The Walt Disney Co. is using a smart selling device for its upcoming summer film, "The Lion King," which is the studio's 33rd animated feature (if you count "The Nightmare Before Christmas").

At both "The Three Musketeers" and "Sister Act 2: Back In the Habit" (which opens Friday, Dec. 10) viewers have the pleasure of sitting through a 4-minute cartoon before the film begins.But we're not talking a Roger Rabbit short here. This is actually a 4-minute trailer (preview) for "The Lion King." And it's no ordinary trailer - no jumping around, no jumble of flashy scenes, no Reader's Digest condensed version of the film's story . . . .

This is something unique in the annals of movie trailers - the 4-minute sequence is actually the picture's opening scene, beginning with an enthralling African sunrise, then continuing with dozens of jungle animals gathering together, ultimately paying tribute to the newborn title character, all played out to a song called "The Circle of Life," by Elton John and Tim Rice.

And it's a stunning, gorgeously animated set-piece, one that certainly has people talking. Some aspects are so realistic-looking that I've been asked if the animation has been blended with photography of real-life animals. The answer is no, it's all animation (albeit enhanced with computer imagery).

The film is scheduled to make its debut in June of '94, but it has already generated more talk than most movies scheduled to arrive in the next few weeks of this Christmas holiday moviegoing season.

Disney is also touting "The Lion King" for its list of "firsts":

- The first Disney animated feature with no human characters. (Even "Bambi" had those hunters.)

- The first pairing of pop superstar Elton John and Broadway musical lyricist Tim Rice (Rice also contributed to "Aladdin").

- And it is the inaugural movie in Disney's new animated feature schedule, which was reported recently in the show-biz trade paper Variety.

The story quoted Disney CEO Michael Eisner as saying, "We are aiming for three animated releases every two years."

That's an amazing commitment, coming as it does from the man who said almost a decade ago that though animation at Disney would continue because it was the company's foundation, it was not a moneymaker.

What a difference nine years can make. These days, the animated features - "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" - earn the folks at Disney their largest profits.

So what's on Disney's feature animation docket?

After "The Lion King," these are projects in various phases of production:

- "Pocahontas," described in Variety as "the life story of the politically correct, proto-feminist Indian princess." Disney is making efforts to keep the story free of stereotypes and historical inaccuracies. And it offers yet another pair of "firsts" - the first Disney animated feature built around a character from American folklore, and Disney's first animated love story that doesn't end happily ever after! (Expected Christmas '94.)

- "Toy Story," a high-tech computer-animated yarn about two toys, a Buck Rogers-type action hero named Buzz Lightyear and a toy soldier named Woody. Tom Hanks will provide the voice of Buzz, while Woody will be voiced by Tim Allen (TV's "Home Improvement"). (Expected in summer or fall of '95.)

- An untitled feature starring Goofy, albeit hipper than he's been in the past. This one will be animated in a quicker, less classical style (as was the Disney feature "DuckTales - The Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp"). (Expected in summer or fall of '95.)

- "The Man Who Would Be King," Rudyard Kipling's tale, which received live-action treatment in 1975 from John Huston, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine starring.

- "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," Victor Hugo's classic yarn, which has already been filmed in at least seven traditional, live-action versions.

- "Atlantis," a fantasy about the underwater kingdom.

- "Fantasia Continued," which will feature some of the original "Fantasia" set-pieces and some new stuff, perhaps with classic rock tunes. (Disney is very hush-hush on this one.)

Stay tuned for further developments.

- MEANWHILE, DISNEY'S current animated feature, "The Nightmare Before Christmas," continues to rake in solid earnings, remaining in the box office top 10 after seven weeks with a total take of nearly $44 million.

"Nightmare's" per-screen average was more than $3,100 last week. By comparison, Steven Spielberg's "We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story" took in about $2,400 per screen. And this was the film's debut weekend. And it included the Thanksgiving holiday!

- SPIELBERG MAY NOT be doing all that well with his latest venture into animated features but he is about to jump into the live-action/animated followup to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

Spielberg and Disney co-produced the 1988 blockbuster, and the inside word is that Bob Hoskins has signed on to reprise his detective character, along with Roger Rabbit voice Charles Fleischer, and Kathleen Turner as Jessica Rabbit's voice. Ahead of them was director Robert Zemeckis, who also helmed the original.

- QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Stephen Herek, director of the current Disney hit, "The Three Musketeers," comparing his bosses to the ratings board, which operates under the auspices of the Motion Picture Association of America:

"They (Disney) are a little more stringent than the MPAA tends to be."