At the start of The Lion King, the new Disney animated feature, the animals of the savanna look up, up, up — to the sky? to God? — then rush off in jubilant herds to celebrate the arrival of their future king. Against the stirring African folk rhythms of a song called “Circle of Life,” elephants troop grandly through the purple mist. A flock of birds, viewed from a miraculously high angle (we seem to be in the middle of the sky), pass in gliding formation over a waterfall. The sequence is so beautiful that it might be taking place in some anthropomorphic fairy-tale Eden.
In following up the hellzapoppin wizardry of Robin Williams’ media-mad genie in Aladdin, the Disney animators may have figured there was no way to take the comic possibilities of cartoons much further. And so they’ve moved in the opposite direction, toward the primal-pop emotionalism of Bambi. In essence, The Lion King is a leonine remake of that 1942 masterpiece. Simba, the cuddly lion prince (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas and then Matthew Broderick), is taken under the wing of his father, the regally imposing Mufasa (James Earl Jones — need I say more?). Then Mufasa is killed, leaving Simba alone, a melancholy adolescent in search of his place in the natural kingdom. The themes — death, loss, the eternal cycle of growing up — couldn’t be more mature, yet something about animation is ideally suited to these deep-dish Jungian fables. While a live-action film can tell us that a son is following in his father’s footsteps, the wondrous exactitude of drawn images makes the repetition startlingly romantic. The Lion King, like Bambi, is a rapturous piece of storybook mythmaking: Joseph Campbell for kids.
The movie’s droll clown — as well as its villain — is Scar, Simba’s desiccated sourpuss uncle, who covets the throne but has no way to get at it except by disposing of Mufasa and Simba. (He’s like Claudius in Hamlet.) As voiced by Jeremy Irons, stretching out his vowels in full-tilt Boris Karloff mode, Scar is a figure of both pity and evil, and of treacherous comedy. Irons gives a genuine performance, filling this devious coward with elegantly witty self-loathing. There are other, flakier characters — a trio of raucous, delinquent hyenas (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings), who veer uncomfortably close to becoming caricatures of lower-class ethnic rabble, and a goofy duo, Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog, who befriend Simba during his adolescent exile. These two provide their share of chuckles, but they couldn’t help but strike me as a touch quaint after Williams’ verbal acrobatics in Aladdin. And the Elton John-Tim Rice songs, with the exception of “Circle of Life,” are colorless faux-Broadway filler.
The Lion King’s tepid musical numbers are, indeed, its one major weak point. The film hardly needed songs; the story and images are potent enough to stand on their own. The animators have devised a gorgeous, shimmering palette that shifts with Simba’s moods, edging from the sunburst clarity of the early scenes to the ravishing murk of the later, darker episodes. Simba himself has been given a marvelously expressive face; if anything, he seems more human than the Ken and Barbie types featured in Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. Yet the most poignant element in the story is that, even after he has become a physically mature lion, Simba remains a youth inside. He has to will himself to face his enemies, to replace his father in the circle of life. When he does, The Lion King, more than any of the recent wave of Disney animated features, has the resonance to stand not just as a terrific cartoon but as an emotionally pungent movie. A-