Set off by some of the richest imagery the studio’s animators have produced, and held together by a timeless coming-of-age tale, “The Lion King” marks a dazzling — and unexpectedly daring — addition to the Disney canon. There’s little doubt that this film, abetted by a marvelous cast of star voices and songs by Elton John and Tim Rice tending toward huge, sonorous choral numbers, will draw huge, sonorous crowds this summer and beyond.
But the film shifts from upbeat sequences, featuring two snappy sidekicks and plenty of good-hearted accomplices in the classic Disney mold, to scenes of truly terrifying animal-kingdom violence that should cause parents to think twice before bringing along the “Little Mermaid” set.
And though the songs are well-integrated with a story that’s part”Candide,” part “Hamlet,” they lack the charm and subtle wit of the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman tunes for “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
A mesmerizing pre-credits opening sets up the story and establishes an epic tone that carries through much of the movie. As the sun rises over the African jungle, the animals gather in teeming flocks and herds and broods — gazelles, giraffes, birds, zebras — heeding a call to assembly as the anthemic “Circle of Life” builds over the animals’ sounds to a roaring crescendo when they come together in a clearing beneath a promontory.
Up there, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the Lion King, and his Queen, Sarabi (Madge Sinclair), look on approvingly as the mystical baboon Rafiki (Robert Guillaume) presents their cub, Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), as the future Lion King, while Zazu the hornbill (a hilarious Rowan Atkinson) flits about, making sure the King’s bidding is attended to (think Sebastian in “Mermaid”).
But there’s a shadow on the festivities, and it’s not feminists seeing red over such grandiose patriarchal partying. It’s Mufasa’s brother Scar (Jeremy Irons), a dangerous mix of jealousy, murderous intent and bitchiness.
With a trio of menacing, snarly and equally bitchy hyenas — Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg), Banzai (Cheech Marin) and Ed (Jim Cummings) — Scar beginshis campaign to kill off his competition for the throne, enticing Simba and his girlfriend, Nala (Niketa Calame), to venture into forbidden territory, which turns out to be a hyena-packed elephant’s graveyard.
Saving the teeny couple from being devoured by the pack, Mufasa teaches his son a lesson about leadership. At one point, father and son look into a starry sky — aside from the animals, the film’s most ravishing depictions are the deep and brilliant night skies — and Mufasa explains that the stars are the kings of the past watching over them.
That information comes in handy in the movie’s most stunning sequence, which finds Mufasa again saving Simba, this time from a swarming stampede of hyenas and wildebeests set in motion by Scar.
The prolonged, charged scene concludes with Mufasa, having saved Simba, crawling up a mountainside, only to be met by Scar, who promptly and brutally commits fratricide and then convinces Simba it was all his fault. As Hans Zimmer’s tumultuous score quiets down, the young cub sets out in exile while Scar and the hyenas take over the jungle.
Finally, the fun begins, as Simba ends up in a kind of Shangri-La, where he’s befriended by a flatulent, grub-loving wart hog named Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and a dishy meerkat, Timon (Nathan Lane, stealing the show). They teach him the pleasures of “Hakuna Matata,” which basically means, “Don’t worry, be happy,” and is sung by Lane and Sabella with delightful irreverence.
But those stars keep reminding Simba, now grown (and voiced by Matthew Broderick), of his destiny, with an assist from Nala (voiced beautifully by Moira Kelly). Simba returns to a home left barren and wasted by Scar’s selfish tyranny, and nephew and uncle battle to the death as volcanic fireworks explode around them. The natural order is restored, and nature responds with almost unseemly generosity.
While the individual animal characters are represented with typical Disney cleverness, the herds are memorable for their unexpected realism, the zebras in particular — thanks to marvelous advances in computer-assisted animation. And kudos, too, to Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton for an involving screenplay that handles shifts in tone with considerable grace.
Disney has mounted a huge promotional effort with this movie, what with tie-ins to zoos and personal appearances by various emissaries from the animal kingdom.
None of it is necessary. “The Lion King” doesn’t need any help standing alone as a tale that should give parents and older children plenty to talk about. Nevertheless, a generation that remembers the death of Bambi’s mother as traumatizing should bear that experience in mind when deciding who goes to “The Lion King” — and who stays home with the babysitter.