SOME mighty talented people, such as Steven Spielberg and Don Bluth, have challenged the animation wizards at Walt Disney Pictures in recent years. They've made some pleasant little cartoons - the ``American Tail'' movies, for instance - but they have yet to put a dent in Disney's reputation as the unquestioned king of animated filmmaking.
What's the secret behind Disney's success? Simply stated, it's the studio's willingness to stick with a cluster of winning formulas that have been around for decades - relating to plot, character, and drawing style - and to deploy these with such energy, variety, and panache that they don't seem like formulas at all.
When this trick is pulled off properly, it gives us movies like ``Beauty and the Beast'' and ``Aladdin,'' with their uncanny knack of appearing fresh and familiar at the same time. The same quality charges through ``The Lion King,'' the latest Disney triumph.
Although it differs from most of the studio's feature-length cartoons in that it's an original project, not based on a well-known fairy tale or children's book, ``The Lion King'' partakes so strongly of time-tested Disney methods that all but the youngest moviegoers will find it as instantly recognizable as an old friend.
Yet it manipulates those methods with such skill and imagination that you can't help surrendering to its spell - even if you wish it were a little more surprising for the grownup portion of the audience, which has been down this road so many times before.
At heart, ``The Lion King'' is a family story, focusing on the relationship between Mufasa, literally the king of beasts in his corner of the African wilderness, and Simba, the monarch's little son. Also in the picture is Mufasa's brother, Scar, a petulant type who resents his second-place status in the royal household.
Scar's envy turns deadly when he lures young Simba into a den of hungry hyenas who'd dine on him as readily as look at him. When this nasty trick fails, the evil uncle enlists his hyena pals to murder Mufasa himself - and succeeds in claiming the kingdom, with Simba doomed to a life in exile among unglamorous beasts on the lower links of the food chain.
As often with Disney animations, the most memorable figures in ``The Lion King'' are the youngsters, the villains, and the comical sidekicks. Simba is a superbly realized character, especially in the first half of the movie when he's still a little cub; when he faces discipline by his dad after his adventure with the hyenas, for instance, his round and teary eyes are as heartbreaking as they are hilarious.
Just as winning are the lowly critters who become his companions in exile: a slow-witted warthog and a sharp-tongued meerkat, whose artfully mismatched personalities make them the funniest comedy team to hit the screen in ages. And a special nod goes to the heinous hyenas - Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed - for the quickness of their banter and the absolute idiocy of almost everything they say. Bad guys don't come more menacing or more laughable.
Visually, the movie is an example of Disney animation at its supple best. Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, it's packed with thoroughly individualized characters moving gracefully and efficiently through a variety of eye-beguiling settings and situations.
Verbally, it's a bravura display of cleverly written dialogue interpreted by a superb cast. Standouts include James Earl Jones, who provides Mufasa's voice, and the team of Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick, who speak the words of Simba as a child and young adult, respectively. Jeremy Irons is positively brilliant as Scar, at once insinuating and insufferable. Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane are a riot as Simba's low-life buddies; and similar energy springs from the trio of Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings as the hyenas.
In sum, ``The Lion King'' is another first-rate effort from the world's most gifted animation studio. With this affirmed, however, it's worth taking a moment to note a few shortcomings that prevent the picture from achieving the stature of a truly significant art work.
While the familiarity of the story helps give the production its patented Disney ring, there are too few twists or variations to distinguish it from a long list of predecessors. The music score is sprightly, but it's so steeped in pop-music cliches that it seems ordinary compared with other aspects of the film.
And above all, why can't the Disney writers and artists approach the animal kingdom in a way that doesn't totally anthropomorphize it?
There's something limited and limiting about the cartoon tradition of turning every species into a stylized version of the human race.
An animal fable that taught us something about animals as well as people, bringing multiculturalism to a whole new realm - now there's an original project the Disney folks might think about tackling someday.
* ``The Lion King'' is rated G.