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‘The Lion King’ still delightful

Reviews: Special Edition offers games, insight into making of classic
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Mufasa, the patriarch of “The Lion King,” says at one point in the story, “We are all connected in the great circle of life.” That might be a disturbing notion if you’re looking around while standing in line at the motor vehicle bureau, but it makes profound sense within the context of this now classic feature by Disney. What sets “The Lion King” apart from most animated releases is its remarkable ability to impart life lessons without using a heavy hand while at the same time treating you to a fun ride.

Because the film has been out for almost 10 years now and has been exposed in theaters and on VHS as well as being adapted into a highly successful stage show, the tale has become familiar: Simba the lion cub is cast into exile by Scar, his dastardly uncle, after the latter rubbed out the former’s dad, the aforementioned Mufasa, and blamed it on the kid. From there, Simba grows up, with the comic-relief assistance of a meerkat named Timon and a warthog called Pumbaa. And naturally, behind every great lion is a great lioness, in this case the lovely and talented Nala. So with her prodding — not nagging, mind you, because there’s nothing more pathetic than a henpecked king of the jungle — Simba goes back to Pride Rock and takes care of business.

“The Lion King,” which includes the voices of such showbiz luminaries as James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons and Nathan Lane, is fit for both adult and child. So this new Two-Disk Special Edition DVD — the picture’s first-ever digital presentation — gives parents the option: either stay home and share with the family a fascinating wealth of information about every aspect of the story (even though it is a bit dark at times for the toddler set, what with the violent death of Mufasa and the goosestepping hyenas and all), or go out, give the disk to the babysitter and keep the kiddies wide-eyed and occupied for hours.

On Disk One, there are two versions of the picture itself, the theatrical release and a new Special Edition version with fresh animated footage and a new song, “Morning Report.” Then play around with the menu and explore the extras, like Timon’s Grab-A-Grub Game (grubs are to Timon as pork rinds are to couch potatoes), deleted scenes that include a bug football game, and a sing-along track. Disk Two is a lot more informational but just as delightful. Grownups will appreciate the enormous amount of research and preparation that went into “The Lion King,” which borrows thematically from several sources, including “Hamlet” as well as the story of Moses and the Burning Bush. The filmmakers seemed to cram almost an entire career’s worth of sweat, toil and imagination into one wonderful picture, as opposed to the industry norm, where less dedicated moviemakers take a single effort and try to squeeze a whole career out of it.

Also, there are interesting interviews with the men behind the music, Sir Elton John and Sir Tim Rice (naturally when you’re telling the story of a king, you hire a couple of knights to do the songs). And when you embark on Timon & Pumbaa’s Virtual Safari and stop at the fast-food window, may I recommend the Mongoose Pot Pie.

Check out this special feature: On Disk One is something called “The Lion King Personality Profile Game.” They ask you a list of questions, then determine which character from the film is most like you. A sampling of some of my answers: Favorite activity: “Plotting revenge.” When something goes wrong you ... “Panic.” It was determined that I was most like Scar, the villain of the piece. I plan to take the test again, only this time I’m going to lie.

Suggested retail price: $29.99 (Disney)

'The Italian Job'
Two versions of “The Italian Job” are out on DVD, the one from 1969 with Michael Caine and the 2003 edition with Mark Wahlberg. Naturally, debate will ensue over which is superior. Fortunately for Paramount, which produced both, the stars from the first have graciously consented to appear in the second as well.

Those would be the Mini Coopers.

That said, the two pictures really have little in common. For purposes of this review, the versions will be referred to as Job One, which takes place mostly in London and Turin, and Job Two, set in Venice and Los Angeles.

Job One stars Michael Caine, and it is quirky, witty, stylish, unconventional and most assuredly British. Supporting players include the inimitable Benny Hill as an oddball named Professor Peach, as well as Noel Coward, Raf Vallone and Rossano Brazzi. The idea is the same: A heist of gold bullion, in this case $4 million worth, and then a getaway in three Minis.

But Job One is light and airy, and director Peter Collinson includes kitschy visual touches like Mafioso gunman all in a row, dressed in the same impeccable black suits. And then there is Caine, at the time of his career when “Zulu” and “Alfie” were making him an international movie idol. He has the kind of randy fun in the ’60s that Mike Myers satirized with “Austin Powers” years later.

Job Two is a fine piece of escapist summer fare, but that’s about all. It’s a Hollywood studio by-the-numbers heist movie with a solid cast and the requisite array of stock characters. It’s still worth seeing, but be forewarned that the bold and gleeful vision of the original has been slicked up and homogenized to conform to mainstream tastes.

Director F. Gary Gray keeps the action moving as Wahlberg reprises Caine’s Charlie Croker and leads a band of thieves in lifting $35 million in gold (inflation, of course) from a former colleague turned rat, played by Edward Norton.

The special features in Job One include what is billed as “three ‘making of’ documentaries” but is really one cut into three parts. Still, it is chock full of movie buff bon bons, like the fact that Coward befriended Collinson years before, when the director was a young boy left in an orphanage by uncaring parents, and became his godfather; years later, Collinson tabbed Coward to play the part of Mr. Bridger. Also on the disk is a commentary by producer Michael Deeley.

Job Two has a decent “making of” doc. Take note of the fact that Norton is nowhere to be found on it, since he played this role because of a contractual obligation to Paramount and not because he loved the original and couldn’t bear to miss out on appearing in the new one.

The disk from the 2003 version also has a few other worthy assets, including a chat with screenwriters Donna and Wayne Powers, a look at the stunts involved, and my favorite, a featurette devoted solely to those wacky milk crates on wheels, the Minis. The producers of Job Two ordered 32 Minis and used all of them. The production even had to set up a makeshift body shop in order to patch up the ones that were injured in stunts and get them back to work.

My suggestion: Test drive both models.

Check out this special feature: There is a deleted scene in Job One that is marvelous, but you understand after seeing it why it was cut out: It has nothing whatsoever to do with advancing the story. It’s a little dance number set to music between the three Minis and three Italian police cars. Cool stuff.

Suggested retail price: $19.99 (1969 version, Paramount); $29.99 (2003 version, Paramount); $44.99 Gift set (includes both versions, Paramount).