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Friday, June 24, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`The Lion King' Is A Royal Treat

Movie review

XXX 1/2 "The Lion King," feature-length Disney cartoon with the voices of Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick. Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, from a script by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton. Alderwood, Bay, Broadway Market, Chalet, Crossroads, Everett Mall, Factoria, Guild 45th, Kent, Mountlake 9, Northgate, Renton Village, Seatac Mall, Snohomish, Totem Lake, Puget Park and Valley drive-ins. Rated "G," although some scenes may frighten younger children. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Widely promoted as Disney's first completely original feature-length cartoon, "The Lion King" is in fact an ingenious mixture of themes from narrative sources as ancient and varied as "Hamlet," the Old Testament and "The Odyssey."

The movie is filled with story elements that predate such fairy tales as "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid." It's perhaps the closest Disney has come to creating a consciously mythical entertainment in the style of "Star Wars." Yet like that film it keeps its sense of humor and fun.

It begins with an epic musical statement, "Circle of Life," celebrating animal life in Africa, perhaps before the dawn of man. There are no human characters, not even the suggestion of human presence and influence that turns up in "Bambi."

True, the story revolves around a royal circle and murderous court intrigue, and there's something decidedly human-like about the characters of the king (voice by James Earl Jones), his scheming brother (Jeremy Irons) and the king's son Simba (first played by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, later by Matthew Broderick).

Anthropomorphized they may be, but it's easier to accept them in this context, when they're not competing with human figures. That holds true as well for the hero's journey that Simba takes when his uncle commits fratricide, then blames Simba for the death and sends him into exile.

A fresh look

Although it's been widely recognized as another Disney success in the tradition of "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Little Mermaid," there is no music by Alan Menken (who composed the scores for all those films), and the picture's co-directors, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, are making their debuts in these roles.

In effect, this is a new team, and there's something fresh about "The Lion King," something we haven't seen before in Disney films. The songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, immeasurably helped by Hans Zimmer's arrangements, suggest the influence of Paul Simon's "Graceland" rather than Disney's own "Jungle Book," which would seem to be its obvious predecessor.

Even the token romantic ballad, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," is never as insidious as Rice and Menken's "Aladdin" theme, "A Whole New World"; it even gets some intentional laughs.

Indeed, the soundtrack is full of musical jokes, some of them at the expense of Disney ("It's a Small World" comes in for a ribbing), some of them inevitable ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight" had to turn up here), and there's a wonderful new nonsense song, "Hakuna Matata," that allows Simba's friends to cut loose.

Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella get most of the laughs in this number, while Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings, playing a trio of silly hyenas, deftly puncture the pomposity in Irons' big song, "Be Prepared." Rowan Atkinson, as Simba's hornbill guardian, Zasu, performs a similar function on Simba's number, "I Just Can't Wait to be King."

Balances humor, dark themes

Some critics have complained that the movie is too funny and good-natured to accommodate the rather grim story it's telling. On the other hand, some parents are worried that this story of murder, guilt and exile is too strong for a G rating.

Like so many of the best feature-length cartoons, however, "The Lion King" works hard to strike a balance between its seemingly incompatible elements.

It may look easy, but the road to disaster is littered with such recent wrecks as "Thumbelina" and "The Princess and the Goblin." Disney is once more looking like the only game in town.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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