If you had to describe TV animation these days with a simple phrase, you might describe it as “hyperstylized simplicity.” Character designs are lovely and distinct, but, for the most part, they’re mostly comprised of simple shapes, with a few distinguishing details or distinct markings. This isn’t a knock against today’s animation. At its best, those sharp hyper-styles can result in some excellent sequences and magnificent visuals, like the nifty song cues in Steven Universe, the experimental flair of Wander Over Yonder, or the mysterious, expansive scope of Gravity Falls. That being said, there’s been a contingent of hardcore animation fans clamoring for the “pen-and-paper” design of the days of old, with fuller, more complex character designs (basically, the commenters on Cartoon Brew). And while I’m not nearly as zealous as those people, I do often wonder if that kind of old-school animation could exist today on TV.
The Lion Guard is probably the closest we’re going to get to that. A decidedly modern take on a distinctly mid-90s animation style, “Return of the Roar,” beyond anything, is just a darn good-looking show. It’s practically an animation-showcase reel for Mercury Filmworks, exemplifying the use of today’s animation software to mimic the strengths and details afforded to traditional cartooning (when the episode does close-ups, you can see the “fake” hand-drawn look of the outlines of the characters’ linework). Rich, detailed backgrounds compliment a brightly diverse color palette; Disney, for whatever reason, was willing to put in a lot of money to bring feature film quality 2D animation to the small screen. (And why not? Disney was the pioneer of revitalized TV animation way back in 1985, and it kind of feels like its trying to do it again.)
Of course, all animation can do is prop up a story, and “Return of the Roar” is endearingly silly. When the early trailers hit the web, a lot was said about the show basically cribbing My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and… well, that’s really what you get (seriously, if you combined Friendship is Magic’s two-part pilot with the actual Lion King film, you’d basically get “Return of the Roar”). Yet it also takes some pretty sharp liberties with, I’d guess, what you’d call the “Lion King Canon.” Apparently, Scar was the original lead of the Lion Guard, but became corrupt when he believed he should be king, killed the other members of the Guard, and then lost his magic roar. There’s a clear sense of superficiality to this–kids will buy it but I can see parents rolling their eyes–but there’s a small, winking layer of self-awareness to the entire endeavor that keeps it from being cloying or overly-serious.
Simba dictates the Lion Guard’s history to Kion, his son, after releasing an intense roar to save his friend, Bunga, from some hyenas. The Lion Guard suffers from too much Bunga, a honey badger whose boundless energy is a bit too much. It’s clear that Disney is gearing up Bunga to be the show’s “star,” but he just ruins Kion’s entire character arc–why he’s involved in the climax to save Kion’s sister (Kiara), but not Kion himself, I’ll never know (in fact, Kion does very little in those final moments). Rounding out the rest of the cast is Ono, an egret with keen eyesight; Fuli, a cheetah with super speed; and Beshte, a hippo with super strength. The last two are barely present as characters. Ono isn’t much of a presence either but he gets in a few snappy lines that allows him to stand out: I kind of liked his resigned “Groundlings” shade towards his earth-based companions.
“Return of the Roar” is a breezy, enjoyable hour, a beautiful, sincere animated piece of work in an era defined by cynicism, wackiness, and irony. The middle section involving Timon and Pumbaa is by far the weakest part, primarily because of how unnecessary it is, followed by that ending (Bunga saving Kiara, who really wasn’t in that much danger, with a fart, is just a massive letdown). But there are some definitive highlights. There’s a great gag where Kion downplays a potential “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” speech, which touches upon the Nala’s bedroom eyes meme without getting too self-aware. More significantly, Simba’s lecture against Kion’s choices for the Lion Guard is a great, well-done moment, addressing Kion’s approach to his new responsibility. There’s a tendency in kids programming to have its kid protagonists approach serious threats as some kind of game that can be played and enjoyable beaten with friends. Even though Kion basically does that, it’s refreshing that he, and the show at large, makes it a major part of the conflict.
Really, though, the strength of “Return of the Roar” is in the precise, incredible animation and the straight-forward storytelling. There are some minor hiccups–the walk cycles are a bit awkward because they sometimes fail to incorporate hips and back movements, and they totally blow Timon’s character design–but the subtle, expressive facial expressions and diverse use of framing and storyboarding are just fantastic. Even the songs, while rhythmically middling, are tightly constructed visual powerhouses, with the hyenas’ “Tonight We Strike” song by far the pinnacle of the entire night. There’s a lot of talking and exposition in “Return of the Roar,” but The Lion Guard gets away with it by making it all look good.
- Okay, so, coincidentally, I’m re-watching The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa show right now, and that show is a trip. It’s hilarious, but it’s wacky, ridiculous, and patently absurd. It’s Teen Titans Go before Teen Titans Go was a thing–and it, too, was also a hit show back in 1995.
- I feel like the actual purpose of The Lion Guard–to protect the Pridelands and The Circle of Life–is a deeper, morally questionable dilemma that the show will most likely never address.
- There’s also a teeny bit of “racism” in Simba’s “only lions can be in the Lion Guard” rant. I’m not going to harp too much on that, but it’s lightly coded there.
- The main villains, Mzingo (a vulture) and Janja (a hyena), don’t stand out in any way either. Also, I’m… not sure how to handle their ages. So I won’t.
- “Tonight We Strike” may be visually incredible, but the song is a straight-up rip-off of “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas. (I guess I should mention it’s also visually similar to Scar’s excellent “Be Prepared,” but it’s more of a homage in that regard.)
- The full series starts sometime in January.