'LION KING' : Roaring Only in Stores

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's hard not to notice the numerous billboards, bus stop posters and TV ads heralding the arrival of the sequel to the most successful animated film in movie history.

But unlike the 1994 box-office hit, which grossed nearly $800 million worldwide, Disney's "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride" will not be opening at a theater near you on Tuesday. Instead, the family film will make its debut at video stores.

"Lion King II" ($27) is following in the paw prints of Disney direct-to-video sequels based on its animated musical features "Aladdin" ("The Return of Jafar" and "Aladdin and the King of Thieves"), "Beauty and the Beast" ("Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas") and "Pocahontas" ("Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World").

For Disney and other studios, video follow-ups to animated features have become a thriving industry, even though the quality of the video sequels often has been less than stellar. But with "Lion King II" Disney has upped the ante in terms of both production values and marketing; "Lion King" is, after all, the king of animated beasts.

In just four years, "Lion King" has become one of Disney's most roaringly successful franchises. Not only did the film break box-office records and garner Golden Globes and Oscars, the video sold an astonishing 55 million units worldwide. "Lion King" has spawned three CDs, a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, an animated TV series, zillions of toys, watches, T-shirts, stuffed animals and books and CD-ROMs.

So there's a lot at stake with "Lion King II." Producer Jeannine Roussel and director Darrell Rooney agree that expectations are incredibly high for this adventure.

"You're following in a huge footprint," Rooney said. "So it has to be something that is as good as the first story."

Barbara McNamara of the home entertainment market research firm Alexander & Associates said that in the last few years, made-for-video sequels have become prominent in the video landscape, pointing out that Universal has had great success with its "Land Before Time" franchise. Warner Home Video is producing several live-action animated films based on hit films, and MGM plans an "All Dogs Go to Heaven" Christmas story on home video next month.

"I think that it is definitely profitable for them," McNamara said. "It's a way to reduce costs because they don't have to release a feature film. Granted, they don't do the volume that the original feature film does, but it's enough to be profitable."

Disney will not estimate how many units it expects "Lion King II" to sell, nor will it disclose the cost of producing the video. The only sales figures the studio have released are for "Return of Jafar," which sold an impressive 11 million copies.

If "Lion King" was a male coming-of-age tale, "Lion King II,' moves women to center stage. In the sequel, Kira, Simba's precocious daughter, and Kovu, Scar's hand-picked successor, fall in love and work to bring peace to the Pridelands. However, Zira, Scar's loyal follower and Kovu's mother, has different ideas.

Most of the Vocal Talent Returns

Most of the vocal talent is back for the sequel, including Matthew Broderick (Simba), James Earl Jones (Mufasa), Robert Guillaume (Rafiki), Nathan Lane (Timon) and Ernie Sabella (Pumbaa). Neve Campbell joins the cast as the voice of Kira and Suzanne Pleshette claws and snarls her way through the film as the evil Zira.

None of the original animators, though, was involved in this installment. Walt Disney Television Animation's studio in Sydney, Australia, did the majority of the animation. All story boarding and pre-production were done at the Disney studio in Burbank.

Though most of Disney's made-for-video sequels are two years in production, "Lion King II" took twice as long--about the same time it usually takes to produce an animated feature.

"This one was a story that evolved a lot," said Sharon Morrill, executive vice president of Walt Disney Television Animation, who is in charge of made-for-video products.

The Kovu-Kira love story, said Rooney, is a variation on Romeo and Juliet. "It's the biggest love story we have," he explained. "The difference is that you understand the position of the parents in this film in a way you never did in the Shakespeare play.

"Then aside from that, what if Romeo was a much darker character? What if he had issues that he had to work out along the way, that his job was to go and kill the king? That's a story with real meat on it."

A New Twist for the Sequel

Rooney said they decided to make the villain of the piece a lioness because people in the audience "look for things [in sequels] to be opposite as much as possible so you are not treading on the same territory."

"In this situation, if you have another male lion, you have to find a whole story line that works comfortably in the story. Making it a female is the opposite and also her connection to Scar could be much more believable. She was one of his porters. That seemed like a really logical fit and that worked on an emotional level."

Because "Lion King" is such an important commodity, why didn't Disney make the sequel a theatrical?

"We look at the feature animation business as a way to set up the original story," said Michael Johnson, president of Buena Vista Home Entertainment Worldwide. "Their energies are absorbed completely in new productions. So we have set up a division through the television animation group to do the sequels. . . . That's not to say this isn't good enough to go theatrical."

Reviews, though, have been mixed for the previous Disney and other animated sequels. The animation has been described as drab and the story lines and music as lackluster.

Advance word on "Lion King II" so far has been more favorable. Variety said the animation, "while hardly as lush and detailed as in the original, is markedly better than average for a direct-to-video production" and that the film has "enough cross-the-board appeal to entertain viewers of all ages." Associated Press said fans will "get a good, entertaining movie. But it doesn't quite measure up to the original." The New York Times praised it for emphasizing "girl power."

Fighting the Direct-to-Video Stigma

These films don't have the music budget the animated features have, so the original "Lion King" composers, Elton John, Tim Rice and Hans Zimmer, didn't contribute to "Lion King II."

The seven songs in the film were penned by several composers, including Joss Whedon & Scott Warrender, Kevin Quinn & Randy Petersen, Tom Snow & Jack Feldman and Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Lebo M.

Direct-to-video projects in general continue to be plagued with the stigma that they are inferior to theatricals.

"The goal of our division is to change that," Morrill said. "The only way to change that is to make great movies, and sooner or later the consumer or the audience will see this is not just second-hand storytelling."

"When you are producing these for the small screen," Johnson added, "they may not put in every theatrical effect that could be possible to put in, but you are thinking differently. If we would go theatrical, we might do a few things differently, but frankly I think these stand on their own."

Disney's animated sequel videos have performed very well for Blockbuster, says company spokeswoman Liz Greene. "I think part of the reason is, especially when they are direct to video, you can rent them first and then decide if [your] child must have this."

Morrill said the studio plans to release four new made-for-video animated flicks a year, though she's keeping mum about what's in the pipeline. "There will be a combination of sequels and new movies," she said.

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The Empire of 'The Lion King'

The 1994 feature film

* Worldwide box office of $777 million.

* The most successful animated movie in history.

* The top box-office hit of 1994.

Home Video

* Shattered all retail sales records for any single product in history, selling more than 20 million copies in just six days when it was released on video in March 1996.

* Sold 55 million units worldwide.

Walt Disney Records

* The original soundtrack is certified multi-platinum with more than 10 million units sold.

* Spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart.

* The 1995 follow-up album, "Rhythm of the Pride Lands," is certified platinum.

* "Return to Pride Rock: Songs Inspired by the Lion King II: Simba's Pride" was released on Sept. 29.

Consumer Products

* More than $2 billion in licensed merchandise sales since the theatrical release of the movie.

* "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride" has approximately 40 licensees across all categories.

Broadway

* "The Lion King" stage musical has been playing to SRO crowds on Broadway since its opening Nov. 13, 1997. The musical is set to open next year in London.

* Winner of six Tony Awards including best musical.

Television Series

* "The Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa" animated series premiered on CBS and in national syndication in September 1995. It ran for two years and currently is seen in repeats on the Disney Channel and throughout Western Europe, Asia Pacific, the Middle East and all of Latin America.

'The Lion King II: Simba's Pride' Products

* Disney's Active Play "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride," based on the new video, is set for release Tuesday.

* Publishing is also scheduled to release several "Lion King II" books including Classic Storybook, Seek and See Book, Picture Book, Color Book and Look Look book.

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