Call me a grump, but one thing I’ve always resented about Disney movies is how baldly manipulative they are. From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Aladdin, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m responding exactly the way Uncle Walt and his successors would want — laughing at Iago’s wisecracks, hissing at Cruella de Ville, or getting choked up by that scene with Dumbo’s mom. Sure it’s compelling, but it’s also a strangely passive, infantilizing experience.
What a rare pleasure it is, then, to be given a bit of Disney I can manipulate right back — namely, the video-game version of The Lion King. This silicon King is a real paws-on proposition, in which you guide Simba past multiple dangers as he ages from a rambunctious cub into a stately adult lion. Make too many mistakes, and the would-be monarch ends up hyena bait.
Thanks to the use of artwork created by Disney animators, this Simba moves so fluidly and so realistically you’d swear you were playing an interactive cartoon. (Of course, the intensity of that sensation depends on which version you play: Though the two games are structurally identical, the Super NES Lion King is far superior to its Genesis counterpart — better graphics, music, and sound effects.) But what really makes this veldt vivid is something you might not expect from a Disney project: a palpable sense of menace that outstrips even the movie’s scary regicide scene. A showcase sequence in which you have to guide Simba out of the path of a wildebeest stampede is the hairiest interactive experience this side of crossing a freeway on foot. And thanks to the weird exigencies of the video-game world, which dictate that enemies be plentiful and unrelenting, even the relatively carefree interlude that unfolds to the strains of ”Hakuna Matata” is populated by poison-spitting frogs.
It’s in the second half of the game, though, that The Lion King really shows its claws. Controlling Simba when he’s a playful bundle of fur is one thing; putting him through his paces as a full-maned adult is quite another. When the grown-up Simba gives a blood-curdling roar and mauls snarling hyenas, the interaction is so well observed that it’s like watching a PBS nature documentary. The sense of power it gives you is exhilarating, and by the time Simba takes his climactic heavyweight stand against his evil uncle Scar, this Lion King has turned into a wild-kingdom variant of Street Fighter II. Still, the carnage quotient doesn’t involve humans, and it shouldn’t do the average cartoon-besotted kid any damage. The real killing to shake your head at here is the money Disney will reap from yet another spin-off Lion King product (which in turn promotes the holiday re-release of the movie). Assuming this game sells 4 or 5 million copies (and that’s not an immoderate estimate, considering the huge installed base of Super NES and Genesis consoles), it should gross something on the order of $300 million in stores — more than the movie itself grossed in its initial American theatrical run. Now that’s manipulation. Super NES version: A Genesis version: B+