American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
My generation grew up mourning the death of Bambi's mother. Now comes "The Lion King," with the death of Mufasa, the father of the lion cub who will someday be king. The Disney animators know that cute little cartoon characters are not sufficient to manufacture dreams. There have to be dark corners, frightening moments, and ancient archetypes like the crime of regicide. "The Lion King," which is a superbly drawn animated feature, is surprisingly solemn in its subject matter, and may even be too intense for very young children.
The film is the latest in a series of annual media events from Disney, which with "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin" reinvented its franchise of animated feature films. The inspiration for these recent films comes from the earliest feature cartoons created by Walt Disney himself, who in movies like "Dumbo," with the chaining of Mrs. Jumbo, and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," with its wicked stepmother, tapped into primal fears and desires. Later Disney films drifted off into the neverland of innocuous "children's movies," which were harmless but not very exciting. These most recent four animated features are once again true "family films," in that they entertain adults as well as children.
"The Lion King" is the first Disney animated feature not based on an existing story. In another sense, it is based on half the stories in classical mythology. It tells the tale of the birth, childhood and eventual manhood of Simba, a lion cub. The cub's birth is announced in the opening sequence of the movie, called "The Circle of Life," which is an evocative collaboration of music and animation to show all of the animals of the African veld gathering to hail their future king. The cute little cub is held aloft from a dramatic spur of rock, and all his future minions below hail him, in a staging that looks like the jungle equivalent of a political rally.
Of course this coming together of zebra and gazelle, monkey and wildebeest, fudges on the uncomfortable fact that many of these animals survive by eating one another. And all through "The Lion King" the filmmakers perform a balancing act between the fantasy of their story and the reality of the jungle. Early scenes show Simba as a cute, trusting little tike who believes everyone loves him. He is wrong. He has an enemy - his uncle Scar, the king's jealous brother, who wants to be king himself one day.