The Lion King (1994)
Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
Simba is the young son of Mufasa, the lion ruler of the Pride Lands in Africa. While Mufasa attempts to teach his son how to be a wise and just king, his brother Scar plots to murder Simba so that he can assume the throne himself. His first attempt, luring Simba to an elephant graveyard so that his hyena minions can kill him, is foiled by Mufasa. He then comes up with a plan to hopefully eliminate both father and son at once.
Scar leads Simba into a gorge, through which the hyenas then stampede a herd of wildebeest. When Mufasa attempts to rescue him, Scar throws him off a cliff. Mufasa dies, and Scar convinces a grieving Simba that it’s his fault. Simba flees the Pride Lands in shame, and Scar becomes the new king. Simba nearly dies of exposure in a desert, but he is saved by the meerkat Timon and the warthog Pumbaa, who adopt him into their group.
Years pass, and Scar’s mismanagement of the kingdom leads it to ruin. Simba’s childhood friend Nala goes in search of help, and manages to find Simba. Simba is still traumatized by his father’s death, and refuses to return home until he has an encounter with the mandrill shaman Rafiki and the ghost of his father. Given new purpose, he and his friends all head to the Pride Lands, where he challenges Scar for leadership of the pride. He defeats Scar, who is killed by his own hyena henchmen, and takes his place as rightful ruler.
Executives at Disney first hit on the idea of doing a movie set in Africa during the production of Oliver & Company in the late 80s. Several different writers, including Linda Woolverton of Beauty and the Beast, all tried writing treatments and draft screenplays for the film, which was originally going to be a serious movie about a war in the Pride Lands without any songs. Oliver’s director George Scribner was originally attached to direct, but he quit the project after six months after arguing with his co-director Roger Allers when the latter suggested turning the film into a musical.
Rob Minkoff replaced Scribner, and brought producer Don Hahn with him. Hahn really didn’t like the conflict of the movie, and thought that the movie should be much more of a coming-of-age tale. They met together with Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who had just finished Beauty and the Beast, and hammered together a new plot over two weeks. Despite obvious inspiration from Biblical stories and Shakespeare, it would end up being Disney’s first wholly original feature-length animation* (Rescuers Down Under was an original story, but it was a sequel to a movie based on a book)
Animation for The Lion King started simultaneously with Pocahontas, and initially there wasn’t a lot of respect for it from the animators. Everyone wanted to work on the latter film, as it as was seen as the more prestigious project, and no one really had faith that anyone would want to see The Lion King. However, those who did end up working on it pulled out all the stops. In addition to a trip to Kenya, many animals (including lions) were brought into the studio itself to help the animators learn to draw four-legged, non-anthropomorphized animals, and the art directors studied films such as Lawrence of Arabia in an effort to emulate their sweeping vistas. The CAPS system was also used to its greatest effect yet, with a team of computer animators working on the wildebeest stampede scene for over two years.
Alan Menken and Tim Rice, who’d worked together on Aladdin, were originally going to write the songs for The Lion King as well. When Menken turned out to be unavailable, Rice suggested Elton John instead. John reportedly composed “Circle of Life” in only a couple of hours, and Rice decided to throw out the original lyrics for the first verse and brought in South African singer Lebo M to record Zulu-language vocals instead. The song, and especially Lebo M’s powerful delivery, was inspiring enough to prompt the animations to complete scrap their original planned opening in turn, and instead delivered what is probably their most impressive sequence of animation since Fantasia.
It was so impressive, in fact, that in lieu of a conventional trailer the company decided to just release the sequence intact to theaters instead. The reaction to this ‘trailer” was so enthusiastic that for the first time Disney sensed that Lion King wasn’t just the B project to Pocahontas. They started an all-out marketing blitz for the film ahead of its release, including a special preview at a single theater each in New York and Los Angeles, with a $30 price tag. It grossed $1.5 million that weekend just from those two screens, good enough for 10th place at the box office, and broke Star Wars’s record for a limited-screen opening. The nationwide release managed $40 million, the fourth-highest weekend of all time up to that point, and it ended up being the second biggest film at the box office that year, behind only Forrest Gump.
