Spectacular! Disney's 32nd full-length animated feature, "The Lion King", is one of their best ever. The music, characters and visuals conspire to deliver the year's most sumptuous filmgoing treat. Forget about "Maverick" and "The Flintstones", THIS is the film that the summer movie crowd should be clamoring for.
But to fully appreciate the film, one must recognize just how much of a departure it is from Disney's most recent standouts (ie. the Big Three, aka "Aladdin", "Beauty & the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid") in particular and all Disney animated fare in general. To start off with, this is the first animated Disney flick based on an original story. Secondly, it is the first animated Disney flick without a single human character, not even the unseen kind like in "Bambi".
When compared to the Big Three, the differences become even more pronounced. The songs created for "The Lion King" didn't come from multiple-Academy Award winner Alan Menken, but a composer new to the Disney scene, Elton John. The protagonists in the Big Three were human (or at least humanoid), while those in "The Lion King" are of the warm, fuzzy, four-footed type. Also a departure is the film's lack of fantasy elements such mermaids, magic spells and genies.
The story commences with the birth of Simba, a cute little lion cub whose father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), is the king of Pride Rock and all surrounding territories. Although he "can't wait to be king", Simba doesn't wish to see his father's life cut short, but Mufasa's brother Scar (Jeremy Irons) has other plans. Only with both Simba and Mufasa out of the way can Scar rule over Pride Rock. The problem is, Scar is more of an intellectual than a brute and must recruit a gang of hyenas to help him achieve his goals. Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg), Banzai (Cheech Marin), and the dim-witted Ed (Jim Cummings) are all too willing to hatch Scar's deadly plan in exchange for extended hyena rights under his forthcoming regime.
When the unthinkable does happen, Scar convinces Simba to flee the area, lest the denizens of Pride Rock hold the youngster to blame. Lonely and frightened, Simba heads off toward lands unknown, putting his life in the hands of fate. One of the first creatures he meets is a meerkat named Timon (Nathan Lane) whose constant companion is a rather pungent warthog named Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). This unlikely duo recognizes our despondent hero as a kindred spirit and explains to him the philosophy known as "Hakuna Matata" (no worries). It is in their company that Simba (Matthew Broderick) grows into maturity.
A chance encounter with his childhood friend Nala (Moira Kelly), now a beautiful lioness, prompts Simba to return to his homeland. Although reluctant to claim the kingdom that is rightfully his, Simba decides to take action once he sees the deterioration of the land under his uncle's rule. With the aid of Timon, Pumbaa, and a mystical baboon named Rafiki (Robert Guillaume), Simba finally confronts Scar regarding the death of Mufasa.
Although some have been drawn with more visual detail, there has never been a villain as deliciously underhanded as Scar. Jeremy Irons does a sublime job lending him voice and filling him with the dignified treachery that earned him an Oscar as Claus von Bulow in "Reversal of Fortune". As Mufasa, James Earl Jones is another standout, sounding exactly like a lion should. Filling the comic relief niche, Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella are great fun as the rambunctious Timon and Pumbaa.
If I have one quibble with "The Lion King" it is that much more screen time is devoted to the villains than in previous features. The result is a film somewhat darker in tone than may be expected. I took three four-year-olds to the screening and, although none of them were visibly upset during the film, they confided in me later that they found some parts to be a bit frightening. Specifically, they described the mischievous hyenas as being both funny and scary.
On the brighter side, "The Lion King" upholds the Disney tradition of having a strong score (by Hans Zimmer) and catchy songs. At least two of five songs Elton John wrote for the film are likely to be nominated come Oscar time. The film's opening moments are set to the best of these, "Circle of Life", with the result being one of the most stirring animated sequences to come down the pike in years.
So forgive me if I tell you to gather up your whole family and run, don't walk, to see Disney's latest instant classic. When it comes to summer fun, "The Lion King" reigns supreme.