Part 1: The Lion King
Part 2: The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride
Part 3: The Lion King 1½
Bambi in Africa…
…That’s how it was described within the Disney Feature Animation Studios when they began work on what they perceived as an offbeat experiment. It wasn’t directly based on any fairy tales or previous fiction. There was absolutely no human element, with the film set in the wild Serengeti, and the cast consisting entirely of talking (and singing) animals. Yet, The Lion King achieved massive success when it was released into theaters on June 15, 1994. It became Disney’s most successful film ever, the highest grossing animated film of all time, and the third highest grossing film (animated or not) of all time. It also spawned two straight-to-video sequels, a TV series, and was adapted into a critically acclaimed Broadway musical.
The Lion King made a huge impression on me when I first saw it in 1994 at the age of 15. To this day, it remains my favorite animated movie, and one of my favorite movies in general. So, I thought it would be fun to take a look back on the original film, as well as its two follow-ups.
The story follows Simba, a young lion who’s destined to inherit the throne from his father, Mufasa. Unfortunately, Simba’s jealous uncle, Scar, murders Mufasa, convinces Simba that he was responsible for it, and subsequently exiles him. As Scar assumes rule over the Pride Lands, Simba grows up trying to separate himself from his past.
Although the film was touted as an original work when it was first released, the filmmakers have openly admitted that it was heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It does follow the same basic plot, but reinterprets it as a dark coming of age story.
The movie also infamously bears strong resemblance to Osamu Tezuka’s anime series Jungle Emperor, or Kimba the White Lion. While Disney has always maintained that any similarities were nothing more than coincidence, the late Tezuka’s studio, Mushi Production, actually considered the connection flattering.
What always struck me about The Lion King was how strangely epic it feels, despite its relatively brief 88-minute running time. A lot of it probably has to do with how thematically dark the film is, dealing with issues such as murder, guilt, exile, the death of a parent, and even allusions to Nazism and communism. But its majestic depiction of Africa is also stunningly beautiful, and the style was quite unlike anything else seen in an animated Disney film at the time.
The film walks a fine line between its darker, heavier portions and a lighter, more humorous mood. It always finds time to toss in a clever gag or jubilant musical number, and somehow manages to do it without breaking the atmosphere. The film takes itself very seriously when it’s required, but effortlessly transitions into good-natured whimsy.
The journey that Simba takes in the film is far more emotional than physical. The character is given a great performance through both excellent animation and Matthew Broderick’s terrific voice work as Adult Simba. Simba displays a lot of complex emotions, but it never feels forced or melodramatic. The character is very round and organic, making him easy to sympathize with.
Scar, on the other hand, is despicable and conniving, yet dignified and charismatic. Jeremy Irons’s excellent voice work gives Scar a cold sophistication that underscores his amorality. It elevates the character to a level among the all time great Disney villains.
And of course, we can’t talk about The Lion King without mentioning its amazing soundtrack. The combination of Elton John and Tim Rice’s catchy songs with Hans Zimmer’s stirring score is an odd one, but somehow it works amazingly well. And it wouldn’t be right not to mention Zimmer’s collaboration with Lebo M, who not only contributed to the score, but also arranged the African choir harmonies and lyrics. In fact, Lebo M is the very first voice heard in the film as the sun rises from behind the horizon.
After The Lion King’s enormous success, I was quite surprised to learn that it was actually regarded as a second-string film within the studio. Most of the studio’s top-tier animators and production staff passed up The Lion King in favor of working on Pocahontas, which was thought to be the next big blockbuster. But despite the low confidence, early test screenings received very positive responses, revealing the film’s potential.
Overall, The Lion King is a majestic masterpiece. It’s a film that lives up to the early Disney classics, perhaps even more so than its contemporaries, and for me, it was the apex of the Disney Renaissance.
And with the movie’s huge success and Disney’s then-recent change in sequel policies, it was inevitable that there would be follow-ups, for better or for worse. But we’ll discuss that in the next part when we take a look at The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride.
Tim Rice wrote somewhere between 10 and 15 different sets of lyrics for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” as it kept changing place and context within the story. One infamous version was sung entirely by Timon and Pumbaa, which horrified even Elton John. Another early version, however, is a favorite among fans, and was only released on the laserdisc version of the film.