The Mouse Roars: ‘The Lion King’ Reviewed

25 years ago, we asked if Disney’s latest would “spawn a new American trade­mark.” Was there really any doubt?


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. ■

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