The Mouse Roars
June 21, 1994
Not yet a part of our genetic material, The Lion King wastes no time irradiating the universe. A blood orange sun rising o’er the awesome perspective of an African savannah, this latest Disney animation opens with the apocalyptic pow of an atomic bomb bursting upon Yucca Flats.
If you’ve got it, flaunt it. The Lion King‘s pretitle sequence is a hothouse blend of stately hysteria and quasi-religious splendor. The sky is aflame, the peaceable kingdom runs amok. Shafts of light illuminate a geometric gaggle of giraffes. Elephants and gazelles cast fast-moving shadows. There’s a mock rack-focus from an army of purple termites to the blinding moire pattern of a zebra herd. A gibbering baboon capers atop the cliff. Behold: The lion cub Simba is born!
Clearly, The Lion King celebrates itself. The movie is both a newly minted corporate mythos (the first Disney animated feature based on an original story) as well as the megabuck ultimate in animated smoke and mirrors. Cosmic and craggy, The Lion King revels in natural phenomena. There are rainstorms and rock slides, lava flows and geysers, shimmering waterfalls and sparkly mists — not to mention an exuberant surplus of computer-animated aerial perspectives, vertiginous chase sequences, and a wildebeest stampede with the thunderous symmetry of an M.C. Escher brain-twister.
Closer to Bambi or even Dumbo than it is to The Jungle Book, The Lion King has little Simba frolic in his habitat, endure the death of his father Mufasa (dubbed by the voice of America, James Earl Jones), retreat into exile, grow up, and return to his people. That he’s obviously traumatized — in part, by life inside a Disney cartoon — contributes to a lack of sentimentality accentuated by comic references to various creatures’ respective positions on the food chain. The Lion King is populated by the regulation Disney galaxy of buzzy lil’ sidekicks and epicene villains, all prone to British accents. If the most elegant vocal performance belongs to Jeremy Irons as Simba’s treacherous Uncle Scar, the wittiest character animation is reserved for the trio of rabid hyenas (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings) who serve as his henchmen.
Since Roger Rabbit, Disney has become the grand repository of animation styles — its own brand of Zoo Parade quasi-naturalism now encompasses a measure of neo-Warners bug-eyed stretch, as well as a taste of Fleischer surreal vaudeville and the sort of landscape luminescence practiced in Japanese sci-fi. During his retreat, Simba falls in with a modified Ren and Stimpy team — a flatulent warthog and a shrill, streetwise meerkat. When this degenerate pair bring him to the jungle to munch on multicolored bugs, it’s a plunge into one of Tex Avery’s Raid commercials; a bit later, the dopey duo are dancing a hula as frantic and free-associational as any choreographed for Daffy Duck.
That two stars from the Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls supply the warthog and meerkat voices underscores The Lion King‘s extravagant theatricality. (This is the first animated feature that actually feels as though it were lit.) All pretense to “naturalism” is abandoned for the two designated showstoppers — kid Simba’s “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” and the warthog and meerkat’s “Hakuna Matata.” Both designed by Chris Sanders, the numbers are characterized by stridently flashing patterns, radical color shifts, and roving spotlights. The bilious yellow rally in which Scar addresses his hyena followers is another exercise in animated stagecraft — the would-be dictator rising like a Ziegfeld showgirl on the fiery cloud of a mechanical volcano.
Though not without a certain amount of static preening, embodied on the narrative level by granite-faced Mufasa, The Lion King is relaxed enough to reference Triumph of the Will (Uncle Walt was one of the few not to snub Leni Riefenstahl on her 1938 trip to Hollywood) and riff on the horror of “It’s a Small World After All.” The movie isn’t as inspired as Aladdin, nor is it as unexpectedly funny; instead of Robin Williams’s spritz there’s a glitzy patina of New Age mysticism and a greater degree of corporate sensitivity. Like the ghastly Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King is programmatically nonsexist; what’s more remarkable, however, is just how black it is.
