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Disney puts on a glitzy ‘Lion’ show

To beat the jungle drums for its summer release “The Lion King,” Disney dazzled the press with two on-lot gatherings Thursday that featured wild animals, generous clips from the film and hints about upcoming pix.

However, the highlight undoubtedly was the rare opportunity to see and hear Jeffrey Katzenberg sing.

Approximately 200 media members gathered for each of the two presentations on the Burbank studio’s Stage 1, which Disney dressed up with such touches as jungle foliage, an elephant, a giraffe, zebra and a baboon in diapers.

While the majority of the nearly two-hour sesh was devoted to tubthumping the new pic, Disney Studios chairman Katzenberg outlined the upcoming animation slate, including “Fa Mulan,” based on a Chinese folk tale, featuring music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; “Hercules,” songs by Alan Menken and David Zippel (“City of Angels”); and “Aida,” Tim Rice and Elton John.

Before that, the studio has slated two animated pix, both with music by Menken and lyrics by Schwartz, for ’95 release: “Pocohontas” (featuring Mel Gibson’s voice as John Smith), and “Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Regarding “Lion King,” Katzenberg introduced feature animation prez Peter Schneider, the pic’s directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, animator Andreas Deja, producer Don Hahn (who, in a reference to the Nancy Kerrigan remark, opened his spiel with, “This is the corniest thing I’ve ever done”), and lyricist Rice.

Katzenberg said they were “anxious to share” what he termed a work-in-progress, the studio’s 32nd animated film, which features no humans and is Disney’s first to be based on original source material.

If the promo session was designed to drum up media interest, the studio exceeded expectations, as journalists responded enthusiastically to behind-the-scenes footage, drawings and sequences from the film — some completed, some sketched, and some a combo of the two. Similar reactions were said to have greeted presentations in New York and at NATO/ShoWest.

The animators spoke about the toon process and about their political and psychological concerns with the plot, about a lion cub anguished over his father’s death, which was arranged by dad’s overly ambitious brother. (It’s basically “Hamlet,” but funnier, and with some zippier tunes.)

Rice spoke about the seven songs he and Elton John wrote — only five remain in the finished product — and Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella came out to sing “Hakuna Matata,” with Lane introducing backup singers Katzenberg, Rice and the animators as “the Katzenberg Harlettes.”

The studio chairman brought out 650-pound lion, Poncho, (who apparently wanted to illustrate the food chain as he headed for the giraffe), and later answered questions from the press as he sat on a stool with a 4-week-old lion cub on his lap (evoking big “Awwwwws” from the traditionally heartless media).

In one of the day’s several allusions to the almost indetectible toon nudity in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” Katzenberg confided that the laserdisc version of “Lion King” will reveal “a few frames where the animals wear clothes.”

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