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'The Lion King'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 24, 1994

Walt Disney's "The Lion King" is an impressive, almost daunting achievement, spectacular in a manner that has nearly become commonplace with Disney's feature-length animations.

Make no mistake, though: There is nothing commonplace about "The Lion King." Of the 32 animated films Disney has produced, this story of a young African lion's search for identity is not only more mature in its themes, it is also the darkest and the most intense. Shakespearean in tone, epic in scope, it seems more appropriate for grown-ups than for kids. If truth be told, even for adults it is downright strange.

If "Aladdin" was Disney in its comic mode, and "Beauty and the Beast" its romantic, then "The Lion King" is the studio's attempt at a tragic/heroic style. And not only is this last genre the least well-suited to a G-rated children's story, it is also the one that they pull off with the least success.

Though "The Lion King" is being touted as the first of the Disney animations without a literary precursor, the themes and conflicts seem to come straight out of Shakespeare; you wonder why they didn't just go ahead and make a cartoon version of "Hamlet." Disney animations, of course, have always been rich in mythic content, but usually the heavy stuff remained submerged in the subtext. Here, the epic conflicts, plus all the peculiar cultural messages -- the skewed sexual politics, the ecological themes, the pop psychology, the incipient fascism -- are right up front, swamping the characters and just about any entertainment value the story might have had.

The tale begins with the presentation of Prince Simba, son of Mufasa (voiced by the ubiquitous James Earl Jones) and queen Sarabi, to a mass gathering of creatures, great and small, at Pride Rock, the center of the proud lion king's vast domain. The gathering is one of the movie's big set pieces, and it's impressively staged, but the diversity of animal types happy over the arrival of a new boss on the block creates some confusion, even for little Simba. When the adorable king-to-be asks for clarification -- "But Daddy, don't we eat antelopes?" -- Mufasa waxes cosmic, explaining that, yes, the lions eat the antelopes, but when they die their bodies turn into grass and, in turn, the antelopes eat the grass and the whole thing is just one great big circle of life.

Ah, yes. How good it is to be at the top of the food chain.

Not everyone is ecstatic about little Simba's imminent rise to power. Mufasa's lean and hungry-looking brother, Scar (voiced by Jeremy Irons, who plays the character as a vocal extension of Claus Von Bulow), feels that he's been shoved to the end of the royal cafeteria line. And so after he's foiled in his plot to slaughter Simba, Scar sets his sights on Mufasa himself, rigging the murder so that Simba sees himself as the culprit and runs off in disgrace.

Without doubt, the death of the heroic Mufasa will be the most widely debated aspect of "The Lion King," with people taking sides as to whether such things are good or bad for kids just as they did over the killing of Bambi's mother. But, hey, it's all part of the great circle of life.

After the death of Mufasa, Scar takes over the Pride Lands, and the movie takes an even more bizarre turn. As the veld becomes a police state, all the color is bled out of the film's palette, and the camera angles become severe and exaggerated. As a group of goose-stepping hyenas march by in "Be Prepared" -- easily the most dissonant musical number the studio has ever staged -- the iconography appears to come straight out of "Triumph of the Will."

What most kiddies will make of this I have no idea, but in dramatic terms, Scar's ascension to the throne brings the picture -- not to mention the great circle of life itself -- to a dead stop. And while this evil monarch plunders the Pride Lands, Simba is off in a distant jungle having an identity crisis.

This middle section, where Simba (who's voiced as an adult by Matthew Broderick) grows from a cub into an impressive young adult, is dominated by a pair of frolicsome creatures named Pumbaa (an odoriferous hot-pink warthog voiced by Ernie Sabella) and Timon (a wisecracking meerkat brought hilariously to life by Nathan Lane) who teach the tortured prince to lie back and forget his troubles. The audience, too, is happy to get whisked away from the heaviness of the Pride Lands to a jungle so lush and bright that it verges on the psychedelic. Also, Simba's cohorts -- who play Falstaff to his Prince Hal -- are the only genuinely likable characters in the picture; without their comic relief, the movie might have been insufferable.

It's pretty much of a downer anyway. The songs (written by Tim Rice and Elton John) are innocuous enough, or would be if they weren't hammered into your head by the industrial-strength orchestration. Still, none of the numbers really stands out, and without a memorable musical theme to unify the elements, the tale falls into fragments.

Plus, to tell the story of a hero's journey it helps to have a hero, and Simba comes across as the Lion Country incarnation of Fabio. Simba's return to the Pride Lands is prompted by the arrival of his childhood girlfriend, Nala (Moira Kelly), who tells the would-be king that he must return home and assume his rightful place on the throne. To which Simba replies, "That's not me anymore." When the airheaded expatriate does finally confront Scar and his hyena minions -- led by Shenzi (an unremarkable Whoopi Goldberg) -- a sort of kitty Gotterdammerung ensues. With Simba back up on his rocky perch, all is right with the world again. The zebras and antelopes return to the Pride Lands once again to be eaten by the lions, and the great circle of life resumes its turning.

You don't have to get all moralistic to notice that there's a problem here, and that the film's team of screenwriters -- Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton -- haven't solved it. And maybe it can't be solved if your bigger characters eat your smaller ones. As someone once said, the lamb may lie down with the lion, but the lamb isn't going to get much sleep.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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