'Lion King' directors break and blend with the Disney past Reanimating animation

June 26, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Old Disney: parochial, smug, genteel, self-reverential, avuncular, secret control freak. Dress code: coat and tie or (optional) country-club attire, complete to white belt and polyesters. Jokes about . . . nothing. Quote: "Well, I think Walt would want it that way."

New Disney: Young, irreverent, hip. Facial hair. Dress code: It's hot, wear shorts. Jokes about . . . snicker, snicker . . . Uncle Walt. Quote: "We were concerned about sexism in lion culture."

Yes, new Disney, as in "The Lion King," as in Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, the directors, who alone in a Washington hotel full of dreary men in suits with little pointy shoes, show up in shorts and T-shirt (Roger) or khakis and polo (Rob).

The two young men seem to represent a break with the Disney past. Their film "The Lion King," for example, is the first full-length animated Disney feature that isn't based on a story from another source. It's wholly original, a polyglot of Shakespearean riffs, motifs ripped untimely from the tome of Joseph Campbell, vaudeville shtick and Elton John tunes.

Moreover, there's a kind of toughness to it completely alien to recent Disney product. It shows death. It alludes to the fact that animals eat other animals and that nature isn't some kind of gentle mutual-admiration society, an African Woodstock. It also shows murder and conspiracy, doubt and self-loathing, fierce physical combat. It adheres -- at least to a certain degree -- to the politically incorrect patriarchal values of lion biology, in which male is king and female is servant and huntress. It even pokes fun at icons of Disney culture, like the song "It's a Small World After All."

"Oy," says Rob Minkoff, "I hate that song."

Minkoff is the artistic-looking one, with a shock of red hair and an earnest delicacy about him. He'd be the beatnik. Allers is bigger, huskier, sunburned. He could be a professional hunter off the African plain, with a blond goatee and a .416 Rigby under his arm, but, heh-heh-heh, he's not that politically incorrect. He does have the goatee, however, and a big spray of blond hair.

As a team, they represent a unique blend of in-house and out-of-town background. Minkoff is Disney all the way, a graduate in animation of the California Institute of the Arts, which a kind of feeder pool for the Disney feature animation department. He started at Disney as an intern in 1982 and even trained with animator Roy Larson, one of the legendary "nine old men" who were the core animators of the original great Disney period. He's been a Disney lifer ever since.

Allers, on the other hand, is the new guy, relatively. He became hooked on Disney animation when he saw "Peter Pan," but after Arizona State University he pretty much made his living as an animator-for-hire in the Boston area and had only a brief, six-month shot as a storyboard artist for Disney on "Tron."

He spent time in Toronto and Tokyo, where he worked as a director on the Japanese film "Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland." He started at Disney in 1985, as a storyboard person for "Oliver & Company," and has picked up a reputation as a story editor, working on the structures of the last six animated Disney features.

Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside, here to advance a movie that's being called "Hamlet" in lion skins, about a king's heir who is dispossessed by his murderous uncle and who returns after exile to reclaim the throne.

"Well, it's really not 'Hamlet,' not literally," says Minkoff. "We were aware that there were similarities, but we didn't set out to copy the tragedy. It's a universal story, and we wanted to deal with the subject, the loss of a parent and the way a survivor must find his own way."

"Besides," adds Allers, "there's another big difference. In 'Hamlet' the ghost comes at the beginning. In ours, the ghost comes at the end."

But of course "The Lion King," while it may not be a literal "Hamlet," clearly reiterates the motif of patriarchal hegemony, in the European sense of an heir to the throne deserving the power and the glory of the kingship by dint of his blood-right. The movie is all about male blood-right in one sense or other.

If you raised this idea with someone from Old Disney -- the directors, say, of "Snow White," -- here's the response you'd get: "Huh?"

Not so with New Disney.

"Well," says Minkoff, "we didn't want it to be about kings literally. We thought about kings metaphorically. But the story has to be patriarchal, because it is about lions and lions are patriarchal by nature. But the central idea is that everybody can find a place, not that all things are predestined."

"The king is a metaphor for leadership," says Allers, "for taking responsibility. We don't see the story as gender-based."

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