Disney likely will set a new record for sales of a direct-to-video title when “The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride” roars into retail outlets Oct. 27. And don’t be surprised if some buyers aren’t parents of small children. In marked contrast to most of the studio’s small screen sequels to bigscreen animated hits, the new pic isn’t merely kids’ stuff. Not unlike its predecessor, “Lion King II” has enough across-the-board appeal to entertain viewers of all ages.
The sequel begins where the 1994 original ended, with Simba (voiced by Matthew Broderick) established as king of beasts in the African Pridelands after the death of the wicked Scar. With his loving mate Nala (Moira Kelly) by his side, Simba officiates at the ceremonial introduction of his newborn, Kiara (Neve Campbell). The curtain-raiser owes a lot to the opening “Circle of Life” sequence from the first “Lion King,” to the point of being underscored by a similarly rousing song (“He Lives in You”). Once that’s out of the way, however, the new pic (directed by Darrell Rooney, co-directed by Rob LaDuca and written by Flip Kobler & Cindy Marcus) begins to establish its own identity.
Much to the dismay of the overly protective Simba, Kiara is an inquisitive and energetic free spirit who tends to wander off on misadventures. While prowling through the forbidden Outlands, where Scar’s minions have been banished, the Lion Princess befriends another rambunctious cub, Kovu (Jason Marsden).
Unfortunately, Kovu is the son of Zira (Suzanne Pleshette), the lioness who leads the pride of exiles. Even more unfortunately, Zira — a close friend of the late Scar — is eager to destroy Simba. At first, Kovu is a willing pawn in his mother’s plans for revenge. But as he grows older and falls in love with Kiara, things get appreciably more complicated.
Most of the original characters — and, better still, the original voices — are back for “Lion King II.” Once again, Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella steal every scene that isn’t nailed down as, respectively, Timon, the mischievous meerkat, and Pumbaa, the flatulent warthog. Robert Guillaume gets a chance to shine as Rafiki when the sage mandrill cuts loose with “Upendi,” a playfully romantic ditty that echoes the jauntiness of the previous pic’s “Hakuna Matata.”
Among the newcomers, Campbell makes a winning impression as Kiara, while Pleshette is so effectively evil that she almost, but not quite, compensates for the absence of Jeremy Irons as Scar.
Animation, while hardly as lush and detailed as in the original, is markedly better than average for a direct-to-video production. Among the six new songs, the standouts include “We Are One,” an anthem-like showstopper, and the aforementioned “He Lives in You.” Latter, it’s worth noting, comes from a concept album (“Rhythm of the Pridelands”) inspired by the original 1994 pic. Subsequently, the song was incorporated into the Broadway production of “The Lion King.”