There's a lot to be said about a film that somehow manages to invoke Hamlet, Triumph of the Will, Bambi and The Bible while still finding time for a fart joke, a reference and Elton John songs. Coming after success of the beautifully old-school THE LITTLE MERMAID, the exquisite BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and the manic ALADDIN (with the underperforming THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER being the one spot of red ink on the Disney profit sheets during this time), THE LION KING solidified Disney's reemergence as the dominant player in the field of animated features. The next year, Disney would release Pixar's computer-generated TOY STORY, changing the nature of animated films, perhaps forever. So in a way, THE LION KING marks the end of an era.
THE LION KING is an excellent film, and I am going to award it four and a half stars by the time it is all said and done. It is majestic, stylish, tuneful and perfectly executed, and yet... and yet...
I wish it were a little less formal. With the new Broadway musical style of Disney films firmly in place, there are few surprises in THE LION KING. Once little cub Simba is told to run away by his evil uncle Scar, you just know that he will have some adventures with the comic relief, meet up with his childhood sweetheart once again and come back to retake the throne of his kingdom. Everything happens to plan at the exact time you expect it to. I know there is no pleasing me sometimes, but sometimes the fun of an animated film is not knowing where it is going. In THE JUNGLE BOOK, which had practically no story, there was the fun of the unexpected - who was Mowgli going to meet next along the jungle path? THE LITTLE MERMAID was also fashioned along the lines of a Broadway musical, but that was seemingly before Disney realized they could actually recycle their films into Broadway musicals. THE LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ALADDIN and THE LION KING are all fantastic films, but there is a sameness in approach that clearly shows a formula.
Still, it is hard to grumble about a film that tells the exact story you know it is going to tell and tells it so well. I admire the spirit that still existed at the Disney Studios back in 1994, when, like old Walt himself, they would rarely rest on their laurels. They had two major hits with THE LITTLE MERMAID and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, two "princess" films, yet they opted for something completely different in THE LION KING. It's even completely different from ALADDIN, even if it features a similar cool-demeanored villain with a bird for a sidekick. As in the days of old, the Disney animators had no problem mixing up character styles and not worrying about whether they would look odd together. For example, is there any character more bizarrely drawn than Pumbaa the Warthog? Yet he appears in scene after scene with the more realistic Simba and the two-footed, Warner Brotherish Timon the Meerkat, and it all works perfectly well. The villainish Scar is actually a rehash of George Sanders' Shere Khan from THE JUNGLE BOOK, but it is a rehash voiced by Jeremy Irons, so who's complaining?
The big hit from this movie was Elton John and Tim Rice's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight", one of those pleasant, dramatic and generic pop tunes that pass for Oscar-winning songs today. But the real fun is in "Hakuna Matata", sung by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa. ½ - JB
THE LION KING 2: SIMBA'S PRIDE (1998 - Direct to DVD)
THE LION KING 1 and ½ (2004 - Direct to DVD)