The Lion King (1994) / Animation-Adventure
MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences (I personally would give it a strong PG for violence and mature themes)
Running Time: 89 min.
Cast (voices): Matthew Broderick, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Robert Guillaume, Ernia Sabella, Rowan Atkinson
Director: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff
Screenplay: Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton
Disney continues its string of instant classic family films with one of their best in recent years, The Lion King. Essentially, it's a loose interpolation of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," set in the fields of Africa, with lots of typical Disney anthropomorphic creatures to sing and dance for our every amusement. It's a solid endeavor, with excellent characterizations and a good deal of heart that keeps keen interest, while also blessed with a memorable soundtrack.
Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, "Home Improvement") is a lion cub currently being groomed to be the next king of the plains, which is currently the job of his father, the strong, brave Mufasa (James Earl Jones, The Sandlot). Mufasa's slighter, but wilier brother, Scar (Irons, Reversal of Fortune), wants to be the king in the worst way, and devises a plan to usurp the vaunted position for himself. But first, he needs to get Mufasa out of the way, and Simba as the next in the blood line. Banished in exile, Simba finds a life of no worries, but destiny calls him. Will he be ready to avenge Scar's misdeeds?
The Lion King works on nearly every level. I won't go so far as saying it is a masterpiece, but it is definitely worthy of being called a classic in the Disney arc, containing all of the elements that the greats of the 1930s and 1940s delivered. Although many clearly will be enamored of the catchy soundtrack, or the colorful animation, where The Lion King's strength really lies is in good storytelling. You feel for Simba and his plight, which pays off well during the sadder moments, later becoming thrilling when the confrontation between the Simba and Scar manifests itself in a fiery, cataclysmic finale.
I feel the need to point out that the MPAA ratings system has a perfunctory tendency to give G ratings to anything that is animated and has the word "Disney" above the title. While it probably isn't going to permanently wreck the psyche of any young children out there, The Lion King is quite a dark, scary and often violent film. Yes, it's all a cartoon, but there is a murder of a main character, and a handful of attempted killings throughout, and while people feel that animation equals innocuous fare, The Lion King is not cartoonish in its handling of these adult themes. Heck, the flatulence alone should have been enough to kick it to PG, even if there weren't several scenes of murder and mayhem.
On the flip side, The Lion King will appeal to adults more than most Disney films just by being more mature in its themes, so even adults without children should find much to like here. Nice scenery, pleasant music, and a very strong story all add up to one of the grand, timeless entertainments of the 90s for young and old alike. Watching this will become an integral part of the "circle of life" for future generations for a long time to come.
-- Followed by two straight-to-video sequels, The Lion King II: Simba's Pride (1998) and The Lion King 1 1/2 (2004). Also a spin off into an animated television series, "Timon and Pumbaa" (1995-1998).
©2003 Vince Leo