I used to have a hard time deciding which was my favorite Disney film: this one or Aladdin. Aladdin has Robin Williams, and all of the manic energy that that entails. But The Lion King has a better voice cast overall, and better visuals, and Elton John. After this latest rewatch, I think I can finally definitely say that the cats win. Nothing in Aladdin ever makes me tear up. “Circle of Life” does.
For my money, that sequence is the best four minutes in the Disney canon. It features some of the most stunning animation ever produced, including many shots that would have been literally impossible pre-CAPS. There’s a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of ants that racks focus to zebras in the background, which is not only very technically difficult for a pre-CG animated film, but is a technique from live-action film that most animators wouldn’t have even thought to have tried in the first place. And remember, this was technically the B-team! All of the “best” talent at Disney was working on Pocahontas.
But beyond that, there’s the music. Simply put, Lebo M’s opening chant, with the sun rising in the background, hit 90s pop culture in a way that’s comparable to the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. It doesn’t matter that pretty much no one in America knew what the hell he was saying. Parodies of the opening were ubiquitous for several years, and not only did it get an Oscar nomination, but a Grammy nom for Song of the Year.
Disney could have stopped there, and just churned out a movie on par with their 70s and 80s movies for the rest of the run time, and I probably still would have given it an above-average grade just on the opening alone. But they didn’t. They decided to also include a wonderful coming-of-age character arc for our main protagonist, Simba, as well as one of the greatest supporting casts in Disney history. Mufasa. Timon & Pumbaa. Rafiki and Nala. Even Zazu, played to fussy perfection by British comedian Rowan Atkinson. And while a lot of the characters are voiced by big-name actors, none of it reeks of stunt casting in the way that Robin Williams did. Mufasa wouldn’t be half as powerful without James Earl Jones, and Jeremy Irons is absolutely perfect as the villain Scar, another home run for the Renaissance’s winning streak when it comes to villains.
This film also manages to correct one of the biggest errors that Disney made in the post-Walt period. Back in Fox and the Hound, the directors had refused to kill off Chief because it was something that “Disney didn’t do.” As I pointed out in my review, that statement clearly forgets Bambi’s mother. The Lion King actually manages to one-up Bambi by not only showing Mufasa’s death on-screen, but making it a clear case of premeditated murder instead of the nebulous work of a faceless hunter. Can you imagine a Lion King where Mufasa DIDN’T die? It’s the scene that the entire plot of the movie hinges on.
Finally, while I lavished praises on “Circle of Life”, I haven’t talked about the rest of the film’s music yet. Ashman & Menken might be the best songwriting duo to ever work on a Disney film, but Elton John and Tim Rice come in as a close second. There isn’t a bad song in the bunch, and the movie got a deserved three Best Song nominations (though it’s typical of Oscar voters that they gave the award to the love ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” over “Circle of Life”). Just as impressive is the movie’s score, by film veteran Hans Zimmer. I don’t highlight scores all that much, but this one works in perfect unison with the songs, especially during the stampede sequence.
Beauty and the Beast may have been the movie to get the Best Picture nomination. Aladdin might have Disney’s most memorable vocal performance. But The Lion King is their most well-rounded film, and for my money is the true masterpiece of the Renaissance. I can already tell you that this is the only movie in this rewatch series that’s going to receive a perfect score from me.
Main Characters: A
Supporting Characters: A
*Yes, I am aware of the controversy around The Lion King and Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba. And while there are definitely several visual homages to the anime, the stories and characterizations are very different, and both Kimba and Simba get their names from the same Swahili word. Mostly I blame Matthew Broderick for running his mouth off telling everyone in the media that he’d been cast in a remake of Kimba before the movie came out.