Voices of Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg
What gives this latest Disney cartoon a real excitement is its story, a swift, sometimes brutal tale of dynastic trouble in the animal kingdom. Simba, a princely lion cub deprived of his father and cheated out of the throne by the machinations of a murderous uncle, is forced to flee to another, distant jungle, there to mature, acquire a full mane that always looks freshly shampooed and brace himself for the inevitable showdown with Uncle Scar. The Lion King isn’t exactly Disney’s answer to I, Claudius (or, a suggestion that has been floated elsewhere, Hamlet), but it’s a nice, even welcome change of pace after such fairy tales as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. And, as usual, the animators have come up with splendid villains, ingeniously tailored to the performers who provide their voices. Uncle Scar, mangy-coated and bony-shouldered, is a flawless realization of Irons’ special talent, which is to suggest wickedness born of neurotic suffering. And his hench-hyena, Shenzi, has Whoopi Goldberg’s sarcastic merriment and shrewd, appraising eyes.
If The Lion King has faults, they’re no different than those in Beast or Aladdin. The animation is better than anyone else’s (there’s a blue rhinoceros beetle that qualifies as a bona fide bit of cartoon art), but in a cartoon project this ambitious you miss the painterly detail and depth of the old classics like Pinocchio or Bambi. (That sort of dazzlement is provided by a computer-animated wildebeest stampede.) The music, by Elton John with lyrics by Tim Rice, is heavy on Broadway-style belting (I can believe in singing jungle beasts, but not spotlights for them) and AM-radio pop ballads. And, as with Aladdin, there is a lot of distractingly slangy humor (including a reference to the song “It’s a Small World”) and visual “quotes” of everything from Nuremberg rallies (goose-stepping hyenas, believe it or not) to Raging Bull.
None of this means that kids and adults won’t have a great time. The Disney folks, who were never stupid, seem to become smarter with every cartoon. The Lion King is big, bold, roaringly loud. But it’s somehow saddening to think that Bambi, with his light-stepping hooves and simple heart, wouldn’t last 10 seconds here. (G)