"Everything the light touches is your kingdom," explains reigning king of the jungle Mufasa to Simba, his eager little cub, at the beginning of Disney's dazzling new adventure The Lion King.
There are a hundred reasons to praise The Lion King, from the bracing yet familiar screenplay to the spellbinding vocal performances from the likes of Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, and even Whoopi Goldberg. The attention to detail is unprecedented: the way a lion's mane lilts in the breeze, leaves rustle as a sea of grass bends in the wind, moving clouds cast shadows in changing patterns on the ground, or a fallen wildebeest in the middle of an impossibly frenzied stampede skids into the "camera." You can see it in the focus shift from a tight shot of a bug on a tree branch to a zebra bounding past, or the wide-angle, computer-enhanced geometry of the awe-inspiring musical sequence that opens the film. The last time so many different animals were assembled in one place, Noah was their skipper. This is Disney's funniest cartoon -- ever -- and it also marks the first time in 32 go-rounds that the House of Mouse has produced a full-length animated feature from a script that wasn't adapted from a fairy tale or a literary work.
But what hits you right off the bat isn't the witty repartee or the uncharacteristically rich and textured story line. It's the light A the fiery orange sunrises, the sparkling turquoise waterfalls, the lush emerald jungles, the dusty beige gorges, the auburn rock formations, the frosted mists, the indigo night skies punctuated by sparkling stars, and the coal-black thunderclouds that part for radiant sunbeams. Light is a powerful element in this movie. Like famed English watercolorist and nineteenth-century landscapist J.M.W. Turner attacking and finally capturing the exquisite luminescence of Venice in the waning years of his life, so have the Disney animation virtuosos succeeded in mirroring the wonder and the brilliance of nature's abundant gradations of light and shadow.
Because Disney wasn't adapting a myth this time but creating one from scratch, they resorted to some familiar role models. Biblical and quasi-religious overtones pepper The Lion King, but the Prince of Denmark is a bigger influence than the Prince of Peace. In Hamlet, the star-crossed protagonist loses the throne to his uncle Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet's father. The same thing happens to Simba when uncle Scar waxes Mufasa. Both princes are visited by their fathers' ghosts; both retreat into self-imposed exile before dramatically returning to avenge the treachery that has ruined their lives. Simba's story reaches a more upbeat denouement than Hamlet's, but again: It's Disney.
Still, there are some major departures from time-honored cartoon formula. The Lion King is blacker, both in tone and in racial composition, than the Disney norm. Mufasa's death, Scar's cruelty, and Simba's misbegotten guilt figure prominently into the dramatic mix and are heavier emotional elements than one usually associates with the Magic Kingdom's animated offerings. And Simba's two happy-go-lucky sidekicks during his exile period, a flatulent warthog and a wisecracking meerkat, are constantly bringing up various characters' positions in the food chain as a reminder that death is an essential component of the natural order.
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Two white actors, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick, furnish Simba's voice as cub and adult, respectively. But a black actor -- James Earl Jones -- plays his father, Mufasa. Granted, Disney probably wouldn't have considered such progressive casting if they were filming a live-action feature, but it's still a gutsy, liberal call for the studio. Adding to the racial equilibrium of the troupe are Whoopi Goldberg as Scar's hyena henchwoman Shenzi, Niketa Calame as Simba's childhood girlfriend Nala, and Robert Guillaume as the shaman baboon Rafiki. Throw in the Circle of Life chorus (which primarily consists of African voices), and miscellaneous bits and pieces of Kenyan music and dialogue (such as the song "Hakuna Matata"), and you've got as natural a cinematic integration of black and white as has ever graced a Disney movie. Too bad it's only a cartoon.
Hamlet isn't the only source to which The Lion King is indebted. There's a shot of hyenas parading in lockstep before Scar that references Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, as well as a highly stylized musical number with a variety of animals arrayed in eye-catching geometric patterns that, in a display of animation hubris, emulates Disney's own Fantasia. But you can't really begrudge these animators a little showing off. Starting with 1989's The Little Mermaid and continuing through Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, they've been honing their artistic skills like a repertory acting company, improving with each production. The Lion King is their crowning achievement to date, pushing the artistic and technical boundaries into uncharted territory. These are quite simply the subtlest and most natural animated characters you have ever seen. Their expressions are impossibly human and lifelike; even their body language is an extension of their attitudes. (Scar, for example, has a very distinctive walk quite unlike any other lion's -- slinkier and lower to the ground, with kind of a resigned sag to his middle.) Among animated films, only Lady and the Tramp succeeded in imbuing four-legged creatures with this much personality.
As impressive as the characterizations are, the grand visual scale of the movie is perhaps even more stunning, suggestive of the epic sweep of, say, Lawrence of Arabia. Africa becomes an unspoken character in the film. From the vastness of the savannah to the delicate symmetry of raindrops falling on a pond, The Lion King uses nature as a canvas to pull the audience in. The stylized realism achieves its desired effect. You can feel the dust in the air during a drought, or the thick, acrid smoke from a fire. The composition, staging, design, and dynamic light sources bring the film to life.
In the end, then, it would seem that Mufasa's promise to his son applies to the Disney animation team as well. Everything the light touches is their kingdom.