Hakuna Matata! The Lion King Comes to Town and It Isn’t Cute

As you may have heard, the stage version of The Lion King has opened at Disney’s New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway, and to that I say two little words: “hakuna matata.”

“Hakuna matata” is, of course, Swahili for “no worries.” It’s the Elton John-Tim Rice version of “Don’t worry, be happy.” Simba, you will recall, is the young lion who blames himself for the death of his heroic dad, King Mufasa. During his rite of passage, he flees his homeland into the forest, where he pals around with the happy-go-lucky Pumbaa, the wart hog, and Timon, the meerkat. Simba, the prodigal son, adopts their philosophy of “hakuna matata.”

It also happens to be the philosophy of the Walt Disney Company. Perhaps that’s why the song has always irritated me a bit. It doesn’t leave you alone. Once you’ve heard “Hakuna Matata,” you can’t get rid of it. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Julie Taymor, the high priestess of the avant-garde who’s the director of The Lion King , might feel the same way. She achieves many lovely things in the production, but the big “Hakuna Matata” number is surprisingly lackluster. It’s as if she couldn’t quite face the unquenchable Disney optimism of it, as if she secretly whispered to herself, “Not ‘Hakuna Matata’! I’ve got enough problems with ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’!”

The distinguished director of such experimental, highly visual pieces as The Green Bird and Juan Darien doesn’t solve those problems, either. The sentimental junk of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”-the only other hit song from the original movie-also jars Ms. Taymor’s cultivated seriousness. She’s more at home with the wonderfully earthy African music and songs and chants that the South African composer Lebo M has adapted from the album Rhythm of the Pride Lands . The stage pictures they inspire are simply beautiful.

But when it comes to the big, popular “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” inspiration deserts her. She dresses the number up with an arty pas de deux that might have been costumed in Las Vegas. Along with another uncharacteristic lapse-the aerial ballet of, I assume, sprightly woodland nymphs-the additional business is meant to distract us from the cartoon mawkishness of the song. She won’t let it speak for its sentimental self.

According to the simple parable of The Lion King , in spite of the pleasures Simba finds in his alternative way of life, he must abandon “hakuna matata” and assume his adult responsibilities. I would prefer to say that Ms. Taymor’s production is utterly enchanting (it would be easier). But at the center, for all its spectacular achievements, it doesn’t work at the highest levels.

It’s a gigantic culture clash. Disney-intending to marry commerce to art, or cartoon culture to high culture-was shrewd to offer Ms. Taymor its Faustian bargain. They could either reproduce an animated film on stage (as they did with Beauty and the Beast ), or try something new. Newish! What, after all, is Ms. Taymor’s specialty but puppets?

Exceedingly cultivated puppets, true! Ms. Taymor, who also designed the costumes for The Lion King and co-designed the puppets and masks (and wrote the lyrics to an undistinguished new song, “Endless Night”), is strongly influenced by the great theater traditions of Asia and Africa. They include Japanese Noh and bunraku, the rod puppets of Java, African mask work, and shadow plays that have been performed over centuries. In that sense, her work is an exotic synthesis of the ritual cultures of other countries-here adopted, packaged and appropriated by Disney on Broadway.

We are all tourists now. Cultural “borrowings” or “tributes” are nothing new, of course, even on Broadway. Jerome Robbins famously borrowed from the Peking opera in The King and I . Strictly speaking, Disney isn’t getting art from Ms. Taymor, however. Her cultural influences are as timelessly popular in their own countries as animated cartoons are here. You will see an adaptation of African masks in The Lion King . But the African language of Hausa has no word for “art.” No word for “theater,” either. There’s only life!

The question is, does it work or not? Is there life flowing in all its fullness and creativity through this production? The show begins astonishingly well with the procession of the animal kingdom through the audience to the enchanted African plains on stage. As in the animated movie version-whose opening sequence is among the most beautiful Disney has ever created-a giant sun rises miraculously on Ms. Taymor’s unique Disney parade.

With her brilliant scenic and lighting designers, Richard Hudson and Donald Holder, the direction joyfully embraces the playful imaginative heights in the opening scene, never to reach them again. There are other exquisite images-the grasslands swaying, a stampede, a pack of lions on the move, a weird antelope bicycle moving across the stage like some stately constructivist sculpture. Human giraffes lope on stage, too; a shaman baboon laughs manically; an evil masked lion kills a rat to announce laconically that life isn’t fair.

In such vignettes, all is well (and fun). We are way above the usual Broadway fare. Our eyes are dazzled by the ingenuity of these human animals that, against the Disney grain, are never cute. If appearances were all, Ms. Taymor’s The Lion King would be mostly magnificent.

But if this is the first Disney show to avoid being cute, it’s the first to shy away from another Disney stock in trade: sentiment. Only this over-solemn director would discuss The Lion King in terms of a near-sacred death and rebirth ritual. Maybe it is. But it’s a cartoon! For kids! And it ought to touch us. In a self-consciously naïve moment following the beloved Mufasa’s death, the grieving lions cry ribbons. Ribbons unfold artily from their eyes. Tears would have sufficed.

But emotions are remote and symbolic. Mufasa’s death scene is turned into a vague secular ceremony and is not dwelled upon. Parents complained that the scene in the film upset their young children too much, but that isn’t why Ms. Taymor couldn’t quite face it, any more than she could deal with the hokey “Hakuna Matata.” Easy Disney sentiment is avoided like a sugar attack. But how about good old-fashioned sentiment? Would Charles Dickens have thrown away a death scene?

So the spectacle becomes its own special effect, overcrowding the narrative while trying to disguise its flaws. The film of The Lion King runs for 88 minutes, the stage version for 2 hours 40 minutes. It’s too long, too weighty. All the elements of the film have been staged or developed. Tsidii Le Loka’s shaman Rafiki is an electric leap forward; the three screaming hyena stooges of Stanley Wayne Mathis, Kevin Cahoon and Tracy Nicole Chapman are another improvement on the original. John Vickery’s evil Scar ought to be less campy, more slippery; the king’s clown Zazu, played by Geoff Hoyle, is a daunting achievement; the oddest couple, Tom Alan Robbins’ Pumbaa and Max Casella’s Timon, are a delight and the closest Ms. Taymor comes to pure cartoon.

In spite of its success, the somewhat preachy story was always slender, the Elton John-Tim Rice score not their best. It’s as if Ms. Taymor would sooner be making a bigger statement and directing another show-call it “The Lion King Meets the Rhythm of the Pride Lands.” She is! But one is Disney, and one isn’t. Not that it matters too much. Try getting a ticket! Hakuna matata, as the philosophers say.

Hakuna Matata! The Lion King Comes to Town and It Isn’t Cute