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'The Lion King'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 24, 1994

For more than a year, Walt Disney's "The Lion King" has been prowling in the scrub. Now the supple beast has sprung and -- may talking drums pass the good word -- it is a magnificent animal. Children, and even jaded grazers, will be swept up in the powerful rush, as "Lion" eats up the summer box office.

Like most fairy tales, "Lion" has a rather brutal underbelly, as royal lion cub Simba encounters danger, guilt, trauma and treachery on his way to the throne. Parents should also know that "Bambi" was not the studio's final word on parental loss. But tender sensibilities aside, this is the Mickey Mouse factory at its finest, with inventive animation, stirring music and a pride of inspired, almost-human animals.

In Africa (or a Disney version thereof), Simba (the voice of Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is the son of boomy, beloved King Mufasa (James Earl Jones). The precocious Simba discovers that growing up is tough on a lion prince. He must constantly heed the word of his majestic father and nagging tutor-bird Zazu (Rowan Atkinson). He needs to wise up to his deceptive Uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons), who is plotting Mufasa's downfall with three nasty, giggly hyenas (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings).

Most important, perhaps, he needs to work on that growl, or risk the future ridicule of zebras and cutter ants alike. The going is about to get crueler, and Simba -- who will suffer an anguished exile from his home -- needs all the life lessons he can get.

The great thing about Disney -- now chalking up its 32nd animated feature -- is how it tells the same story over and over again with a combination of modern nuances and age-old trademarks. Simba's wide-eyed look can be found in Pinocchio, Dumbo and the whole darn fuzzy gang. The generational conflict between Simba and Mufasa is, basically, a boyish spin on Ariel's battles with Dad in "The Little Mermaid." But "Lion" embellishes everything with epic, visual weight. There are cinematic pans across African plains. There are shiftings of focus within the same shot. And a computer-animated scene featuring a stampede of wildebeest is positively breathtaking.

The vocal performers, including Matthew Broderick (as the older Simba), Robert Guillaume and Moira Kelly, are terrific. There is amusing, scavenger-like repartee among hyenas Goldberg, Marin and Cummings; and Nathan Lane is frequently hilarious as the wisecracking meerkat who befriends Simba. But the standouts are Irons, who imbues Scar with memorably unctuous spirit, and Jones who -- as we know -- is either the voice of God or His Bell Atlantic representative.

By the way, you may want to remind your brood that even though girl-cub Nala (Niketa Calame, later Kelly) pads in the supportive shadows, awaiting her inevitable marriage to Simba, it doesn't mean human girls can't grow up to be monarchs too.

THE LION KING (G) Contains material non-explicit law-of- the-jungle violence and traumatic loss of a parent that might be alarming to the very young.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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