By Steve Daly
February 24, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

I don’t want to start a stampede at the returns counter or anything, but holy gallopin’ wildebeests! There’s a major element missing from all the millions of video copies of The Lion King now bounding toward every last video outlet in North America.

It’s not that any characters have been excised for the tape, the way a demeaningly caricatured ”pickaninny” centaurette was snipped from Fantasia. There’s been no change in any lyric, either, the way there was when Disney redubbed an Aladdin couplet decried as anti-Arab. So what’s absent from the video version of The Lion King? That magic, mood-lightening ingredient added by audiences during its run in theaters: a de facto laugh track.

At home, The Lion King isn’t a whole different animal, but it definitely shows more bite. Take away the hoots elicited by the antics of stand-up scene-stealers Zazu the hornbill (voiced by Rowan Atkinson), Timon the meerkat (Nathan Lane), and Pumbaa the warthog (Ernie Sabella), and the movie’s serious side comes to the fore. The jokes aren’t new anymore, either, and how many times can a killer punchline slay you? Goodbye, Comic Relief; hello Grimm’s Fairy Tales. All the dark undertones that grown-up audiences first noticed seeping through the guffaws — intimations of guilt, flashes of savagery, moments of cruelty and outright evil — aren’t undertones anymore. They’re the (rim shot, please) mane event.

Take the movie’s opening line, uttered by oily Uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) to a captive mouse: ”Life’s not fair, is it?” Like the rest of Scar’s bilious laments, the remark hangs in the air unapplauded now, casting a more discomfiting shadow over the story. How could it not? You feel a lot less safe contemplating such a believable baddie in the quiet of your living room than in a busy multiplex. This isn’t a public space; this is where you make peace with loved ones, talk to family, cope with siblings-and there’s that lying, embittered, fratricidal creature in the room.

Heavier, too, is the scene in which orphaned, exiled prince Simba, Scar’s nephew, lies with his pals under a night sky, debating what stars are made of. Pumbaa’s conjecture about ”balls of gas burning” had theater audiences convulsing, drowning out the soundtrack. But watching in private, you can’t miss the background music that swells suddenly behind the gag line, a plaintive theme that evokes the spirit of Simba’s lost dad. It’s a different moment altogether, and a stronger one; instead of laughter, the scene hinges on regret.

There hasn’t been such primal loneliness and abandonment on display in a Disney cartoon since company founder Walt forged his earliest, darkest tales of orphans knocked around by a hostile world. In fact, if you double-bill Lion with an entry from Walt’s searing, psychologically profound babes-in-the-woods trilogy — that is, with Pinocchio or Dumbo or Bambi — it’s amazing to see how much was cribbed and then crossbred for Lion‘s ”original” story line.

Each of these stories opens with the hero’s birth and then quickly cuts him off from his favorite parent. No other movies stoke separation anxiety so powerfully. Think Simba has it hard? Check this out: Pinocchio gets kidnapped by horrible, profiteering bullies — twice — and finally makes it home only to find out his pop has been lost at sea trying to find him. Dumbo sees his mother locked up as a ”mad elephant” for trying to protect him from insensitive clods who find his mutant ears funny. And Bambi, well, you know what happens to his mom.

Into each tragedy, however, steps a helpful guide. Jiminy Cricket steers his ”little woodenhead” to safety. Timothy the Mouse prods Dumbo to use his ears to fly. Thumper helps Bambi negotiate childhood’s slippery patches, and an avuncular owl helps him make sense of his adolescent mating urge. Simba, though, hits the helpline jackpot. He has two swell best friends who never steer him wrong the way Pinocchio’s pals do, or leave him for females, the way Bambi’s do. He’s also counseled by the wisest guardian this side of a talking cricket: Rafiki, the loving shaman who literally knocks some sense into him. Yes, it’s the whack of a cane that finally sends Simba back to what’s left of his family. But compared with his classmates in the Disney school of hard knocks, this kid gets off pretty easy. The Lion King: A- Pinocchio: A+ Dumbo: A Bambi: A