The modern Disney cartoon feature is an adventure of the spirit -- a guided tour through eruptive emotions. The Little Mermaid plunged briskly into the growing pains of a creature that felt as isolated from the shimmering haut monde as any Afghan peasant or Harlem street kid. Beauty and the Beast took a stroll in the woods with a fellow who needed lessons in the civilizing power of love. The Aladdin carpet ride revealed a whole grownup world of pleasures and perils to a young thief who started out in search of only a quick spin with a pretty princess.
Out of these excursions came show-business magic. Disney's handsome fantasies satisfied as master lessons in the storytelling craft. They rekindled the art and emotion of the studio's classic animation style; they showed Broadway what it had forgotten about integrating popular music into a potent story; and they reassembled the fragmented movie audience -- these are pictures all races and ages enjoy. Fifty years from now they will probably be enthralling the grandchildren of kids who thrill to Dumbo and other Disney relics today.
In the process they have made enough money to please even Scrooge McDuck. Everybody from Disney renegades to Steven Spielberg tries making cartoon epics; Disney alone consistently succeeds. The studio, which issued (or reissued) only 12 of the 42 animated features that were released in the past five years, has grabbed 83% of the North American box-office take for the genre. (Aladdin has earned $1 billion from box-office income, video sales and such ancillary baubles as Princess Jasmine dresses and Genie cookie jars.)
At heart, though, Aladdin and its kin were the merest, dearest emotional travelogues. They alighted on a dream here, a resentment there; they poked at a feeling until it sang a perky or rhapsodic Alan Menken tune. Nothing was lacking in these terrific movies, but something was missing: primal anguish, the kind that made children wet the seats of movie palaces more than a half- century ago as they watched Snow White succumb to the poison apple or Bambi's mother die from a hunter's shotgun blast. Disney cartoons were often the first films kids saw and the first that forced them to confront the loss of home, parent, life. These were horror movies with songs, Greek tragedies with a cute chorus. They offered shock therapy to four-year-olds, and that elemental jolt could last forever.
Get out the Pampers, Mom. Get ready to explain to the kids why a good father should die violently and why a child should have to witness the death. And while you're at it, prepare to be awed at the cunning of a G-rated medium that brings to bright life emotions that can be at once convulsive, cathartic and loads of fun. In The Lion King, premiering in New York City and Los Angeles this week and opening around the U.S. on June 24, primal Disney returns with a growl.