Disney has always been the Mercedes of animation. That was true even during its fallow years and its occasional forays into economic arenas - European theme parks, R-rated adult films - that likely would have forced Uncle Walt to give pause.
But since the late 1980s, when the studio began to reawaken to the possibilities of the very genre that brought it into being, Disney has succeeded even beyond its wildest expectations.
In 1989, “The Little Mermaid” redefined the animated musicalromance-adventure, winning praise for its quick-paced story-telling and its inspiring, Oscar-winning songs.
In 1991, “Beauty and the Beast” achieved a height no other animated film - not “Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs,” not “Fantasia” - had attained: It won an Oscar nomination for Best Motion Picture.
That “Beauty and the Beast,” possibly the best of all of Disney’s animated efforts, didn’t win its Oscar is not important. That it was even mentioned in the same breath with eventual winner “The Silence of the Lambs” is.
The result was that tickets flowed through Disney box offices like doubloons through a Caribbean Pirate’s fingers.
“Aladdin” (1992) continued Disney’s Oscar ways with musical scores and led to the 1994 feature that is available in video stores this weekend: “The Lion King.”
In the upcoming Oscar show on March 27, Disney’s “The Lion King” is up for four musical Oscars - for the songs “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata” and for Hans Zimmer’s score.
But to relegate any of Disney’s more recent efforts, but especially “The Lion King,” simply to the scrapheap of pop balladry amounts to a crime against art. Each film, and especially “The Lion King,” is more than the sum of its parts, much less any part in particular.
You don’t enjoy the overwhelming financial success of “The Lion King” - $312 million in theatrical returns and still rising - by boasting merely a hummable song or two.
It is fair to say “The Lion King” might not be a match to some of Disney’s better efforts from the immediate past. Certainly, it doesn’t have the plot complexity of “Beauty and the Beast,” the comic genius of Robin Williams (“Aladdin”) nor the infectious songs of “The Little Mermaid.”
Nevertheless, it is a worthy contributor to the Disney legacy. Based on an original story, it tells of a lion cub’s struggle to succeed his father as king of the African plains.
In a plot twist unfamiliar to this era of family-values emphasis, the screenplay draws on the same tragic theme expressed in Disney’s 1942 feature “Bambi”: the death of a parent. Yet “The Lion King” outstrips even “Bambi” in darkness by, temporarily at least, pointing the finger of responsibility for the death directly at the young cub.
But while this sense of blame and the dark sequences of cartoon violence (especially those featuring the “bad” lion, voice by Jeremy Irons) may be particularly disturbing to very young children, overall the film is a majestic achievement.
The light tunes by Tim Rice and Elton John would rate an 85 on a Dick Clark scale (“They have a good beat, and you can dance to them,” the aging deejay might say). The vocal characterizations by Irons, James Earl Jones, Robert Guillaume, Matthew Broderick and others, are typically good. And the computerenhanced animation (watch for the wildebeest stampede) is state-of-theart.
Most of all, though, the film puts forward a message of healing. It says you can run from life, but you can’t hide from yourself - nor your destiny.
Even Uncle Walt approved of redemption.
“The Lion King” carries a G rating. ****
Quote of the week
Max McQueen of the Cox News Service says this about the Phoebe Cates-Kevin Kline film “Princess Caraboo”: “For home viewing, any age or gender will find ‘Princess Caraboo’ of passing interest. It’s the kind of casual film that you can watch with one eye while doing more important things. Like folding the laundry.”
The coming of Oscar
The following Oscar-nominated films are tentatively scheduled for release: “The Shawshank Redemption” (Best Picture) April 11; “Quiz Show” (Best Picture) April 18; “Blue Sky” (Best Actress, Jessica Lange) April 25; “Forrest Gump” (13 nominations, including Best Picture) April 27.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: What’s new to view Available this weekend: “The Lion King” (Disney) Available on Tuesday: “Jason’s Lyric” (Polygram), “Milk Money” (Paramount), “WWF Royal Rumble” (CVI).