Those lips. Those eyes. That dry English disdain. It may be a mane instead of a hairline that’s receding, but the ironic lion who is the standout villain in this summer’s Disney extravaganza is still a dead ringer for Jeremy Irons, in voice and in subtly animated facial caricature.
As the scheming, murderous Scar, who’ll stop at nothing in his quest to steal the throne of the animal kingdom, Irons is all claws . . . Claus von Bulow, that is.
Irons’ frosty turn in “The Lion King” obviously isn’t the first time the studio has used a celebrity voice for a major role, but it’s not often a primarily dramatic actor has stepped back to the drawing board, as it were, so soon after winning an Academy Award.
Disney didn’t waste the opportunity. Not only was Scar’s character design modified to appropriate some of the actor’s facial characteristics in nearly imperceptible ways, but the very role was retooled to better incorporate the insinuating sarcasm Irons dripped so eloquentlyin “Reversal of Fortune,” the picture he won the Oscar for.
For grown-ups paying attention, there’s even an amusing allusion in “Lion King” to one of Irons’ signature quips in the earlier film.
Of course, his Von Bulow was a character whose vaguely sinister quality remained ambiguous. (How strange was he? “You have no idea,” you’ll remember.) But his Scar is a more clear-cut threat: The bad cat did indisputably kill one of his closest relatives, does pose a clear and present danger to the entire food chain, and might deter even Alan Dershowitz from rising to his defense after bragging in the midst of a big, predatory musical production number that “my teeth and ambition are bared--be prepared!”
A star is born. . . . Scoot over, Cruella.
“The Lion King,” which opens at the El Capitan June 15 and goes wider a week later, is Disney’s 32nd full-length animated feature. Unlike the last few, there’s no heavy romantic element, so the bad guy’s prominence in driving the plot becomes even more significant. And as the latest and not least in a six-decade-long line of classic Disney villains, Scar naturally spends a lot of screen time stealing the show from his moral betters; like most of the more recent animated baddies, this power-mad aristocat is blessed with a compensating sense of morbid humor to match his menace. His laconic lion-readings drip veritable ice across the African veldt.
Irons’ co-conspirator in “performing” Scar is the character’s supervising animator, Andreas Dejas, a German-born artist who, by virtue of his villains, has emerged as one of the studio’s best-known animators. Dejas is the uncontested contemporary king of cartoon creeps: Scar represents his third successive Disney scoundrel, following Jafar in “Aladdin” and Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast.”
The rest of us may have no idea. But by now Dejas knows badness--having from behind the boards bullied assorted princes, beauties and the nation’s collective young for three straight movies.
“I think villains work really well when they’re subtle,” he says. “And then you wait for that moment where they explode, maybe, and lose it. But to see them think and scheme and plot is much more interesting than showing them beating somebody up.
“And there was a lot of subtlety with Scar. In many cases he doesn’t move very much--where we just tried to do something with a look , the way he tilts his head as he’s literally talking down to this kid,” Dejas says, raising his eyebrows, lifting his chin, cocking his eyes to one sinister side.
A patronizing quality is key. And Scar gets ample opportunity for that, biding his time with corrosive asides--most of them flying over the head of his unassuming little nephew, the movie’s hero, Simba--while awaiting chances to ambush anyone standing between him and the throne. Once again, homicidal tendencies notwithstanding, kids and adults alike may have a hard time rooting for the inevitable demise of the guy who gets most of the best lines.
But Scar does more than just condescend to his innocent young nephew, Simba. In a twist tailor-made for the dysfunctionally conscious modern age, he shames him, convincing the young cub to shoulder the blame for the tragic death of his father, King Mufasa, in a stampede (“If it weren’t for you, your father might still be alive”).
This sets in motion a cycle of guilt, flight, denial and redemption, as the hero goes into self-imposed exile before finally reconciling with his father’s memory, returning to face his wicked uncle and generally coming of age.
So if “The Lion King” might be read as a modern fairy tale whose allegorical subtext centers on the emotional damage of child abuse, does that make it the “Tommy” of feature ‘toons?
“When Scar puts the guilt trip on Simba, that’s an intense idea,” allows one of the film’s two directors, Rob Menkoff. “That’s probably something that is not typical of the other Disney pictures, in terms of what the villain does.”
“Which is working psychological damage on the hero as a child,” adds the other director, Rob Minkoff, with a blunt, hearty laugh.
“It’s kind of a John Bradshaw movie!” confesses Menkoff, tongue just partly in cheek.
We see it now: Scar as poster villain for the recovered memories movement. It couldn’t happen to an icier lion.
“You don’t say ‘no’ when you get offered a villain,” says Dejas, speaking for most animators in explaining why he’s taken on three successive juicy antagonists. “I mean, you know, to do the princes, the princesses . . . " He chuckles dismissively at the thought, just as Scar or Jafar would.
Irons nearly said “no” to taking a comic turn as a villain when the role was offered so soon after his good fortune doing “Reversal.” Once convinced and signed, his wry readings at the initial voice recordings gave a lot more suave, demented nuance to even the straighter parts of the script. And by then the screenplay had been altered a bit to incorporate shades of his Von Bulow persona.
“A lot of our actors do it, but Jeremy in particular really wanted to play with the words and the pacing more,” recalls the film’s producer, Don Hahn. As an example, he points out a scene in which Scar lures Simba out onto a rock and tells him to wait there, alone, adding that his father has prepared a surprise--"you know, a father and son thing.” Irons’ simple touch in reading was to add a brief pause, rendering it “a father and son . . . thing "; the comedy in the inflection comes from Scar sounding so disdainful he can barely summon the will to finish the sentence.
