CINEMA: The Mouse Roars

Like Disney's other recent cartoon features, The Lion King is winning and gorgeous; like Disney's animated classics, it also touches primal emotions

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The studio's 32nd animated feature tells of a lion cub who loses his birthright to an evil relative before regaining both his pride and his, er, pride. The film has jolly moments, delicious comic characters and five songs (by Elton John and Tim Rice), all so simple and infectious that you could immediately commit them to memory even if you weren't destined to hear them on tie-in commercials this summer for Burger King, Nestle, Kodak and General Mills. And yes, there's the hilariously extravagant production number that climaxes with whirlwind editing and a stupendous pyramid of pelts. With all this, The Lion King is almost guaranteed to be one of the huge hits of this bustling movie season.

Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, The Lion King is a film of firsts for the studio. "It is our first cartoon feature not based on a fable or a literary work," says Disney movie boss Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has overseen the animation unit since he joined the mouse factory in 1984. "It's the first where there's no human character or human influence. Our animators went back on all fours, and they'll tell you it's 10 times harder to make an animal talk and be expressive than it is to do that with a human." Nor is it easy to study a 500-lb. lion close up, as the directors and animators did ("The handlers tell you not to wear cologne," says Minkoff, "and not to dress like a zebra"). But the real challenge was to relate a moral tale of aristocratic dignity, and to do this in a pop-cultural era when feel-good facetiousness reigns. Comedy is easy these days; majesty is hard.

Not since Bambi has so much been at stake in a Disney tale. There are kingdoms to be sundered, deaths to be atoned for. The father of a prince is killed, and his conniving uncle seizes the throne; driven from the kingdom, the lad leads a carefree life until the father's ghost instructs him to seek honorable revenge. Put it another way: a boy leaves home, escapes responsibility with some genially irresponsible friends, then returns to face society's obligations. The Lion King is a mix of two masterpieces cribbed for cartoons and brought ferociously up to date. On the grasslands of Africa, Huck Finn meets Hamlet.

The hero is Simba (voiced as a child by Home Improvement's Jonathan Taylor Thomas and as an adult by Matthew Broderick). This cub is the headstrong son of lion king Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and nephew of the green-eyed Scar (Jeremy Irons), who with oleaginous irony hides his intentions to kill Mufasa and Simba and become a low-down, schemin', lyin' king. After Scar engineers Mufasa's downfall in a wildebeest stampede, Simba slinks into exile and away from duty, until at the urging of his father's spirit and of his friend Nala (Moira Kelly), the young lion returns home to challenge Scar and renew the circle of dynastic life.

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