The Lion King continues the winning streak in Disney animation begun with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. It's a movie of exhilarating surprises, not the least of which is its eagerness, revolutionary in the cash-cow business, to break with custom. Nobility rears it head — as it must with Disney — but there's also vulgar, violent life. For every cuddly creature there's an animal who'd like to bite his warm and fuzzy head off. Unlike its predecessors, The Lion King has no human characters, no Alan Mencken score (Elton John does the honors this time) and no familiar fairy tale as a source. If the original script borrows from anything, it's Hamlet.
Simba, voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a cub and Matthew Broderick as a grown-up, is the lion of the melancholy mane. He thinks he's at fault in the death of his dad, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), until the real culprit, Mufasa's brother, Scar (Jeremy Irons), forces him into action. Forget any lust between Scar and Simba's mom, Sarabi (Madge Sinclair). But Simba and his lioness Ophelia, Nala (Moira Kelly), do fool around in the fauna to a lush ballad, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."
Except for a few indigestible Tim Rice lyrics about the "circle of life," this Lion is more snappy than sappy. It's a hugely entertaining blend of music, fun and eye-popping thrills, though it doesn't lack for heart. The father-son relationship is movingly rendered. And John's songs, enhanced with African choral arrangements by Hans Zimmer, are a touch of terrific, especially "Hakuna Matata" (it's Swahili for no worries), sung by Nathan Lane as a sly meerkat and Ernie Sabella as a flatulent wart hog, and "Be Prepared," gleefully screeched by the unlikely likes of Irons with Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin as part of Scar's hyena posse.
Irons is a classic bad cat; he delivers a triumphantly witty vocal performance that ranks with Robin Williams' in Aladdin. The Disney artists give Scar the same glint of dark-eyed menace that helped win Irons an Oscar for Reversal of Fortune. "You're weird, Uncle Scar," says Simba, to which Irons replies in his kinkiest Claus von Bulow tones: "You have no idea."
Let's also lionize the visual miracles by 600 Disney artisans, who bring the African landscape to stunning life from a raindrop falling gently on a leaf to a spectacular stampede of wildebeests. It's this kind of animation artistry that raises The Lion King above the level of superior kid stuff and into the realm of a royal treat.