In 'The Lion King,' the animation roars

June 24, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

It's good to be the king.

This is the thrust of "The Lion King," the new Disney animated feature film opening today, which wants to be about fathers and sons but can't quite break free of the fact that it's about kings and princes. Although it's state of the art, one might say that in terms of its values, it's the best animated film of the 19th century.

Beautifully mounted and dynamically told, it follows Simba, Prince of the Beasts, son of the mighty Mufassa (James Earl Jones), current holder of the kingship. In an opening sequence and one of the most visually arresting in the Disney canon, young Simba is introduced to the world he will inherit. It stretches before him, green, lovely and abundant, like a beloved country, and the animals line up in hierarchical ordering and supplicate themselves to the King of the Beasts and his son, who stand before them like Zeus and company on the throne of the gods.

But in this demi-Eden there's a serpent, or rather, another lion with a nasty attitude problem. Scar, Mufassa's brother, is a figure straight out of Shakespeare, where he was called Claudius. Alas, this means that Simba stands in for Hamlet, but he's a lot less complicated; in fact, he's less complicated than Morris the Cat or Sylvester. The animal he most resembles is the Beaver -- the one played by Jerry Mathers.

Anyway, Jeremy Irons, in a voice plummy-rich with rancid irony, plays Scar, who wants to be the king himself and resents the rightful heir. Thus he begins to scheme and plot against the legitimate holders of the throne and its succession by forging an alliance with the hated hyenas, portrayed as a formation of cackling brown shirts.

Meanwhile, so infantile is young Simba that he cavorts in simple innocence, gamboling with the birds and the wildebeests across an African savannah that looks untouched by either man or the violence of, er, nature. Where is this place, Disneyland? In a painting by Henri Rousseau? True enough, the film does at some length acknowledge the reality of the food chain -- you know, that the big guys tear up the little guys and then eat their flesh -- but of course never really faces the implications.

Soon, Scar springs his trap with his hyena allies. This is the film's most thunderous sequence, two years in the making, and a prettier piece of animated showing-off has probably never been assembled. Scar elaborately puts the boy-child at risk in a gully, then panics a herd of wildebeest into it, banking on the courage and nobility of Mufassa to come to his son's rescue. Both will be turned to rugs.

The stampede is brilliantly evoked, a torrent of panicked hooves, an irresistible tide which destroys all that comes before it. But the subtlest and most powerful suggestion of the film is yet to come: When Simba survives, Scar effectively ruins him by convincing him he's responsible for his father's death. His guilt all-consuming, the boy flees into exile and allows Scar to take over the pride, which in turns seems to unleash ruination upon the landscape. (The implication is that since the natural order has been inverted, the natural world is in rebellion.)

But to be or not to be, that is not the question. To fight or not to fight, that is not the question either. What is the question? There is no question. In fact, Simba the Exile is even less interesting than Simba the Prince: He gives himself up to the pleasures of vaudeville -- as represented by two "comic" characters, a Meerkat and a Wart-hog -- while subsisting on a diet of worms and other creepy crawlers. Show-biz wise, it's a smart move, because it opens the film up musically -- no other number is as winning as "Hakuna Matata," sung by Broadway guys Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella. It also admits a spirit of play to the piece, a necessary counterweight to the gloomy Mitteleuropean realpolitik of the plot. (At one point, Lane and Sabella even take a shot at the absurd "It's a Small World, After All" song, possibly the most hated lyric in the world.)

But dramatically, it's a big mistake: The movie would be so much better if in exile Simba were tested by some ordeal and learned the strength and wisdom that would do him well in the battle to come, or if he studied. Instead, it's like he's joined a dinner theater or the Spotlighters.

In fact, the plot feels like it was hatched at one of those screenwriting seminars so popular in Hollywood culture that distill 100 great movies into one meta-program which instructs you when to lay in the Big Dramatic Moments. But toward the end of "The Lion King," the Big Dramatic Moments feel arbitrary and undramatized, as if they're following the program, not the organic rhythms of the story. When it's time for Simba to return, he does, without much in the way of self-doubt or torment, and faces his enemy for the throne.

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