Lion King, The (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"Hamlet" meets The Jungle Book - that's what The Lion King is - adding, of course, a few special touches all its own. Disney's 32nd animated feature film is its darkest since The Black Cauldron, and, in many ways, a departure from the light-heartedness of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. There are moments of fun and humor, to be sure, but the undercurrent is of a far more serious, "adult" nature.

The Lion King is primarily about guilt and redemption. Simba, a young lion cub and heir to his father's throne, is led to believe that he was the cause of the king's death. The trauma caused by this is so great that Simba goes into exile, attempting to find peace-of-mind through anonymity in the company of a warthog and a meerkat. But it's never that easy to escape the past...

The "Hamlet" parallels are all there for the discerning adult to note. Mufasa, king of the lions, is killed by a treacherous brother who subsequently takes over the rule of the kingdom. Simba, the beloved son, is wracked by guilt and impotence until the ghost of his father gives him instruction on what actions he should take. Death, something not really touched on in the last three animated Disney tales, is very much at the forefront of The Lion King. In a scene that could disturb younger viewers, Mufasa's demise is shown. It is a chilling moment that is reminiscent of a certain incident in Bambi. The film also contains a fair share of violence, including a rather graphic battle between two lions. Parents should carefully consider before automatically taking a child of, say, under seven years of age, to this movie.

After three animated motion pictures centered upon the love of two people from different worlds, The Lion King's focus is different. This time around, the love story (between Simba and the lioness Nala) is a subplot. The film is most concerned with its young hero's coming-of-age, and the responsibilities that arrive with adulthood - including the need to confront guilt and its associated fear.

Scar, Simba's treacherous uncle, is the latest in a long line of Disney antagonists. Gone is the buffoonery that has marked the recent trio of Ursula, Gaston, and Jafar. Scar is a sinister figure, given to acid remarks and cunning villainy. The cold-hearted manner in which he causes Mufasa's death lets us know that this is not a lion to be trifled with.

An all-star cast was selected to supply The Lion King's voices. Jeremy Irons, with his dry British accent, is a critical element of Scar's personality. James Earl Jones lends his booming bass to Mufasa, truly a lord of the jungle. Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin play a pair of laughing hyenas, Rowan Atkinson uses his vocal talents for a sour-tongued bird, and Moira Kelly's Nala is the sole significant female character. Matthew Broderick, with his rather nondescript voice, is the adult Simba, with Jonathan Taylor Thomas as the cub.

The animation, as expected from any Disney film, is superior. As usual, as much attention is given to small background details as to foreground principals. Lighting and color are used to highlight the shifting tone of the picture (the sunny warmth of Mufasa's kingdom to the dreary barrenness of Scar's), and the animators have never lost sight that their subjects are not human.

Since 1989's The Little Mermaid, the musical element of any Disney animated picture has been nearly as important as the visual one (the three previous movies have garnered a total of twelve Grammy awards). With the songwriting team of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman (replaced following his death by Tim Rice) in charge, the soundtracks for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin have become huge commercial successes. For The Lion King, Menken is absent. The songs here are by Elton John and Tim Rice, with the score coming from composer Hans Zimmer.

Two of the five John/Rice songs are rather unimpressive ("I Just Can't Wait to Be King" and "Hakuna Matata"), one is decent ("Be Prepared"), and two are quite good ("Circle of Life" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight"). "Circle of Life," the opening number, is a visual extravaganza that may be the most astounding sequence ever in any animated film. "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" is The Lion King's love song, although it leaves you wondering if either Matthew Broderick or Moira Kelly can sing, since the song vocals of Simba and Nala are supplied by Joseph Williams and Sally Dworsky, respectively.

The soundtrack weakness of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin - a dull score - has been rectified in The Lion King. Hans Zimmer, using a style similar to the one he employed for The Power of One, brings an African flavor to his music, and incorporates the five songs seamlessly.

With each new animated release, Disney seems to be expanding its already-broad horizons a little more. The Lion King is the most mature (in more than one sense) of these films, and there clearly has been a conscious effort to please adults as much as children. Happily, for those of us who generally stay far away from "cartoons," they have succeeded.

Lion King, The (United States, 1994)

Run Time: 1:27
U.S. Release Date: 1994-06-15
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1