DISNEY MOVIES SPEAK TO THE KID IN all of us. And since kids like the same healthful stuff-mother love, frolicking in the grass with other kids and pretending to be heroes - the Disney appeal is nearly universal. But when Walt was alive, the old Disney studio occasionally advocated as well as entertained. "Victory through Air Power" (1943) promoted strategic bombing of enemy cities as opposed to mere air support for ground troops. And a '50s TV documentary-cum-cartoon, "Our Friend the Atom," lobbied for atomic power. Now the new mega-Disney enterprise -on a roll from "The Little Mermaid" (1989), "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) and "Aladdin" (1992) -has released "The Lion King."
It's Disney's 32nd animated feature and first ever from an original story. Generously filled with love, play and heroism - not to mention very pop songs by Elton John and Tim Rice-it's sure to draw a huge audience from among the great American mosaic. The film is also what used to be called a message movie, containing lessons about everything from the environment to why strong women shouldn't be considered a threat by men. "The Lion King" is especially concerned with issues of family and responsibility. And much in the movie points to where in our society they burn most fiercely: the inner city, the place of despair for young black males.
The studio's press material calls "The Lion King" an "African-based coming-of-age story." The monarch Mufasa (the voice of James Earl Jones) wisely rules a vast animal kingdom from a place pointedly called Pride Rock. Cuddly cub Simba is the heir apparent. He's ceremonially presented to a pan-species gathering at the end of the movie's rousing choral overture, "Circle of Life." Continuity of both royal rule and the father-son relationship would be a cinch if it weren't for Scar, Mufasa's sinister brother, who covets the throne. Equipped with Jeremy Irons's dulcetly evil intonations and the allegiance of hyenas (who seem to stand for the dangerous lowlifes of street culture). Scar hatches a plot in which Mufasa is killed and Simba is sent into guilt-ridden exile. In the press booklet, co-director Roger Allers sums up Simba's predicament "When his father is taken away from him too soon, he feels unworthy and inadequate." A counselor at PSI in the Bronx couldn't have put it straighter.
Simba is rescued in the desert by a lemur-like animal named Timon (borscht-belt voice: Nathan Lane), and Pumbaa the wart hog (who, in the movie's rainbow of archetypes, fills the role of the good-hearted, somewhat dim white ethnic). The adult Simba (Matthew Broderick) tries to put what he sees as his tainted heritage behind him. But a ghostly visit from his father persuades Siniba to set things right. He returns to find the kingdom in leafless ruin, with the indolent hyenas complaining that the lionesses aren't bringing home enough food. The climactic battle for the neighborhood isn't just a lion thing: Timon and Pumbaa have rushed to Simba's side. Instructively, Scar's demise comes at [he hands of the very gangstas he rode to power. Simba accepts the responsibility of being a lion and eventually, with a cub of his own, of being a father. While the cumulative effect of "The Lion King" is majestically Afrocentric, it's one (coupled with such supporting voices as Cheech Marin and Whoopi Goldberg) with a distinctly American glint.
Art trouble: "The Lion King" does have some problems, and they're in the art. Animation leans toward cartoon comedy, so "The Lion King" needed a boost in naturalism to make it serious. The lions have muscle and accompanied by the booming soundtrack-weight. But the skinny, villainous Scar is actually the most realistic. Mufasa and the adult Simba look too much like wrestlers with manes. "The Lion King's" 1,197 painted backgrounds are disappointing, even though they've been inspired by Old West artists like Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. The backdrops of Disney animated features are always a torrent of cliches from romantic painting made bearable only by their moving so fast. These just don't have the character of the characters.
Nevertheless, it's been more than 50 years since those racially caricatured crows taught Dumbo how to fly and a little less than that since the NAACP criticized "Song of the South" for its "idyllic" view of slavery. And Disney still possesses a little of Walt's Midwestern sense of doing well by doing good. With the culturally confused Euro Disney needing a bailout and the proposed Disney's America park in Virginia peppered by protest. this isn't a bad time for a good deed. "The Lion King" will likely be slipped into urban school VCRs for generations to come. That's because the film also speaks to the responsible grownup in all of us kids.