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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘The Lion King’ and His Court Jesters : The Sidekicks Steal the Show in Disney’s Animated Opus

TIMES FILM CRITIC

A movie’s heroes may have their names above the title, but often as not it’s the sidekicks who get the real work done. And sometimes, as in “The Lion King,” it’s those underappreciated little people who steal the spotlight and provide the best reason to see something in the first place.

While in many ways a worthy successor to “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” this latest in Disney’s string of animated extravaganzas is less of a piece than its revered predecessors and the first to have a core story noticeably less involving than its scintillating peripheral characters.

Set in an African landscape where man is not in evidence, “The Lion King” opens with a gorgeous set-piece, a gathering at Pride Rock of animals from ants to elephants to pay homage to Simba, newly born son and heir to the great king of beasts, Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones).

Young Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) turns out to be an irritatingly callow cub who talks (“It would be so weird”) rather like a hip kid from the Valley and always wants to go exploring in just the places his father says are forbidden.

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He’s encouraged in this by his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons), a sullen, manipulative beast, passed over for the king’s slot, who is given to pouting that he’s “surrounded by idiots.” Not surprisingly, listening to Scar’s oily advice gets Simba into all kinds of trouble with his regal senior.

This father-son relationship, and the parallel tale of a young man’s growth to adulthood, is “The Lion King’s” central story and for the first time in Disney’s 32 animated features, outside source material was not used as its dramatic basis.

But even though three different writers (Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton) were involved, none of them were able to convey this part of the tale in a way that doesn’t feel pro forma. So even though it teaches good values and even affirms with ecological correctness that “we are all connected in the great circle of life,” it remains the section of “The Lion King” that makes do without a spring in its step.

But just when things are looking darkest, the first of the film’s clever sidekick teams appears, a trio of wild and crazy hipster hyenas who serve as Scar’s henchmen. Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin as Shenzi and Banzai have a lot of fun trading riffs about “dangling at the bottom of the food chain,” while Jim Cummings is equally strong as a goofy hyena who really does love to laugh.

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Though he is the hero, Simba needs sidekicks as much as anyone, especially after, in the film’s darkest moment (and one that will probably unnerve small children), his father, the regal Mufasa, tragically dies.

Fleeing Pride Rock as a result, Simba has the good fortune to run into a couple of mellow dudes, a tender-hearted but evil-smelling wart hog named Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella, animated by Tony Bancroft) and a fast-talking meerkat named Timon (Nathan Lane, animated by Michael Surrey) who have gaily dropped out of the jungle rat race and encourage the young lion to do the same.

Lane and Sabella, who played together as Nathan Detroit and Harry the Horse in the recent New York revival of Damon Runyon’s “Guys and Dolls,” form a completely hysterical team. Working off each other as smoothly as practiced athletes, they provide the film with an uncontainable--and essential--comic sass. Their “Hakuna Matata” (Swahili for “no worries”) is the score’s liveliest song, and to hear them break into a spontaneous chorus of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is the purest joy.

“Lion King” needs every bit of this gleeful anarchy because the film’s final section, with its somber talk of guilt, responsibility, confronting the past and even a hint of recovered memory syndrome, threatens to turn the proceedings into a Serengeti therapy session.

*

Likewise the adult Simba (Matthew Broderick) seems at times on the verge of becoming the only lion ever to seek psychiatric help, though he settles instead for an amusing encounter with Rafiki the shaman baboon (an engaging Robert Guillaume).

Essential in keeping things lively throughout is “Lion King’s” companionable soundtrack, with songs by Tim Rice and Elton John and score and arrangements by Hans Zimmer. It was Zimmer, in fact, who added the irresistible African rhythms and Zulu chanting that give the music much of its impact and style.

So big technically it needed two directors (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff) and the hard work of more than 600 artists, animators and technicians, “The Lion King” also features its share of computer-generated wonders, including a dazzling stampede of thousands of wildebeests.

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The greatest wonder of all, however, is how approximately 1 million drawings ultimately turn into a film that lives and breathes. For even with its flaws, this latest Disney animated feature once again delivers what its audience wants. Too bad flesh and blood films can’t be this consistent.

* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: The on-screen death of Mufasa and a violent battle at the finale may disturb small children.

‘The Lion King’

James Earl Jones: Mufasa

Jeremy Irons: Scar

Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Matthew Broderick: Simba

Niketa Calame, Moira Kelly: Nala

Whoopi Goldberg: Shenzi

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Cheech Marin: Banzai

Nathan Lane: Timon

Ernie Sabella: Pumbaa

A Walt Disney Pictures presentation, released by Buena Vista Pictures. Directors Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff. Producer Don Hahn. Executive producers Thomas Schumacher, Sarah McArthur. Screenplay by Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton. Supervising Editors Tom Finan, John Carnochan. Songs Tim Rice, Elton John. Score Hans Zimmer. Production design Chris Sanders. Art director Andy Gaskill. Artistic Coordinator Randy Fullmer. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

* Playing exclusively at El Capitan, Hollywood Boulevard west of Highland, Hollywood. (213) 467-7674. Starts in general release throughout Southern California on June 24.


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