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 Knicks reference is revealing. Katzenberg grew up in Manhattan, and in the Disney cartoons he has brought one of its institutions west. To state it bluntly: Broadway died and went to Disney. Pop went sour, and Disney smartly sweetened it. With Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman importing their Broadway savvy for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (which completed the circle by opening as a Broadway show this spring), Disney reopened the franchise that Walt founded with Snow White's dreamy Some Day My Prince Will Come. Last year the Menken-Rice A Whole New World from Aladdin won the Oscar for best song -- the third time in four years that a Disney cartoon theme has won the award.

In The Lion King, Rice and John follow the Menken-Ashman formula. Music dramatizes moods (the first-act "I Want" song, when the young protagonist proclaims his or her dreams, is Simba's bouncy, Michael Jacksonish I Just Can't Wait to Be King) and prods the action (Hakuna Matata, which carries Simba from boyhood to manhood). The album just couldn't wait to be a hit. Two weeks before the movie opens nationwide, the soundtrack is already No. 13 on Billboard's pop-music chart.

Music can break hearts and make the Top 40. But a cartoon's narrative imagination is first and finally in the images. Animation is a supple form; it can be as free as free verse, as fanciful as a Bosch landscape. The Lion King's bold palette (blinding yellows and blooming greens to portray the savannah and high grass) cues subtle or seismic shifts in tone and character. Thanks to the devotion of nearly 400 artists, each shot registers its beauty and simplicity.

Seeming simplicity, that is. "When we do a film well," says Walt's nephew, company vice chairman Roy Disney, "we make it look easy, like a good golf swing. People say, 'I can do that.' "

Someday somebody will; Disney's way is not the only way. Says Katzenberg: "On this planet today is another Walt Disney, waiting for that moment when his or her genius is going to produce something great, and competitive to us."

Not as long as Disney monopolizes cartoon royalty with the likes of Simba and his ingratiating menagerie. In the world of feature cartoons, everybody else is a mere cat. Disney is the lion king.

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