The second-highest grossing film of 1994, and at the time the record-holder for most successful animated feature ever released, The Lion King occupies a very special place in my development into the angry contrarian that I am today, for it was the first time that the twelve-year-old me had ever felt something that I've come to expect at least once a year: the palpable awareness that everyone - everyone - absolutely loved a movie that I had virtually no use for at all. Time has not at all redeemed my opinion, and in at least one respect, I've actually come around to the majority: I do have a use for the animation in The Lion King, which is extraordinarily beautiful, and more technically accomplished than any other film of the Disney Renaissance. I still pretty much hate the story and nearly all of the characters - I know that the burden of proof is on me to explain why, but it's so self-evident to me that the drama and characters are terribly lacking that I can hardly figure out how to mount an argument, and a tiny part of me wants to flip it around: okay, millions of people who without an apparent hesitation call this the best of all Disney animated features (it's consistently the highest-ranked on the IMDb Top 250, when it is not the only one there; an aesthetically dubious list at best, but a good yardstick for judging relative popularity), whatever is so very special about it? But I know that I'm being saucy, and shall do my very best to justify my opinion.

As with so many other films, the idea (the second "officially" original Disney animated feature story after Lady and the Tramp) was born in the burst of enthusiasm at the end of the 1980s, when the impending release of The Little Mermaid had demonstrated the new management's desire to make good on their promise to return to an era of high-budget animated filmmaking. Its pitch was simple, and rather peculiar: "Bambi plus Hamlet", and here I was thinking that I was all sorts of clever for spotting a really insane number of parallels between that deer movie and The Lion King, before doing my research for this review. It's positively staggering how much the two run in tandem, though, so I'm going to show my work anyway: the story opens with all the animals in the region assembling to pay homage to the birth of the new prince, whose father stands watching on a high rocky promontory. As the prince grows up, he spends most of his time goofing around and discovering the joys of being alive in the wild. At one point, he meets a young female destined to be his mate, but is still mired in that "yuck, a girl!" stage of all young males. Eventually, the boy's parent dies violently, sending him into a spiral of depression that is resolved when he pals up with two other males of different species. He comes to meet the girl from his youth, all grown up, and falls in love with her on the spot. Later, after a massive fire, he has finally stepped into his father's role as king; the film ends with the birth of his offspring, in a sequence that visually and aurally ties back to the beginning, giving the whole movie a "cycle of life" structure.

Compared to that, The Lion King's lifts from Shakespeare are tiny: the uncle kills the king, the boy takes a long time to do anything about it. To be perfectly honest, ever since I first encountered the notion that the film is deliberately derived from Hamlet (three, maybe four years later), that concept has always struck me as being not quite on the mark. I'd much sooner compare it to Macbeth; an ambitious man kills his king and host to take over the kingdom, drives it into the ground, and is in turn killed. Admittedly, it's no closer to the specifics than the Hamlet comparison, but I claim for it this merit: in Hamlet, the avenging prince is the most interesting character, while in Macbeth, the usurper is the more interesting character. And Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, is the usurping uncle in The Lion King ever more interesting than his nephew.

That's the crux of my problem with the film, though by no means the whole of it: Simba, the little cub whose coming-of-age forms the spine of the whole movie, is a distinctly bland hero; no blander than the standard Disney model, maybe (for within only the previous ten years, the studio had tried to sell a relative non-entity like the title character of Aladdin as a charismatic hero, and spun a film around the atrociously dull cat protagonist of Oliver & Company), but given that this film is a drama and not a comedy, the absence of a relatively solid protagonist like Beauty and the Beast's Belle hurts the film a lot. I swear, I really tried to like Simba: I saw the film multiple times in theaters in 1994, and I've tried a few times since to come up with any reason to give a damn about what happens to him and how he deals with it, and I just can't do it. He is a reedy, whiny little splotch of shallow character psychology: a spoiled, smug brat when he's a kid and voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas; callow and boring as a young adult, voiced by Matthew Broderick.

Ah, but Scar, now, there's a character! Richly voiced by Jeremy Irons, whose personality informs the character design and animation to a more than significant degree, the wicked lion is one of the best Disney villains ever: certainly, the best of the 1990s (and how I glad I am that I get to make that claim without having to account for 1989's The Little Mermaid). The caveats first: of the handful of Disney bad guys sometimes accused of being Evil Queers, Scar is the only one for whom I'll actually concede that argument - he is effeminate, he becomes the sole ruler of a pride of female lions without apparently impregnating a one of them, and he strikes a pose while cooing the word "sensational" during his big musical number.

