The Lion King 1½ (February 3/04)
The Lion King 1½ isn't a sequel as much as it is a parallel look at the original, with beloved characters Timon and Pumbaa taking us on a guided tour of how the first film happened from their perspective. The film wisely does not attempt to top The Lion King in terms of scale or drama; rather, this jokey and self-referential tale seems content to exist as an enjoyably light-hearted romp.
Aside from explaining what Timon and Pumbaa (voiced by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella) were up to during the events of the original, The Lion King 1½ offers up a good deal of backstory on these two characters (well, mostly Timon). Before hooking up with Pumbaa, Timon lived with an entire society of fellow meerkats - including his mother (Julie Kavner) and Uncle Max (Jerry Stiller). But Timon's rambunctious ways eventually get him kicked out of the colony, leaving him with no choice but to head out into the wild. It's not long before he meets Pumbaa, the malodorous warthog that is to become his best friend.
In terms of stand-alone plotlines, that's about the extent of it. The majority of The Lion King 1½ follows our heroes as they interfere with the various happenings in the original (ie that famous shot of all the animals bowing before the newly born Simba occurred only because of Timon and Pumbaa's presence), and for the most part it's a lot of fun. Those with a low tolerance for these admittedly over-the-top characters would be well advised to avoid this one. But the filmmakers have smartly developed Timon and Pumbaa into more than just comedic sidekicks. We learn the reasons behind this mismatched pair's friendship, and in typical Disney fashion, it's heartwarming (and yeah, the characters becoming more compelling because of it).
Remarkably, the animation in The Lion King 1½ is just as good as the first's - if not better, thanks to the seamless integration of computer effects. The new songs, on the other hand, don't even come close to matching the almost perfect selection of tunes that Elton John and Tim Rice came up with for The Lion King (it's highly unlikely any of these ditties will be swirling around in your head after watching the movie, especially considering that most of the original's songs make an appearance here).
A lot of credit for the film's success has to go to Lane and Sabella, who bring an incredible amount of energy to their performances. Other actors from the original also reprise the roles - including Matthew Broderick as Simba and Whoopi Goldberg's nefarious hyena - though their exposure is limited. The film runs a brisk 77 minutes, ensuring that even the most twitchy kids will have no problem sitting through it (and for adults, the short running time ensures that The Lion King 1½ never wears out its welcome).
As far as straight-to-video Disney sequels go, it doesn't get much better than The Lion King 1½. It's not a rehash of the original, a problem that seems to plague the majority of their follow-ups (even the first sequel to The Lion King was guilty of this to a certain extent). The film remains coherent to those that haven't seen the original, though there's obviously a lot of in-jokes that only fans of the first one will be able to appreciate.