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'LION KING' : Roaring Only in Stores

Video: Disney's "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride" represents the highest-profile sequel not to debut on the big screen.

October 26, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's hard not to notice the numerous billboards, bus stop posters and TV ads heralding the arrival of the sequel to the most successful animated film in movie history.

But unlike the 1994 box-office hit, which grossed nearly $800 million worldwide, Disney's "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride" will not be opening at a theater near you on Tuesday. Instead, the family film will make its debut at video stores.

"Lion King II" ($27) is following in the paw prints of Disney direct-to-video sequels based on its animated musical features "Aladdin" ("The Return of Jafar" and "Aladdin and the King of Thieves"), "Beauty and the Beast" ("Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas") and "Pocahontas" ("Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World").

For Disney and other studios, video follow-ups to animated features have become a thriving industry, even though the quality of the video sequels often has been less than stellar. But with "Lion King II" Disney has upped the ante in terms of both production values and marketing; "Lion King" is, after all, the king of animated beasts.

In just four years, "Lion King" has become one of Disney's most roaringly successful franchises. Not only did the film break box-office records and garner Golden Globes and Oscars, the video sold an astonishing 55 million units worldwide. "Lion King" has spawned three CDs, a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, an animated TV series, zillions of toys, watches, T-shirts, stuffed animals and books and CD-ROMs.

So there's a lot at stake with "Lion King II." Producer Jeannine Roussel and director Darrell Rooney agree that expectations are incredibly high for this adventure.

"You're following in a huge footprint," Rooney said. "So it has to be something that is as good as the first story."

Barbara McNamara of the home entertainment market research firm Alexander & Associates said that in the last few years, made-for-video sequels have become prominent in the video landscape, pointing out that Universal has had great success with its "Land Before Time" franchise. Warner Home Video is producing several live-action animated films based on hit films, and MGM plans an "All Dogs Go to Heaven" Christmas story on home video next month.

"I think that it is definitely profitable for them," McNamara said. "It's a way to reduce costs because they don't have to release a feature film. Granted, they don't do the volume that the original feature film does, but it's enough to be profitable."

Disney will not estimate how many units it expects "Lion King II" to sell, nor will it disclose the cost of producing the video. The only sales figures the studio have released are for "Return of Jafar," which sold an impressive 11 million copies.

If "Lion King" was a male coming-of-age tale, "Lion King II,' moves women to center stage. In the sequel, Kira, Simba's precocious daughter, and Kovu, Scar's hand-picked successor, fall in love and work to bring peace to the Pridelands. However, Zira, Scar's loyal follower and Kovu's mother, has different ideas.

Most of the Vocal Talent Returns

Most of the vocal talent is back for the sequel, including Matthew Broderick (Simba), James Earl Jones (Mufasa), Robert Guillaume (Rafiki), Nathan Lane (Timon) and Ernie Sabella (Pumbaa). Neve Campbell joins the cast as the voice of Kira and Suzanne Pleshette claws and snarls her way through the film as the evil Zira.

None of the original animators, though, was involved in this installment. Walt Disney Television Animation's studio in Sydney, Australia, did the majority of the animation. All story boarding and pre-production were done at the Disney studio in Burbank.

Though most of Disney's made-for-video sequels are two years in production, "Lion King II" took twice as long--about the same time it usually takes to produce an animated feature.

"This one was a story that evolved a lot," said Sharon Morrill, executive vice president of Walt Disney Television Animation, who is in charge of made-for-video products.

The Kovu-Kira love story, said Rooney, is a variation on Romeo and Juliet. "It's the biggest love story we have," he explained. "The difference is that you understand the position of the parents in this film in a way you never did in the Shakespeare play.

"Then aside from that, what if Romeo was a much darker character? What if he had issues that he had to work out along the way, that his job was to go and kill the king? That's a story with real meat on it."

A New Twist for the Sequel

Rooney said they decided to make the villain of the piece a lioness because people in the audience "look for things [in sequels] to be opposite as much as possible so you are not treading on the same territory."

"In this situation, if you have another male lion, you have to find a whole story line that works comfortably in the story. Making it a female is the opposite and also her connection to Scar could be much more believable. She was one of his porters. That seemed like a really logical fit and that worked on an emotional level."

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