`The Lion King' Gives A New Voice To Disney Storytelling

The first feature-length Disney cartoon in which human characters play no part, "The Lion King" nevertheless has one of the largest casts of recognizable human voices of any Disney production.

The movie, which opened last week in New York and Los Angeles and goes into national release Friday, features James Earl Jones in the title role, Jeremy Irons as his evil brother, Matthew Broderick as the king's son and Whoopi Goldberg, Rowan Atkinson, Robert Guillaume, Cheech Marin and Nathan Lane in comic-relief supporting roles.

Unlike the classic Disney cartoons, it's not directly based on a famous fairy tale or a literary classic. It began several years ago with the idea of doing a story about lions in Africa, then evolved into a loose variation on "Hamlet," with Jones as the murdered king, Irons as the scheming brother who takes the throne and Broderick as the tortured son.

It took its final form when the co-directors, Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers, got involved in the project. In New York for the premiere, they talked by phone about the changes they made as they "dipped into archetypal storytelling," as Allers put it.

"A lot of time had been spent on what the script would be about," said Minkoff. "About two years ago I came in with Roger (who had been working on the film since 1991). We felt the story to date wasn't quite working."

After a session involving several other top Disney animators, including the co-directors of "Beauty and the Beast," Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, the filmmakers decided to have the king's son, Simba, leave the pride and spend his adolescence in exile.

Simba's companions, childhood friends in the earlier version, were turned into a couple of dubious guides to life in the wilderness: a warthog named Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and his meerkat friend, Timon (voice by Nathan Lane, the Broadway star of "Guys and Dolls," who improvised much of his dialogue). The baboon, Rafiki (voice by Robert Guillaume), went through the most drastic character changes.

"He was originally the sombre advisor to the king," said Allers. "We decided to make him the shaman character who led Simba back to an understanding of himself, and we decided to bring his father back as a ghost."

"Guilliame had started out playing Rafiki as this elder statesman, completely straight," said Minkoff. "One of the first things we decided to do was to make him this crazy mystic shaman. We threw Guilliame a curve during the recording sessions, told him to create something kooky. Towards the end of the session he gave this nutty laugh, and we had the character."

Tim Rice, who wrote the lyrics for the Oscar-winning "Aladdin" song, "A Whole New World," suggested using Elton John to create the music. The opening number, "Circle of Life," which has become the trailer for "The Lion King," eventually set the tone for the entire picture.

"When Elton delivered it to us, he sent us a tape of him playing on the piano and singing," said Allers. "It was a ballad definitely, kind of folky." Then the composer, Hans Zimmer, who was hired because of his use of African music in "The Power of One," took over and added a zulu chant.

"We were just so knocked out by it," said Allers. "We thought, this is so much stronger than what we had planned, the music is so strong we don't need dialogue. The styling of that music set the way the other songs would be handled."

The "Circle of Life" number brings back an old Disney theme: the cycles of nature, life and death and rebirth, which were the foundation of "Bambi" and the studio's "True-Life Adventure" series ("The Living Desert," "The Vanishing Prairie"). Was this a conscious decision?

"It's something I always wanted to do," said Allers. "We just felt that for a theme of someone coming to maturity - since the story was a hero's story and the story of a king - that that kind of regal station gave us the opportunity to make it broader, to say something that had wider implications.

"One of the things Roy Disney (Walt's nephew) said at the beginning was: `Let's put nature in this picture. Let's not pussyfoot around. It's going to be nature tooth and claw.' "

Did Allers worry the picture could be too scary for smaller children? Like "Snow White," "Bambi" and "Pinocchio," the scenes of exile and parental death could be a nightmare-generator.

"We've had a lot of children ages 3 and up seeing it," he said. "The responses are so different. Some 3-year-olds handle it well, while some who were perhaps 6 were scared or troubled.

"As a child, I remember getting frightened in `Snow White' when the queen drinks the brew and starts to spin. I think it's up to parents who know their child's sensitivities best. It's very hard to predict, but I wouldn't want to stop pictures like this because someone will be troubled."

More feature-length Disney cartoons are in the works, including "Pocahantas," which will be released next summer, and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," which is planned for Christmas 1995.

Also in the works are an animated version of "Hercules," created by the team that made "Aladdin," and two pictures that are being produced in the Bay Area: John Lassiter's computer-animated "Toy Story" and a version of Roald Dahl's "James and the Giant Peach" that will be made in the style of "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

Parts of "The Lion King" were done at a Florida studio, and Disney is opening another studio in France. It's the busiest time for Disney animators since the late 1930s, thanks largely to the success of "The Little Mermaid" five years ago.

"I think what we're seeing is a huge influx of incredible talent coming into the studio," said Minkoff. "Things changed with `The Little Mermaid' because it marked a break in the lineage. The old animators were retiring and some were passing on.

"Don Bluth and Tim Burton had left the studio over frustrations over not being able to do fresh, challenging work, but the people who stuck around found they could do those things when the studio changed.

Since then it has been escalating, like a snowball going downhill. There's more talent at that studio now than at any time in its history."