FILM / More whimper than roar: The Lion King (U)Dir: Rob Minkoff (US); Minna Tannenbaum (12)Dir: Martine Dogowson (Fr); Funny Man (18)Dir: Simon Sprackling (UK)

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Internecine warfare, powerlust, backstabbing and betrayal: the recent dramas at Disney (the death of Frank Wells, one of the studio's three senior executives, last April; the illness of a second, Michael Eisner, in July; and the brusque exit of the third, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the following month) would make an action-packed animated feature. But, much as the thought of Jeffrey Katzenberg sporting Mickey Mouse ears appeals, as a cartoon hero, Disney has never been a great one for topicality or short-termism. Its expensive, labour-intensive works must echo down the decades, recyclable unto the fifth generation.

And so, for the studio's first-ever animated feature to be based on an original story, we have a self-styled 'instant classic'. Simba, believing himself responsible for his father, the lion king's death, goes into voluntary exile. In fact, the deed is the work of the king's bad brother, a green-eyed, black-maned customer, silkily, deliciously voiced by Jeremy Irons. But Simba, with diverse comic sidekicks in tow, will return to stalk his birthright.

The story is a frightful mess of contradictions. Contemporary sensibilities have imposed a vaguely ecological subtext and lots of stuff about compassion and watching out for each other. In exile, Simba meets a warthog and a meerkat, for whom 'grub' means grubs, and is taken under their wing: incredibly, he grows, prospers and sprouts a mane on his new low-cholesterol diet. Eventually, he snatches the hog from the jaws of a lioness: his exile has prompted an inner growth and re-education.

But The Lion King wants to eat its cake and follow a lo- cal diet (the constant food imagery running through the film mirrors its contradictions). It wants 'political correctness' and 'timeless myth', both at once (Simba is such a generic character that even his name is Swahili for 'lion'). And most of it is arch-traditionalist.

Disney has made a few brisk nods to feminism recently, with its lightly revisionist versions of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (even the princess in Aladdin was spunkier than most). Here, Simba's mother is allowed one brief, amusing gag when, pestered by the cublet, her sleepy spouse mutters 'Before sunrise, he's your son', but soon we're back to basic father-son bonding.

The film is a big loud cheer for the status quo, from the moment that the King presents the infant Simba to his subjects in the naff

'one-day-son-all-this-will-be- yours' opening scene. The assembly thrills mightily to the prospect of a new diner on the block: lions eat antelope, but tough - that's the Circle of Life, and the bones of dead lions will eventually moulder into the fertiliser that nourishes the grass the antelope eat (fearlessly, the film-makers brave the wrath of the Antelope Liberation Front). But when the poor hyenas, the riff-raff 'dangling at the bottom of the food chain', batten on carrion - their natural function, after all - they're stigmatised as 'poachers'; when, under the foul usurper, they're allowed to claw their way up the Darwinian hierarchy, the place goes to rack and ruin. This is what happens, the movie says, when underdogs rise above their station. At one bizarre point, they're even seen goose-stepping.

The Lion King is, as one would hope, stunning to look at. The usual anthropomorphism (long-lashed giraffes; lions courting in the missionary position) is offset by dazzling, near-abstract set-pieces - the Riefenstahl goose-step, or, more innocuously, the kaleidoscopes of elephant tusks and zebra stripes and glowing tropical colours. But, for all the surface sense of fun and brio, great tracts of the film are reactionary drivel of a high order. Maybe that's what you get when you try to make a fast-food classic.

The dullest thing about Mina Tannenbaum is the title. It's misleading too, since the film is set in Paris. Here, in the dogdays of the Seventies, a halting friendship develops between the intense, myopic Mina (Romane Bohringer) and her sparky, extrovert friend (Elsa Zylberstein). Both are Jewish, with domineering mommas to match - the film is a Woody Allen-esque nervous comedy in its early sections. The first-time director, Martine Dugowson, makes this a bright, unpredictable piece, with dollops of fantasy and fast changes of mood, although it adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Riff-raff dangling off the bottom of the film chain, Funny Man is a shamelessly bad-taste British horror comedy in which a brash record company executive wins a house off Christopher Lee in a card game and finds it haunted by a grotesque, homicidal Joker. Son of Freddy Krueger, he dispatches his victims with appropriate murders and many a merry quip. Nicely mounted and designed, the surreal fantasy sequences at times recall The Avengers, but the story quickly degenerates into coarse, repetitive stuff.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments