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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Every Disney cartoon drama is laced with intoxicating comedy, with harlequins and hellcats. From Pinocchio on, the villain makes use of a sly sense of humor and a few goofy abettors. Scar, whom Irons plays with wicked precision as the purring offspring of Iago and Cruella De Vil, hires a pack of hyenas as his goons: clever Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg), giddy Banzai (Cheech Marin) and idiotic Ed (Jim Cummings), who says little but is happy to chew voraciously on his own leg. The hero's helpers, who save Simba in the desert and teach him their live-for-today philosophy, Hakuna matata -- Swahili for "What, me worry?" -- are Timon (Nathan Lane), a streetwitty meerkat, and the lumbering wart-hog Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). They chew beetles.

Lane and Sabella, veterans of the Guys and Dolls revival on Broadway, make up in dynamite comic camaraderie what they may lack in marquee value. "I have no idea if they considered major motion-picture stars for our parts," says Lane pensively. "Do you suppose they were thinking of the Menendez brothers?" Lane loved the work, which involved mainly "acting silly for several hours and trying to make the directors laugh." Irons also enjoyed the spontaneity of the process. In animation, words come before pictures, so improvising actors help develop characters and dialogue. "It's extraordinary," Irons says. "It's as though the animators, the writers and the performers are all creating at the same moment."

The directors and animators, though, create for years. That takes teamwork, discipline and sustained passion. "The creative process is usually thought to be an individual inspiration," says Michael Eisner, who runs the Disney empire. "And that's true if you're sitting on Walden Pond writing an essay or a poem or short story. But this is a different kind of creative form, even more so than a regular movie. I can't point to any one person and say, 'If it were not for him, we wouldn't have this movie.' But I can point to a series of people." Even the stars and directors are treated differently in a Disney animated feature, having traded huge salaries and profit participation for a chance to create dazzling popular art.

Eisner might have cited Katzenberg as the one man -- the modern Walt, who does not create the story or draw the pictures but whose imprint is indelible in a million questions and suggestions, in his noodging and kibitzing, in refusing to be quickly pleased. Yet Katzenberg denies authorial status. "This is not me having a humility attack," he says. "It's just that the characterization isn't true. If you want, you can call me the coach. When Pat Riley coaches a basketball team, they do pretty good. Yet the absolute reality is that Riley did not put one ball through one net for the Knicks this entire year."

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