When I started on this increasingly stretched-out marathon of Disney sequels, one of the few things I was genuinely looking forward to - one of the things that felt like might make the whole damn thing worthwhile - was arriving at the first DisneyToon release of 2004, The Lion King 1½. I'll admit that my reasoning was immensely broken: the logic went that, since The Lion King was more or less explicitly "Hamlet with African fauna", then The Lion King 1½, taking place more or less concurrently with the original, but told from the perspective of the sidekicks Timon the meerkat (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa the warthog (Ernie Sabella), was basically "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with African fauna", and I don't have the vocabulary to describe how much I wanted to see that. Naturally, there ends up being not even a throwaway joke in that direction - not even a game of Questions - but the phrase "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with African fauna" delights me so much that I am tempted to give the movie a pass just for allowing me to type it out.

Anyway, The Lion King 1½ largely did meet my Stoppard-denuded needs, though the one-two punch of Cinderella II: Dreams Come True and The Hunchback of Notre Dame II left my needs calibrated at "this movie doesn't make me want to set myself on fire", and not "this movie is a truly pleasant, edifying thing to watch", so that's not saying all that much. It is a mostly pleasant watch, at least, certainly better than The Lion King II: Simba's Pride in nearly all the ways I care about. Indeed, it is that rarest of beasts in the DisneyToon Studios canon: a film that is actually worthy of being watched on its own terms; I'd even go so far as to say I enjoyed it more than The Lion King, though that has a lot to do with my stated coolness towards that film, and not with anything in the prequel-sequel-remake-midquel that's actually "better" than the 1994 picture, which is after all one of the highest peaks if not the high peak of Walt Disney Feature Animation during their 1990s renaissance.

The film takes the form of Timon and Pumbaa, sitting in a screening room, watching The Lion King, their silhouettes blocking the bottom of the frame in what cannot possibly be an accidental suggestion of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The meerkat is all set to fast-forward to the point that he first shows up, but Pumbaa gets upset at this, and after a brief discussion, they agree to start aaaaall the way at the beginning, to Timon's own history before Simba, the titular king, was even born. From the perspective of someone watching the watchers, I'll admit to a long dry spell when it seemed like LK1½ was going to be a complete boondoggle, because Timon's life is ungodly like every other Disney character's history: he's the only outcast in a society that thrives on conformity, and his attempts to fit in end in horrifying disaster (and since it all involves tunnels, there's a marked similarity to A Bug's Life). That the screenplay, by DisneyToon vet Tom Rogers, has a noticeably snarky sense of humor about this only helps a very small bit; it's still subscribing whole-heartedly to the most banal tropes in the Disney handbook, and even though things like the meerkat anthem "Diggah Tunnah" (a poke at the cod-Africanisms of the Elton John/Tim Rice songs in the original) or the casting of Julie Kavner and Jerry Stiller as Timon's mother and uncle are flippant in a way that's welcome, it's still basically every Disney movie ever.

Things start to loosen up pretty quickly after Timon leaves the meerkat clan to find his fortunes in the great wide world: in part because the narrating, film-interrupting Timon and Pumbaa butt in quite frequently, in part because the film quickly abandons any real pretense to a plot, and becomes, for the remainder of a well-arranged 76-minute running time, the "Timon is a sarcastic ass" show, and all for the better - though I have little patience for the characters galling pop culture-saturated personality and Lane's shticky performance in The Lion King itself and absolutely none at all in Simba's Pride, it works well here, where it's almost exclusively used to take the piss out of the first movie, rather than to just serve as a light dose of comic relief. Put another way, LK1½ is at heart a work of mockery, and Lane's Timon works much better in that context than elsewhere.

