Walt Disney came up with a winning formula when he made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, back in 1937; over the years, his company refined that formula to a science. With the re-birth of Disney in the late 1980s, the "magical" formula for Disney animation was re-discovered by Jeff Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, the studio heads. Unfortunately, these two men are not Walt Disney: they're Hollywood studio executives. That means that you can expect them to milk a winning formula for all it's worth, and not dare to push the edge. If it works, why change it?
Because you can wear it out, that's why. The spectacular box-office success of Disney's animated films (except for The Rescuers Down Under, which deserved to do better) has blinded the men on the top of the heap; as long as the money keeps rolling in, they're not going to want to make any changes. But they don't see that when you rely too heavy on a safe, predictable formula, you risk losing the life-granting "spark" that infuses your creations with energy--and keeps the money rolling in. The Lion King is going to make another pile of money for Disney, and as a result we can expect to see no changes in the formula for Disney animated films in the future. That formula is laid bare here:
When this formula works, it can awaken the child in us. I enjoyed The Little Mermaid, because it made the Disney films seem fresh and new again. I loved Aladdin in spite of its flaws--but if it weren't for Robin Williams, that movie would have fallen flat on its face, because it was nothing but Disney formula. The Lion King doesn't have Robin Williams; and while it does have James Earl Jones' booming baritone as Mufasa, the great king, that's not enough to keep this film from feeling like a re-hash. There's nothing new here, and there's not enough creativity to make it seem refreshing.
Sure, the animation's great--that's easy for Disney to do, because they've got millions of dollars to do it. But there's more to making a great film than merely dazzling the eyes, whether it's with animated lions, computer-generated dinosaurs or exploding bridges (which we'll see in True Lies). As in all great movies, it's the story and the characters that count, and there's nothing in here that we haven't seen before. Mufasa himself is a regal, majestic figure; the comic-relief characters are funny; and the evil Scar is wicked and properly evil. But Disney has given us a long line of majestic, funny, and evil characters, from Cruella de Vil and Stromboli to Gaston and Iago; the characters in The Lion King simply aren't charismatic enough to come out from the shadow of their predecessors.
As if to add insult to injury, the musical numbers are downright awful. There's nothing in here to match the catchy, joyful "Under The Sea and "Be Our Guest," or even the fun "Prince Ali" and "Never Had A Friend Like Me." The songs were written by Tim Rice (who also worked on the Aladdin soundtrack) and Elton John--who also sings the "love theme" over the ending credits. Bleah. Disney is certain to push this soundtrack for the Oscar…but if it actually wins, it will be undeniable proof that taste is dead in Hollywood. There IS a reasonably good musical score by Hans Zimmer that's based on on African music (though why didn't Disney just bring in some real African musicians to compose it?), but that's about all the praise I can give it.
The problem is simply that we've seen it all before. Nothing is new here, and one gets the impression that Disney is merely spinning its wheels. The Disney formula is starting to wear thin … but as long as it keeps making millions for the company, we're not going to see anything different.
In this respect, one can say that Beauty and the Beast was the most original Disney film in a long time, because while it included many aspects of the Disney formula (animation, musical numbers, comedy relief characters), it actually worked on real characterization (at least on the part of the Beast himself) and an entertaining story (though I detested the character of Gaston). But that film proved to be an exception to the rule. Aladdin, despite Robin Williams' delightful presence, was merely a return to the old formula … the same formula that mires down The Lion King.
This does not bode well for the long-term future of American animated films. Hollywood is falling once again into the trap of trying to imitate Disney, rather than experimenting with other ways of making animated films. But Walt Disney himself knew that if you don't keep looking forward and aiming for something new, fresh, and different, you're liable to dig your own grave.
Disney has reached the height of its popularity; in fact, it may have already passed that peak (note the troubles of Euro Disneyland). But if corporate history has any precedents, it is that the bigwigs at the top don't notice that the tree is sick until it's already rotten and ready to collapse or be cut down. I suspect that the same thing is starting with Disney: The Lion King is merely one symptom of corporate rot that is starting to seep into the Disney empire--its movies are safe, non-controversial, and bland; the theme parks are expanding with seemingly endless re-hashes of the same few ideas (movie-based rides); and all of the company's other projects (the Beauty and the Beast stage musical, or their proposed ceremonies for the World Cup tournament) consist of them spending money like water to flash and dazzle the eyes and promote themselves.
Disney is in trouble--but they don't know it yet. The next few years are going to be very interesting times, indeed.