”Sequels suck,” the film students of Scream 2 declared, and who are we to argue? Despite a number of obvious exceptions — yes, we loved The Bride of Frankenstein too — they’ve got a point. (And look at their movie.) Any picture with a numeral in its title has always been suspect; a ”Son of” on a poster is as dependable an early warning sign as ”Based on the characters from Saturday Night Live.” Still, shabby or not, follow-up features lure back most of the people who sat through the original the first time around (as well as allowing studios to mark up all that old, discounted tie-in merchandise). That’s why inexpensive, direct-to-tape rehashes are now a favorite strategy for kiddie pictures. That’s why we have The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride today.
It has some pretty big paw prints to fill. The Lion King was Disney’s last gargantuan success, spawning everything from sheets to a Broadway musical, and if the studio’s following films have modishly explored a magic kingdom of feminism (Mulan) and showbizzy attitude (Hercules), The Lion King was a last blast of pure Uber-Walt. There was the dramatic, de rigueur death of a parent and the usual message about finding yourself — though in status-quo-conscious Disney fashion, that typically translated into finding your place. (Not even in the United Kingdom do kids’ stories so unquestioningly honor the divine right of kings.)
The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride begins where the first picture left off, but adds a baby-boomer spin. Simba is still an overachieving only son, but now he’s a cranky big daddy, too; while continuing to obsess over what dear old Mufasa would have him do, he orders daughter Kiara around, arrogantly growling ”Stay on the path I’ve marked for you.” (The movie’s subtitle, Simba’s Pride, is its neatest pun.) But Kiara, alas, is growing up in a hurry and has a few identity issues of her own. ”I’m not just a princess, you know,” she wails, like some Great Neck sophomore. ”That’s only half of who I am!” And so the stage is set for family conflict and parallel struggles, as Kiara proves her independence and Simba finally accepts his own.
That’s pretty heavy stuff for an 80-minute cartoon, and to their credit, director Darrell Rooney, codirector Rob LaDuca, and director of animation Steven Trenbirth try to develop that theme while keeping things as light as a savanna breeze. Too bad the budget for this strictly home-video enterprise seems airily thin too. The Tim Rice-Elton John-penned songs of the first film have been replaced by a grab bag of by-the-numbers tunes, and while Kevin Quinn and Randy Petersen’s up-tempo ”Upendi” has some bounce, most of the numbers are tired variations on the same old Mouse Factory power ballad. The animation — apart from a good wildfire sequence — is fairly flat and crude. After a colorful opening, exteriors settle into a few repetitious backdrops; characters pick two or three favorite expressions and stick with them.
The voices are slightly more dimensional. Matthew Broderick returns as Simba, which at least lends some continuity, and Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella pleasantly reprise the squabbling Timon and Pumbaa. But Neve Campbell adds nothing as Kiara — whoever thought of hiring that actress for her voice? — and while the catty Suzanne Pleshette could have been a feral terror as the saga’s new character Zira, Scar’s chief mourner, the drawing and dialogue leave her disappointingly de-clawed (and inexplicable, too — what sort of a relationship did the solitary Scar have with her?).
Despite its drawbacks, The Lion King II could make a decent rental for undemanding under-7 fans of the original, who won’t be overburdened by the psychodrama. For true believers who’ve already watched and rewound their copies to shreds, it might even make a good buy. And for them, hey, hakuna matata. But for the rest of us, caveat emptor might be a better motto. Like most sequels, this isn’t really a movie at all — it’s a merchandising strategy. And no one needs to pay money for that. C+