Over at Disney, they've been brushing up on their Shakespeare the last few years. Think about it--The Little Mermaid had characters named Ariel and Sebastian, as in The Tempest, and Aladdin had a trouble-making, tale-carrying villain named Iago. Even in the Gallic Beauty and the Beast, the brute Gaston's toadying sidekick was named Lafew, probably after the old courtier in All's Well That Ends Well. This little name game extends to Disney's latest animated extravaganza, The Lion King--one of the two major comic-relief characters, a fretful meerkat with a Jewish accent and an aggrieved face, is called Timon (although, perplexingly, it's pronounced "Ti-MOAN"). But The Lion King is Shakespearean in more overt ways. Its plot is an amalgam of virtually every one of the dramatist's favorite motifs--the usurping of a throne by murder, the resulting breakdown of civil weal in the kingdom, the coming of age of the rightful prince, the scheming of a Machiavelli, the clowning of rustics--all that stuff.
The cub Simba, heir to the veldt sovereignty of the lion king Mufasa, goes into self-exile after he is tricked into believing that he is responsible for his father's death in a wildebeest stampede. Far from home, he makes pals with a couple of lovable fools, the aforementioned meerkat and a flatulent warthog, who, admittedly, owe more to Damon Runyon than they do to the Bard. This goodhearted pair, unaware of his kingly status, become his constant companions. The wicked usurper is Mufasa's brother Scar. As is usually the case with Disney, the villain is much the most memorable figure in the film. Scar is given great voice by Jeremy Irons, whose lean-and-hungry face he also wears. Scar is clearly modeled on Hamlet's uncle Claudius, but he's also given bright, green eyes, recalling the ironic warning given to Othello: "Beware, my lord, of jealousy/It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/The meat it feeds on." Shakespeare's distinct social and political conservatism--sometimes rather troubling to the modern audience--manifests itself in The Lion King, as well. In the mainstream thought of Shakespeare's day, the divine right of kings was an accepted part of the natural order, like gravity or the seasons, and Shakespeare's political plays often wrestled with reconciling this belief to the obvious evil or inadequacy of so many princes.
In The Lion King, Simba's fitness to rule is a given, part of what the film keeps referring to as the "Circle of Life," but it's reconciled to the modern dislike of aristocracy. When Mufasa notes that, although lions eat wildebeests, wildebeests eat the grass that lions grow into after they die, it has a Buddhist ring to it. Yet it's not all that different from Hamlet's musings, beside Yorick's grave, on death as a social equalizer: "Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust . . . and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?" Okay, enough with the Shakespeare. These allusions and parallels gladden the hearts of us pedantic nerds, but in themselves they cannot, of course, make a good movie. Happily, The Lion King continues the streak Disney feature animation has been on since The Little Mermaid. With The Lion King, the Disney folk have loosened up so far that they can make a glorious joke at the expense of "It's a Small World." If The Lion King isn't quite as rapturous as Beauty and the Beast, or as frisky as Aladdin, films of which it is equal or superior to visually and dramatically, the reason is surely that it isn't as successful as a musical. Songs in children's films tend to be abysmal, but Mermaid, Beauty and Aladdin all had songs scores, by the team of lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, that make those of most Broadway musicals seem anemic. Ashman died halfway through the score for Aladdin. Tim Rice (his replacement on Aladdin) and Elton John wrote the songs for The Lion King, and while they aren't bad at all by the standards of the genre, they're still reminders of what a loss to songwriting Ashman's death was. Rice and Elton's tunes have a wonderful, African-flavored sound to them, but lyrically, they just can't match Ashman's flowing, effortlessly witty rhyme. For that matter, they can't provide anything up to the peerless big-band numbers from Phil Harris and Louis Prima in 1967's The Jungle Book, Disney's earlier, visually inferior foray into the animal kingdom. They're close, however, and The Lion King's animation is almost all stunning. Visually, the most stirring sequence is the opening production number, in which the baby Simba is presented to all the animals of the savannah, and this is also the strongest song. Of the voice cast, Irons is the clear standout, but there is also super work by Matthew Broderick and Moira Kelly as the adult Simba and his lioness-love, by James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair as Simba's parents, by Rowan Atkinson as a busybody hornbill, by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as the aforementioned meerkat and warthog, by Robert Guillaume as a wise mandrill and especially by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin as two hyenas, Scar's gibbering henchcritters. About those hyenas, though, I just can't resist one last picky little quibble. The Lion King is at pains to note with zoological accuracy that female lions, not male, do all the hunting (male lions are basically just studs, around only for their genes). Why, then, didn't it redress the longstanding defamation of hyenas, members of the food chain every bit as legitimate as (and probably more efficient than) lions? Scar's first heinous act as the tyrant of the pride is to welcome the hyenas into the fold with open forelegs, and right away, there goes the neighborhood. Since the hyenas are given ethnic voices, it doesn't take a lot of straining to see this as a xenophobic allegory--to read "furriner" (or some term more grimly specific) for "hyena." This was no one's intention, of course--indeed, someone seems to have noticed it and tried to reverse it, because a shot was included of the hyenas goose-stepping. But if The Lion King weren't so obviously goodhearted, if it were a little more fervent about being destined to rule, it might have seemed like the jackboots had been placed on the wrong paws.