A Lame, and Troubling, Lion

"Sometimes bad things happen and there's nothing you can do about it." This sobering message -- only one of several downbeat pronouncements in what's supposed to be an exuberant flick for kids -- is given to the young lion cub Simba in The Lion King. Such advice, along with the rather alarming rites of passage Simba has to go through before ascending to the animal throne, cuts to the quick of Disney's latest animated feature. The Lion King is definitely sketchy, frequently monochrome and debatably PG, even though it's actually rated G.

Cute Simba, who speaks in Disney's uniquely generic little-white-boy voice, has two great influences: Mufasa, his noble father, and Scar, his wicked uncle. In rearing his heir, Mufasa doesn't shy away from topics others might shun, principally teaching the prepubescent the ominous lesson that "everything you see exists together in a delicate balance." At a pivotal moment Mufasa waxes spiritual, albeit obtusely: "Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than you have become. You must take your place in the circle of life." Such Joseph Campbell-cum-Robert Bly reductionisms carry a certain weight, since they're spoken in the voice of James Earl Jones. But that voice doesn't last long; early in the film, Mufasa is -- on screen and quite visibly -- trampled to death in a wildebeest stampede arranged by the evil Scar. Simba is then manipulated into thinking he was the cause of his father's death, and into banishing himself to the wilderness, thus leaving the kingdom in Scar's paws. The movie's climax is a violent fight to the death between tyrant Scar and a grown-up Simba. Bambi this ain't.

The Lion King wants to be about nature's, and our own, inevitable yet regenerative evolution. But while Bambi took its time telling a similar story, The Lion King rushes, dealing only cursorily with the stages of development it purports to reflect. Simba's maturation in exile, for instance, occurs literally over the course of a song his new pals sing to cheer him up. And his motivation to return is wrapped up in a romp with a childhood lioness friend, whose main function is to work in a ballad ready-made for Oscar night. Such lack of thought is also evident in the characterization of Scar. Though evil, he's said to be diabolically smart; inexplicably, however, his rule brings famine to the land. Unlike in other Disney films, which have been based on well-known fairy tales, the original story here simply doesn't account for itself.

Even Disney's famed animation falls short. Though the opening sequence is spectacular -- a chanting musical introduction to the animal kingdom, with birds soaring and antelopes bounding across sweeping African landscapes -- and though the computer-generated stampede that kills Mufasa is exciting in its own troubling way, much of the animation lacks vibrancy and depth. And while the film's five songs fit their job specs, Disney has yet to find another songwriting team with the panache of Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman, the minds behind the music of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Elton John's lush sound doesn't quite fit Tim Rice's perfunctory lyrics.

Disney has assembled an entertaining group of voices, among them Whoopi Goldberg as a henchman hyena and Rowan Atkinson as a hapless hornbill major-domo. Jeremy Irons is so deliciously sarcastic and supercilious as Scar that he even repeats his famous line from Reversal of Fortune: "You have no idea." When it comes to in-jokes and other humorous moments, many for grownups, Disney has always done well.

But with a script that at one point equates a hyena wasteland with low-income minority communities, the only thing that rules in The Lion King is disappointment.

The Lion King.
Starring the voices of James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg, Rowan Atkinson and Cheech Marin.

87 minutes.

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