The tale behind ''The Lion King,'' Disney's newest and potentially biggest hit

At any showing in any of the 2,550 theaters now playing Walt Disney Pictures’ The Lion King, it’s the gag virtually guaranteed to bring down the house: Late in the film, lion Simba asks his meerkat friend Timon, a nervous, weasel-like creature, to lure away a pack of hungry hyenas. ”Whaddya want me to do,” the little guy sputters, ”dress in drag and do the hula?” Cut to Timon in a grass skirt warbling ”Hawaiian War Chant.” Kaboom — the audience goes off like a powder keg.

But is Jonathan Roberts, one of three Lion King screenwriters, satisfied? Of course not. ”I wish we’d had Timon in a coconut bra, like Ray Walston in South Pacific,” he says. ”That would’ve been funny.”

There’s no stifling the urge to improve in the perfectionist world of Disney feature animation, where okay means inadequate, better is getting there, and socko just might do. In the four years it took 600 artists and technicians to bring The Lion King to the screen (at an estimated cost of $40 million, though insiders say it cost more), there’s nary a shot, a line of dialogue, or a musical moment in Simba’s journey to kingship that wasn’t built, torn out, rebuilt, tinkered with, fixed again, and maybe fixed a few times more. In fact, in a Hollywood dominated by star-driven, megabudget projects rushed from script to screen for a short-term killing, long-view meticulousness is Disney’s magic formula. No other production unit expends quite the same methodical effort to craft crowd-pleasing movies.

”With live action, you have eight or 12 weeks to do it as best you can,” says Matthew Broderick, the voice of grown-up Simba. ”Maybe you do two days of reshoots. But Disney’s got the money to keep at these forever till they’re happy. I mean, I worked on Simba on and off over the course of two years.” (Not that he got much cash for it; one thing Disney doesn’t splurge on is star salaries. Says Broderick: ”I get all that tie-in merchandise for free, I think, and that’s about it.”)

”There are always changes, but never so many as on this one,” says Andreas Deja, supervising animator of regicidal villain Scar. ”One day, I just ran away. I said, ‘I can’t deal with this. When you know what scenes are going in the movie and what aren’t, you tell me, and I’ll come back and animate for you.’ I’ve never done anything like that before.”

These days, Disney animators can afford to be a tad temperamental. Look at the money they’re bringing in: The escalating fortunes grossed worldwide in theaters by the studio’s last three animated musicals — The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin — amount to $181.7 million, $349 million, and $485.5 million, respectively, plus they racked up combined home-video retail sales of an estimated $1.4 billion.

Now The Lion King stands poised to outpace all other Disney features at the box office, grossing $40.9 million in its first three days of wide release last weekend. It’s the studio’s biggest opening tally ever, and the fourth-biggest in movie history (behind Jurassic Park, Batman Returns, and Batman). And that’s merely the start of Lion‘s share of revenues. Judging from the sales of Disney’s other classics on cassette, the studio will probably net an additional $250 million when the movie comes to video. Merchandise and theme-park tie-ins? Half a billion, easily. But Disney being Disney, that’s just round one. Unless humanity ceases to bear children, there’s the promise of lucrative reissues into the 21st century. None of Walt Disney’s features — not even 1937’s groundbreaking Snow White, which cost $2 million and grossed four times that in its initial release — came close to returning such a yield so fast.

At the epicenter of the cashquake stands caffeine-fueled studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, 43, who, by all accounts, relishes running Disney’s animation division far more than he does tracking Hollywood’s ego-infested live-action jungle. Those who speculate Katzenberg is itchy for a bigger post at another studio say it’s his ‘toon darlings that could keep him at Disney. In the crushingly complex production logistics of animated features, he seems to have found a match for his relentlessly detail-oriented energies (on occasion he scheduled Lion King review meetings for 6 a.m., but codirectors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers insisted he wait until 7 or 8). ”These things are like the opposite of peeling an onion,” Katzenberg enthuses. ”We add layer after layer after layer.”

King‘s makers, from art directors to film editors, praise Katzenberg’s managerial instincts, his nose for rooting out trouble spots in the story line (if not hitting on solutions), and the indefatigability of his tough love. But is Katzenberg really the heart of Disney animation’s success, or just the head? Codirector Minkoff, who, like his partner, Allers, has worked at the studio for roughly a decade, laments that in the rush to analyze what makes Disney cartoons tick, many in the press have looked at a vast creative team and chosen to lionize one person: Jeffrey Katzenberg. ”Although Jeffrey is very, very crucially involved,” says Minkoff, ”he spends literally maybe an hour a week looking at stuff we’ve already done and helping shape it from there. That is one hundredth of 1 percent of the work that goes on here.”

The Lion King
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