The voices of Jones and Goldberg give lions and hyenas a shared negritude — and the baboon shaman has a heavy Caribbean accent. The songs, by Tim Rice and Elton John, incorporate Swahili expressions; the orchestration uses South African choirs; there are jokes predicated on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” and “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” would have made credible filler on an early Jackson 5 album. (Indeed, the number is sung by Jason Weaver, who played the young Michael Jackson in a 1992 telefilm.) It’s as if Disney just now realized Mickey’s color — or the basic black-and-white dynamic of American show biz.
The Lion King might have been made to celebrate the new South Africa but, four years in the works, its release marks the 10th anniversary of the Michael Eisner Era. Indeed, the movie is dedicated to the late Frank Wells, Eisner’s managerial partner in the corporate resurrection that followed the thwarted hostile takeovers of the early ’80s.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, Eisner’s head of film production, spins The Lion King as “a love story between a father and son” that concerns “the responsibility we have as torchbearers from one generation to the next.” When Mufasa tells his son that “everything the light touches is our kingdom,” and, later, the shaman Rafiki assures Simba that Mufasa “lives in you,” it’s impossible not to think of Walt Disney World and Walt’s reincarnation in Eisner.
After all, Disney is our most human corporation — the drama of “Disney After Disney” is that of “Family Business and the Business of Family,” to take professor Jon Lewis’s felicitous phrase. The Lion King produces additional human interest in the crucial realm of meta-entertainment as Disney battles Universal-Spielberg for the summer’s most lucrative franchise. The Lion King‘s primeval world is virginal compared to The Flintstones‘s ersatz Stone Age suburbia. Still The Lion King hopes to best The Flintstones‘s 550 licenses with an unprecedented marketing blitz. This ancillary war not only includes T-shirts, breakfast cereals, and candy bars but industrial titans as well — The Lion King having mobilized Kodak, Toys ‘R’ Us, and Burger King against The Flintstones‘s Sega, Mattel, and McDonald’s.
Is there an underlying anxiety that The Lion King will fail to spawn a new American trademark? Universal, after all, has gone Disney one better in treating the presold Flintstones as the recyclable by-product of a whole new dimension in the Universal Studios theme park. Disney, though, advances on many fronts. In the past few weeks, the made-for-video Return of Jafar has sold 1.5 million units sight unseen, while the critically disdained Beauty and the Beast rules Broadway (101.3 per cent capacity per Variety). The autobiography of mouseketeer Annette Funicello has been reviewed everywhere as the scholarly Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom is naturally ignored. Meanwhile, such rival pop historians as Shelby Foote, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and David McCullough unite to attack the proposed Virginia theme park “Disney’s America.”
Let Fred crow and the intellectuals rant. Everyone knows that Disney is already America’s official culture. The nation’s problems are almost identical with the corporation’s. Disney proposes to bail out 42nd Street even as the floundering Euro Disney is itself bailed out by Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. (Wonder how he liked Aladdin‘s “faraway place where they cut off your hands if they don’t like your face”?) Disney makes room in the Magic Kingdom for MGM, acquires Miramax to become the unlikely sponsor of Quentin Tarantino, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and even Bernardo Bertolucci, author of the eccentric European entry in the summer kiddiefest, Little Buddha. (Exploiting a promisingly underleveraged trademark, Bertolucci was sufficiently yabbadabba-doo to take Spielberg for his directorial model, but insufficiently visionary to cast Macaulay Culkin in the title role.)
Earlier this month, the unofficial celebration of Gay and Lesbian Pride Day at Walt Disney World even produced a Magic Queendom where, according to The New York Times, “the proportion of outwardly gay men and lesbians at the amusement park made [it] streets resemble those of Greenwich Village.” Perhaps all Americans should be issued Disney stock certificates at birth. The corporation’s secret motto has changed from Mickey Über Alles to Disney ‘R’ Us. ■