3D re-releases are just latest way for directors to fiddle with already-beloved movies

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It's been a bad summer for family-friendly movies, with options ranging from the execrable Smurfs to the ho-hum Kung Fu Panda 2. Even the normally-reliable Pixar suffered a rare misfire with Cars 2. With the summer movie season coming to a close, Disney is attempting to save the summer for movie-loving families by re-releasing 1994 classic The Lion King, which returns to movie theaters tomorrow.

The Lion King set the stage for the modern Disney era. It was based on an original story, not a fairy tale (with a small debt to Shakespeare's Hamlet). Its bestselling soundtrack, which featured hits like the Oscar-winning "Can You Feel The Love Tonight," was produced in collaboration a major pop artist. And it featured the voices of megawatt stars like Matthew Broderick, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jonathan Taylor Thomas (hey, it was 1994).

But this isn't quite the same Lion King that enthralled moviegoers across the globe and earned almost $800 million in 1994. Perhaps inevitably, given recent box office trends, Disney has fully converted the film to 3D for its theatrical re-release, and those who attend The Lion King 3D during its limited theatrical run will have the opportunity to view the film through " limited-edition Simba-themed 3D glasses," (which is how a marketer says "the frames are yellow").

3D is by far the most pervasive trend to overtake cinema in recent years. Just look at the numbers: four 3D films were released in 2007, and 23 were released in 2010. But the concept of retrofitting older films for 3D is fairly new, though Disney is leading the charge. In the past two years, Disney tested the waters with limited 3D releases of The Nightmare Before Christmas and the first two Toy Story movies. All three were well-received by critics and audiences, and other studios have taken notice: Legend Films screened a 3D-converted cut of George Romero's 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead in 2009, and James Cameron has announced that a 3D re-release of Titanic will hit theaters next April.

But—no surprise—the biggest proponent of 3D conversion is George Lucas, who has announced a plan to theatrically re-release all six Star Wars movies in 3D, starting with Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in 2012. Longtime Star Wars fans have often been infuriated by Lucas' relentless tinkering with the original trilogy—a trend that continues with the series' Blu-Ray debut tomorrow.

What is it about retrofitting older movies that triggers such an angry, kneejerk response? Steven Spielberg—who on Tuesday publicly expressed regret over his decision several years ago to alter 1982's E.T.: The Extraterrestrial—may have the answer:

For myself, I tried [changing a film] once and lived to regret it. Not because of fan outrage, but because I was disappointed in myself. I got overly sensitive to [some of the reaction] to E.T., and I thought if technology evolved, [I might go in and change some things]…it was OK for a while, but I realized what I had done was I had robbed people who loved E.T. of their memories of E.T.

The reason that people get so angry about the changes to films like E.T. or the original Star Wars trilogy—and the reason that The Lion King's IMDB message board is riddled with users complaining about its 3D re-release—is their emotional attachment. Star Wars, E.T., The Lion King—the fans of these films saw and loved them as children, and that original sense of childlike wonder has never gone away. As Spielberg said, when changes are made, many fans feel as if their very memories are being robbed.

This kind of tinkering is not without precedent; the '80s saw its own movement to alter films decades after their original releases, and it was no less controversial. The closest analogue to 3D conversion is colorization—a process by which older black-and-white movies were converted into color, spearheaded by Ted Turner for Turner Classic Movies. Beloved classics including Casablanca and It's a Wonderful Life were colorized through an expensive, labor-intensive post-production process. Colorization was roundly derided by cinema purists like Woody Allen, Roger Ebert, and Orson Welles, and it quickly fell out of favor.

It's easy to mock colorization for its lack of artistic integrity, and for its perceived assumptions about film audiences. But as film studies professor Winston Wheeler Dixon notes, surveys have indicated that as much as 50 percent of a film's audience will immediately tune out upon seeing a black-and-white image. If a filmgoer is so put off by black-and-white that they can't stomach Casablanca, isn't it better that they at least see Casablanca in color?

2D films will never face a 50 percent level of audience rejection—in fact, based on recent box office grosses, it appears that many filmgoers' enthusiasm for 3D has already begun to wane. But children's films are an intriguing case. Of the five highest-grossing children's films released this year—Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Rio, The Smurfs, and Rango—only Rango was released solely in 2D. Modern children are growing up with 3D computer-generated films as a matter of course, and traditionally-animated films—like this summer's quaint Winnie the Pooh—are increasingly rare.

And now we have The Lion King 3D, bridging the gap between the Disney of old and the Disney of new. In the 17 years since The Lion King's original release, its original audience has grown up. The children who sobbed over Mufasa's death in 1994 may find themselves comforting their own sniffling children in 2011. And that's the Circle of Life.

The Lion King never needed 3D, but it won't lose any of its power when viewed through limited-edition Simba-themed 3D glasses, either. So hakuna matata, Lion King fans. Converting The Lion King into 3D is a little like gilding the lily. But a golden lily is still pretty damn beautiful.

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