Dejas subsequently animated the scene with an additional subliminal comic touch by having Scar flick his paw in a distracted way just as Irons says “ thing .” This fey little paw flip was one of the few anthropomorphic touches really allowed any of the movie’s animals from their necks down.
Because, as Dejas realized in a big way shortly into the project, this was the first substantial villain he’d taken on who would have to practice his roguery without benefit of opposable thumbs.
The emphasis was--within limits--on naturalism. Be they lions, hyenas, wart hogs or what have you, these critters generally walk on all fours and don’t point, throw punches, put on pants or otherwise embarrass themselves by too blatantly emulating their biped draftsmen. “Lion King” is the first Disney animal cartoon feature not to have mankind as even an implied part of the story (though “Bambi” came close, with just the hunter standing in for humanity).
“There are no props or costumes or sets,” says Hahn, “so it’s really limiting for the animators. I remember at the story meetings pulling out our hair, because there was no ‘business’! Because they couldn’t get up and open a door. There were rocks and more rocks, and when you went over there, there was some grass . . . “
Not that there weren’t a wealth of wildlife idiosyncrasies to work from. The key animators took field trips to the San Diego Zoo, and subsequently had naturalists bring lions to the studio for closer study. Dejas ended up adding a component to Scar that the movie’s other lions don’t have: The bad cat’s walk seems to quicken for a split second between steps, with a low whoosh on the soundtrack mid-stride, providing that extra subliminal touch of menace.
Inspired by Irons’ line readings, Dejas also took to studying Irons’ films, like “Reversal” and “Damage” (or “Scar in the Nude,” as the animator calls that one), to pick up facial traits and tics.
“Not that he looks like a lion,” says Dejas, “but he’s handsome and unusual-looking at the same time, which I thought would be an interesting combination.
“When Jeremy saw the movie, he was extremely complimentary, in terms of recognizing himself in it. He said, ‘I think it’s the baggy eyes that brought it out.’ And all the lions do have this color separation around their eyes, which puts an emphasis on this eye unit. With most animals, like the fox, they’re lighter. . . . When you go darker, that brings the white of the eye out even more, and makes it very contrasted and evil-looking. For a villain, it seemed very appropriate to go dark--therefore the eyes looked baggy and even more Jeremy Irons-looking.”
Dejas also had the benefit of Irons’ potentially snooty British accent to work with--which couldn’t help but beg comparison with the arrogance of another jungle cat with a seductive English voice, Shere Khan, the “Jungle Book” tiger of 1967, given voice by George Sanders.
“There were some similarities to Shere Khan, and I did not want to do ‘Jungle Book.’ I don’t know how far I succeeded in that,” admits Dejas. “But I talked to the other animators early on and said, ‘It would be easy to take what the old guys developed for large cats, put a wig on ‘em and call it a lion. It would be a shame.’ I added a lot of black around Scar’s mouth, gave him a nose that’s like an open black claw, almost--anything that they didn’t do, I wanted to try, just so that people wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, it’s just like Shere Khan.’ ”
For once, mild-mannered Dejas betrays the barest hint of his screen villains’ utter perturbability. “You hear this a lot when people recognize (bits of) other characters. It’s really bothersome.”
Hahn, the producer of “The Lion King” (and “Beauty and the Beast” before it), feels heartened that Disney is willing to take a detour here from the common thread that united the studio’s previous three animated musical hits: “If we keep making a love story about people from two different worlds falling in love, I think we will suffer from that. And I think ‘Lion King,’ as a father-son story, is a great departure from that.”
And so is Scar also a departure from Ursula, Gaston or Jafar, all of whom came off at least as buffoonish as they were sinister. Whether he’ll be the breakout character remains to be seen. But “Scar was definitely our favorite character,” says co-director Minkoff.
The traditional challenge, he says, is that “it’s so hard to come up with exciting goodness. Like in ‘Fantasia,’ the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence is really dynamic and fun, and then they do ‘Ave Maria,’ and it’s aaaavayyyy boooriiing ,” Minkoff croons.
“Five or 10 years ago, people thought of Disney films as being good, right, so all the Disney copy films were about good characters doing good things--so there was zero depth. Because it’s not about the goodness of a character, it’s about overcoming evil, which is more interesting.”
Dejas agrees: “Even in design, there should be something beautiful and intriguing that makes you want to look at this thing. You might shudder or look away, but you should still be curious enough to go back to it. Maleficent in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is a gorgeous art-deco design, and has a lot of magneticism--you just want to look at this even though she’s evil and she’s bad and she curses.”
But after tackling three virtual spawns of Satan in a row for Disney, an overtaxed Dejas is taking a break from nefariousness for a more virtuous assignment later this year: going to Paris to head a unit that will animate Mickey Mouse in the character’s first theatrical short in four years.
“And the reason is, nobody knows Mickey Mouse anymore,” Dejas admits. “I mean, the kids know the Simpsons and Ren & Stimpy, and Mickey is something from the past.”
Can the animator help the Mouse get his, uh, edge back?
“He was a bratty thing at the beginning, in the ‘30s. He kicked things around and he hurt other little animals. He became nicer and nicer--and then in the end, by the time it came to the mid-'40s, ‘50s, he was just flat, and other characters took over. He’s a very difficult character, such a corporate symbol, and you have to be so precious with him. . . . But in the end it’s always easier if you really like your character. I love the character,” Dejas assures.
And we promise to love him again, too, if only his animator can just find some credible context for Mickey to wrinkle his ears, return to his rat-like roots and, like Scar, announce that his teeth and ambition are bared.*