The basic hook of the movie is that as Timon, and his newfound warthog buddy Pumbaa, travel across the savannah looking for a place that can be all their own, they keep interacting with the plot of The Lion King on the very fringes, not realising the impact they're having (e.g. they are present at the "Circle of Life" presentation ceremony but don't really see or care what's going on; the whole field of animals bows because Pumbaa knocked out a small group with one of his toxic farts). It's a film that pretty much requires a working if not encyclopedic knowledge of the first movie in order for the second half of the plot to make any real sense at all, and for a great many of the jokes to land: at several points throughout, a gag consists solely of repeating something from the first movie, but with some irreverent twist. And as somebody who feels that The Lion King suffers from too much serious about itself, I am not inclined to look down on this development, though certainly, making things lighter through fart jokes isn't exactly the direction I'd have gone, myself.

This irreverence does make the thing feel admittedly trivial, and it's so fixated on having a good sense of humor and no stakes to speak of, that at times the plot gets murky (if I follow the chronology properly, we're meant to believe that the first film's legendarily traumatasing wildebeest stampede is one whole day later than the opening scene, making Simba less than a week old for the bulk of the movie), and for something structured like a buddy comedy, the film really doesn't care very much about Pumbaa except as a prop for Timon's story. At the same time, the comedy is strong enough, in the main, that the film is actually, genuinely entertaining, something we must never, ever take for granted in considering these Disney sequels. Certainly, the presence of Kavner and Stiller alone puts us in a place that's a bit more playfully sarcastic than you'd be able to expect, based on DisneyToon's track record.

Slight it is, though, however ingenious the comedy can be, and however much the constant intrusions from "present day" Timon and Pumbaa add a smart layer of meta-commentary (not quite enough to actively insult the notion of the DTV sequels, but certainly proof that some of the more thoughtful people involved in the film's creation knew at some level that the things they were making were pretty damn stupid). And that slightness is thrown into relief by the production quality of the movie: in a perhaps-inevitable but still fatal move, LK1½ includes actual footage from the first movie, quite a lot of it, some of it with new animation overlaid on top of it, and the ability to immediately compare one of the finest-looking Disney features made since Walt Disney dies with a DTV feature that looks no better than most of its stablemates is ruinous. LK1½ is unquestionably better-animated than Simba's Pride (as, generally speaking the DisneyToon features had been improving steadily throughout the 2000s, with the conspicuous exception of Hunchback II), but it somehow manages to feel worse when you cut almost straight from the impeccable sunrise that opens The Lion King to the whole lot of nothing going on here. Again, it's not bad animation: in fact, I was rather impressed at some points, as in the variety of faces and expressions on all the different meerkats in the opening; and the two leads are throughout animated with a fair degree of flexibility. It is, though, a film that calls attention to its own deficiencies, instead of its merits.

That being said, the film's visual sense of humor is one of its best elements, not just in the places it refers to the original movie, but because of a fairly well-developed language of using visual punchlines (a lengthy "Simba has to pee/is thirsty" joke is a rather fine example of the form), and because its narrative lightness and simplistic cartoon aesthetic match each other well.

Where things start to fall apart is in the largely predictable shift to sentiment and lesson-learnin', for of course the plot about Timon learning to fit in and not be such a selfish dick is never all that far away, and it leaves the film stumbling between two incompatible tones: the sarcastic, "let's make fun of ourselves for being so earnest" tone of its best comedy and most inventive gags, and the "hey kids, here's a sweet fable about being true to your friends and learn how to temper being yourself with being a member of society" tone that plays as far more insultingly moralistic than it might have, simply because it's such a jarring shift from what the movie seems to "actually" be about, and it comes off as pandering as a result. The delicate balance between entertainment and moral case study is always a hard one for children's entertainment to wander without falling on the side of talking down to its target audience, and while LK1½ is hardly an unusually bad example of that tendency, it does pull into relief just how irritating Disney's preachiness could get at times.

Still, the film is a success more often than not, for all its shortcomings. It's only creative intermittently; but it is creative, and that's alone enough to rocket it to the top of the Disney sequel heap. Half-good is better than no good at all, and if the film benefits from being graded on a curve, so be it.