s own “I Want” song, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” This is how much of the plot goes, re-creating the first movie’s story beats, and then undercutting by way of Nathan Lane’s wisecracking, cowardly Timon. In place of Mufasa’s “everything the light touches” speech, Timon’s mother tells him, “Everything the light touches … belongs to someone else.” The original Lion King is relegated to the B-plot, becoming the background texture to a friendship origin story: Here, Timon is an outcast in his meerkat colony who leaves home to find a place to himself somewhere else in the savannah. He meets Pumbaa, they quasi-adopt Simba, and their ensuing personal journeys take place concurrent to the events of The Lion King (and affect them in unexpected ways).

The movie is a remix as much as it is a sequel in how it inserts its characters and sensibility into an earlier movie, Back to the Future Part II–style, adding new context to moments like the “Circle of Life” opening scene (the animals are only “bowing” to Baby Simba because Pumbaa farted in the back row and everyone collapsed). “We used actual footage from Lion King, so it wasn’t that we were re-creating those scenes,” says Raymond. “We had brilliant animators and a creative artistic team to make sure it smoothly transitioned from our sheets to their sheets.”

DVD-ness is central to Lion King 1 ½’s visual style, set up as it is like an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, with Timon and Pumbaa’s familiar silhouettes in the foreground at times, commenting on their own movie as it unfolds. According to Raymond, it was original Lion King director Roger Allers who came up with the MST3K framing. “What if we just kind of broke the fourth wall by having Timon and Pumbaa actually watching it? It was so mind-blowing. Head of Feature Animation Tom Schumacher was there, and he was like, ‘That’s a great idea.’ But if I had thought of that idea on my own, privately, I would have been like, no way am I even gonna mention that, because it was so unique and different.”

Watching themselves onscreen, the characters pause, rewind, and scrub through scenes from the original film to land on parts they want to watch. They squabble over the remote. During “Hakuna Matata,” they turn on a “sing along” feature. The gags immediately make sense to a young audience raised on home video, who themselves fight with siblings over the remote and fast-forward to the “good parts.” It engaged with the quirks of its own materiality in a way that feels rare for a Disney feature; if anything, it brings to mind early Fleischer animations and how characters would hop out of the inkwell to toy with their cel animators.

The best of these gags takes place during a tense part: The hyenas are in pursuit of a meerkat relative of Timon’s, moments away from eating him. Just as they snap at his tail, we see TV static, and the movie cuts out into a live-action QVC segment of two ladies selling purses. Pumbaa was sitting on the controls. Even in the movie’s most heightened moments, it reminds the viewer that they’re staring at this film on their home television, one button click away from the shopping network. Not only does 1 ½ shift the perspective on the Lion King story; it shifts the young viewer’s perspective on what it means to watch a movie. As far as Raymond recalls, this was the first use of a live-action clip as a gag in a Disney film, making it an especially effective and surprising fourth-wall break.

Lion King 1 ½ constantly pokes the fourth wall from there, humor spilling out into every part of the viewing experience, from the DVD menu to its bonus features (written in part by one of the movie’s screenwriters, Tom Rogers). If the film’s premise didn’t establish its own artifice clearly enough, fans could turn to a game called “Virtual Safari 1.5”, a ride simulation in which the characters from the film travel through a Disneyland-style dark ride recounting the events of Lion King 1 ½ — a sly parody of the sorts of Disney rides and video games that are multimedia sequels themselves. And why is it called “Virtual Safari 1.5”? Because the bonus feature itself is a sequel to a bonus feature on the Lion King DVD.

The Lion King 1 ½ was a success for Disney, selling a very fitting one-and-a-half million units in its first week of sales in February 2004. By March, it was the best-selling home video of the year, causing Disney’s then-humble home-video division president and now-CEO of a globe-spanning media megaconglomerate Bob Chapek to say, “As Disney continues to lead the way in this genre, it’s no wonder The Lion King 1 ½ has become a benchmark in the growing phenomenon of family DVD.” By the end of the year, 1 ½ was 2004’s 11th-highest grossing home video, and the only one of the top 25 made directly for home viewing. Shrek 2, another sardonic, meta-humor, Disney-spoofing animated sequel, took the top spot. But it had a $150 million budget and a summer theatrical run.

1 ½ came out at a bust time for Disney features, but a boom time for Disneytoon Studios — 47 of these VHS/DVD movies were made between 1994 and 2018, when the studio finally shut down following John Lasseter’s departure that same year. The resource and prestige gap between Disney’s cinematic and home-video productions seems quaint almost four years later, given how a majority of film viewers prefer to stream new releases at home and movies made by home-viewing platforms win Oscars. Streaming is partially to blame for the death of baby-millennial/Gen-Z childhood entertainment like 1 ½; parents subscribe to Disney+ for its library of content rather than pay to own or rent DVDs. (I wonder if iPad babies even know how to use remotes, or if that screen-static cutaway joke makes any sense to them.) Gone are the movies that confidently veered into their own oddness, taking all the features of a DVD and turning them into bugs. Which, in Timon and Pumbaa–speak, are a good thing.

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Disney’s last direct-to-video sequel, Little Mermaid 3, came out in 2008. After that, the studio released the Planes movies (not a sequel to Cars, just a similar premise but for planes) and the Tinker Bell movies (not really a straight sequel to Peter Pan) as looser property extensions.

The film was also released on VHS as this was the tail end of the cassette era; the studio would stop releasing VHS tapes altogether two years later.

Raymond recounts how the team came up with that particular joke, settling on the most “out of the world” channel they could cut to in the heat of the story. “We didn’t tell anybody about it, and then we had another screening. We set up the conference room and the VHS, and everyone’s kind of in the room watching while you’re doing it. You’re setting up the channels and getting our VCR ready to go. As we were watching it, when we got to that point, one of our big executives started looking around like, Who pushed the button? And that’s when we knew it worked. It broke everybody out of it, and it was really funny.”