I also kind of find it hard to absolutely ignore the idea that as the only lion with a black mane, his villainy is racially coded (then again, he's a white Brit, and his opposite number is voiced by a black American, which possibly makes this more of a xenophobic framing than a racist one).

On the other hand, he's the only wholly appealing character in the film - yes, yes, there's that business about killing his brother, stealing a kingdom, and siccing a pack of hyenas on his young nephew, but on the other hand he overflows with personality and ee-vil charisma, thanks not only to Irons's supremely effective, hostile-bored reading of all his lines in the first act (as the film proceeds, and Scar becomes more actively vicious, he becomes a good deal more pedestrian, until the film's climax, where he might as well be any cringing, craven bad guy), but to the sexy, slinky animation led by Andreas Deja in the high water mark of his career.

I need to stop the review for a minute to share an anecdote, that I think is pretty damn cool, and even a bit illuminating as to what it reveals about the mind-set of the Disney animators and how they practice their craft. Many years ago, there was not that very far from my home a gallery dedicated to animation art, primarily though not exclusively American animation. There was a point in either 1999 or 2000 (I remember only that it was my senior year of high school) that this gallery hosted one of their quarterly shows, which had as its centerpiece a number of vintage Disney pieces recently acquired by the owner on a consulting trip to the Disney vault; and the centerpiece of the centerpiece, to my mind, was a collection of the original animation drawings created by Frank Thomas himself of Lady Tremaine in Cinderella, 12 consecutive images from the moment when she overhears Cinderella humming and realises with an evil frown that her stepdaughter was at the ball the night before. They were expensive, but still underpriced for something that rare, something touched by the hand of one of the Nine Old Men - $500, if I remember correctly. That was too much to pass up: I selected my favorite of the pieces remaining, and took the first third out of my college savings to make a layaway down payment.

A couple of months later, I was headed back to make the final payment and pick up the piece. The woman at the gallery was a bit apprehensive and apologetic: "What would you think about selling this drawing?" Well, why? "Someone has been buying up all of the Frank Thomas originals he can, and he especially wants those Lady Tremaine pieces, because they're a consecutive set. He's got all of them but the one you bought". That's just swell, but Christ, save some for us little guys. "It's Andreas Deja. He's offering to pay you the full amount we sold it to you for, and he'll make drawings of any two Disney characters you want." OH. Well, in that case...

I wasn't going to be a dick and have Deja draw just any random pair: it pretty much had to be two of his characters, because that would of course be cooler. And the most obvious choice was Scar, who I loved with abandon, as one of the finest works of draftsmanship at Disney in the 1990s. I also picked Jafar, who was a pretty fine villain in his own right.

My expectation was that I'd get some pencil sketches, nothing too elaborate: but instead I received two absolutely lovely, production-quality drawings in rich grayscale, on the very same paper that the Disney animators used for making movies. And I think Deja wouldn't mind if I said, the Jafar piece was lovely; but the Scar piece was positively exquisite. It's clear enough from just those two pieces which of the characters he preferred drawing, even as it's clear from the evidence of The Lion King that the animation team really found a great deal of joy in depicting Scar in all his serpentine, angular oiliness: his is the kind of detail-rich animation that could only come from people who were absolutely delighted to be doing their job.

The two pieces are hanging in a place of privilege right above my computer. And now I have perhaps given you a tiny insight into the way that one supervising animator's mind works (naturally, he would want to study his predecessors; naturally, he would want to study their original drawings; naturally, he would want to study a consecutive sequence), and at the very least I hope I've given Andreas Deja his due as a really decent human being man, whom I have not for the record ever met in person, or spoken to.

Okay, so where the hell was I? Characters, right. So, Scar is I think a profoundly wonderful achievement of design, voice acting, and animation, but in all the annals of Disney villains that swamp their feature, dominating it far beyond the protagonist's ability to hold our attention (and I would argue that this definition applies to the vast majority of Disney features that possess a single dedicated villain), Scar also has the worst effect on the film that contains him. Simba isn't really that much worse than any randomly-chosen bland Disney hero; but he definitely is that much worse than Scar - The Lion King is never better than when it's The Scar Show, for the charismatic murdering monster is infinitely more delightful to watch than his tedious little nephew, with his cookie-cutter coming-of-age tale. I know that it is meant to be exquisitely tragic when Simba's father Mufasa (James Earl Jones, he of that most recognisable voice in cinema) dies rescuing his boy, but at this point I personally have not the slightest affection for either of the characters, and so this key childhood trauma moment for so many leaves me stone bored, like most of the rest of the movie.

