Lion King: A King-sized Success

by Bill DuPre
News and Observer Staff writer

Wicked Uncle Scar gives young Simba some false family values. Time again to gather our young 'round the campfire for a story: There's a new Disney cartoon feature afoot.

"The Circle of Life" is the big production number in "The Lion King," and this sweet celebration of natural selection could be a metaphor for the Disney studios' genius for leaping the generation gaps. Disney films never die or even fade away, but are passed on to future generations through the miracle of videotape. "Bambi" is not so much a movie as it is folklore.

But who's griping? Disney does it all in fine style, and "The Lion King" is a worthy addition to the culture, a glorious bit of pop art. Whatever you may think of the Disney people's motives, it can never be said that their latest -- and fabulously successful -- animated features lack quality.

Disney brings a pair of its veterans up to bat as directors. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff have had extensive backgrounds with the studio's animation department, and for this film they pay homage to the classic Disney features and take a few steps forward as well.

Set in Africa, the story deals with some tough issues, with the central theme being father-son relationships and the ascension of the young lion Simba to the throne of his father, King Mufasa. Of course there's a villain: Scar, Mufasa's ne'er-do-well brother, who simply reeks of jealousy and schemes with his laughing hyena entourage to do in the good king and get rid of his pesky son to clear out the line of succession.

It's a stock Disney good vs. evil plot; what makes it work as well as it does is the impeccable artistry of the animators and the gallery of peripheral characters who spice up what is, of course, a perfectly predictable outcome. Some excellent voice characterizations come from Jeremy Irons as the delectably evil Scar and Whoopi Goldberg as Shenzi, a hyena who simply revels in her position at the bottom of the food chain. Speaking for King Mufasais the Voice of Doom himself, James Earl Jones. It's nothing personal, but I've heard enough of Mr. Basso Profundo to last me several lifetimes.

Boulevard rocker Elton John and Tim Rice (lyricist for "Aladdin" and the Broadway production of "Beauty and the Beast") provide the music, and despite all the hoopla over the songs (the opening sequence has been hyped in trailers for at least a year), the music is only serviceable. There isn't a really memorable melody in the film, but they punctuate the action well enough.

Disney is making much of the computer-enhanced animation that has been inserted into some of its recent cartoon features. In "The Lion King," this technology is employed in spectacular scene of a wildebeest stampede that's also a pivotal emotional turning point in the film. As good as some of this looks, the neorealism of the computer-driven animation is a distinct -- and jarring -- departure from the more traditional look of the rest of the movie. Given the quality of the rest of the animation, I would have preferred to let the Disney pen-and-ink crew realize this scene. Although the technique was also employed in "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," it wasn't nearly as jarring as in "The Lion King," perhaps because this latest film is nature-based.

Parents of exceptionally sensitive children should be warned that the movie deals with the death of a parent and the guilt of a child; there are intense scenes that could upset a youngster, though they are probably no more frightening than, say, the wicked queen in "Snow White."

But don't let that keep you and your family away. Plan on holding tight to little ones, because "The Lion King" is a spectacular success, a movie that deserves its huge audience. "The Lion King" is a joy; see it with someone you love.