As far as dubious characters go, The Lion King also boasts two of my least-favorite comic side characters in the canon: Timon the meerkat (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa the warthog (Ernie Sabella). Initially, I was going to call them the very worst of the worst, but that would have been unsupportable hyperbole; the mice in Cinderella were already jackhammer-annoying before this, and there are some truly wretched, rancid, and unwatchable sidekicks still to come. Still, the duo's charms are totally lost on me, proving the fact that in comedy more than anything else, de gustibus non est disputandum. Continuing the trend so recently begun in Aladdin, this comic duo gives The Lion King a desperately unnecessary shot of pop-culture gags, one of my very least favorite things in contemporary American animation; at the very least The Lion King doesn't hit the heights of inanity that seem to be the basement level from DreamWorks films, nor in fact are its references so timely - and thus dated - as Aladdin's. But there is to me nothing charming or amusing or anything whatever other than irritating about hearing a meerkat talk like a caricature of a Broadway actor, which is of course the only thing that Nathan Lane has ever really been able to do in the movies (it is of course possible that The Lion King takes place in the then-present, and Timon happened to overhear a vacationing safari guest, and picked up that person's speech patterns; that's pretty esoteric for a fanwank, though, and I'm not even a fan).

Pumbaa is also extra-super-special, in that his entire character seems to have been conceived to give Walt Disney Feature Animation its first ever recurring fart joke.

Moving away from characters and into story, we have what I cannot deride as anything less than a perfectly functional coming-of-age story of accepting personal responsibility; but within that framework, there are some deeply unpleasant overtones. It is a noted fact of Disney's cinema that the films' messages are all ultimately conservative: the great majority of them are some variation on "the best thing to do is find an opposite-sex spouse and settle down to raise a family and never, ever make any waves". Prior to 1994, this had reached its most noticeable apex in Beauty and the Beast, which presents a freethinking proto-feminist protagonist, and can't think of anything better to do with her than marry her off (though at least Belle and her prince seem destined to have a more equal marriage than, say, poor Aurora of Sleeping Beauty, who is plainly going to be nothing but a handmaid to Phillip). As is fairly typical of the studio's films with male protagonists, the romantic angle of The Lion King is fairly subdued, but it is certainly present; and there is no way to read the final moments of the film except as, "Simba has finally learned his purpose: to procreate and engender the next generation". But I am not particularly offended that The Lion King sees fit to present a heteronormative universe, even if it's kind of hilarious that the species chosen for this purpose is the harem-keeping lion.

What bothers me is the inexplicable "up with the monarchy!" undercurrent to the whole thing. No Disney feature has ever exactly shied away from presenting a fairly rosy view of totalitarian governing; there is no greater ambition in the Disney mythos than to be a princess or become one by marrying a prince. It's not an accident that when little girls buy a new dress at Disneyland, it's a replica of Cinderella's shiny ball gown and not her scullery-maid outfit.

Nor do Hollywood films in general have a spotless track record of pro-democracy activism: I can rattle off dozens of films, from musical comedies to prestige dramas, in which the presence of a monarchial system is understood to be a good and necessary state for the functioning of society. Still, there's something a bit shocking about how eagerly The Lion King embraces this notion: Simba's abandonment of his rightful position as king of the Pride Lands has such a disastrous effect on The Order of Things that the rain itself ceases to fall until he resumes his royal duties. Coupled with the sight of hundreds of prey animals bowing in homage to the infant who will grow up to lead hunts against their families, and what we have is a rather distasteful tribute to how perfectly swell it is to live under the consolidated rule of a benevolent tyrant who may, at any given moment, eat you.

But The Lion King does everything to avoid the hint that Simba or Mufasa are morally culpable: Mufasa even calls attention to it, by giving Simba some little routine about how the antelope that they eat will eventually eat the grass that the lions' dead bodies feed; a nice bit of Zen, but I doubt the antelopes appreciate it. It also boasts the latest in a long line of Disney villain death scenes structured to have the antagonist die by the very careful avoidance of the hero having to do anything icky. With Scar, 12 villains have been killed; half of that number have fallen to their death through accident (among whose number I count Scar himself, though the fall isn't what kills him). Only four were killed by the deliberate actions of a hero - and one of those was the rat from Lady and the Tramp.

The most prominent aspect of the movie, at least in 1994, was its soundtrack: Tim Rice, having just finished up Aladdin for the late Howard Ashman, wrote the lyrics for songs with music by international best-selling pop star Elton John. I'm not going to bother re-hashing my advanced dislike for Rice; though I just want to point out that with tortured phrases like "Why won't he be the king I know he is / The king I see inside?", the lyricist is certainly not going to win any poetry awards. I'll just suffice it to say that the songs are all faintly dull, although the big, splashy "I Just Can't Wait to be King" has a fun melody. Two in particular each do something worthy of particular scorn: "Be Prepared" showcases some of Rice's worst mangling of the language; "Hakuna Matata" manages to directly contradict the film's overt message in a tune so maddeningly catchy that it can't help but take precedence (it is, also, the trashiest, most kiddie-friendly song in the film). "Circle of Life" and the Oscar-winning "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" are both comfortably bland, appropriating African-style chanting in a manner not likely to make anyone forget Paul Simon's Graceland.

(Begrudgingly, I will confess that "Hakuna Matata" boasts a singularly marvelous transition - Simba growing up in a series of dissolves. It's possibly my favorite piece of animation in the movie).

And then, there is the score - oh, my, the score. Hans Zimmer was for many years a composer that I well and truly hated above anyone else prominent in Hollywood far outstripping even the dreaded James Horner as a writer of the most bombastic orchestral music that producers and inattentive viewers like because it tells you with leaden explicitness exactly how you are supposed to feel at any given second. To be absolutely fair, this is probably the best score he'd written to that point, and not by a small margin; to be even fairer, by the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, he had entered an unexpectedly strong period in his career with more than a few outright great credits to his name. Still, it's as far from subtle as you can get, sweeping in and shrieking "LOOK AT THE EPIC EMOTIONS!" and leaving one feeling awfully exhausting. But it's not as empty and forgettable as the songs are - and that is all I want to say about the music of The Lion King.

I've so far described a movie that I truly despise, which isn't true - even without compensating factors, I'd still much rather watch The Lion King than, say, Oliver & Company> or The Fox and the Hound. But then, there is a doozy of a compensating factor: the visuals are absolutely superb. This is the masterpiece of the CAPS era, for that technology is used with the precision of a scalpel and the boldness of a rapier, to create the finest details of light and shadow on the exquisitely-molded features of some of the best work done in the whole careers of supervising animators like Andreas Deja, Ruben Aquino (Simba as an adult), and Mark Henn (Simba as a youth). Thanks to the tireless study of real animals in all stages of their lives - another lift from Bambi - the critters in The Lion King move with a frightening level of realism in everything from the movements of their limbs to the shifting of their weight, from the drifting of their hair to the strain of their muscles. Purely realistic character animation of animals might very well find its highest expression in this film: it may be only my stubborn nostalgia for the process of the 1940s that keeps me from conceding that yes, this is a more technically competent work than Bambi.

But it is not just a magnificent work of animation: it is also beautifully designed by Chris Sanders, whose journey to Africa inspired him to create a real-world look with fantasy sheen, a setting of the most evocative richness. It is, as I said, the finest hour of the Computer Animation Production System, which never melded CGI and hand-drawn animation this thrillingly before or after; which provides for some hopelessly atmospheric misty settings, which makes the film look in all ways like the best qualities of painting and cartooning brought together.

It is especially noteworthy for the outstanding wildebeest stampede, a technically-intensive sequence that is starting to show its age fifteen years on, but still sets the heart to racing, and represents a huge achievement of the craft, marrying computers and traditional animation more effectively than they ever had to that point

Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, directing their first and last Disney feature, certainly had a keen eye for how the thing should all come together: thus the wildebeest scene, the shocking but effective visuals evoking Nazis in "Be Prepared"-

-and the adventurous "I Just Can't Wait to be King", a phenomenal experiment in color and geometry.

It is by turns visually inventive and immaculately realised like no other modern Disney film, and visually, at least, it deserves to be called a masterpiece and then some. The extra time taken to get it right (it was overhauled early in 1992, and snapped the one-per-year run that stretched from 1988-1992) was time well-used, and I can't fathom that this was, at the time, the "runner-up" project; the following year's Pocahontas was the big prestige number that everybody wanted to work on, while The Lion King was where some of the animators got stuck for a time.

Thus I box myself into a corner: I'll never understand how people can honestly think it's an emotionally satisfying experience - Simba will never, ever strike me as anything but the most vanilla of characters, and his tribulations interest me not one whit - but as a fan of Disney animation, I must concede that is an achievement of the highest order. If I have given the artwork short attention, it's because I can't think of much to say: to see The Lion King is to understand precisely why it is so incredibly beautiful; no words are necessary. And while that is hardly reason enough to call it "the best Disney movie ever", like an entire generation seems to do, it's also reason enough to regard it with something closer to adulation than respect, even from a place of outright hostility to the script. This is Disney animation firing on all cylinders, and my God, is it an amazing sight.