The Lion King is Disney animation royalty. As well as one of the greatest movies Walt Disney animation studios has ever made. To me, The Lion King is the peak of traditional hand drawn animation in the Disney Renaissance. It’s hard to compete with such a grand majestic scale. So it’s truly difficult to believe barely anyone at the studio believed in the project. The Lion King was actually seen as a risk at the time, because it was the first original Disney movie. Before their thirty-second animated feature, every single film was based on some kind of existing work. From fairy tales to children’s books. Although everyone should know by now that The Lion King is basically William Shakespeare’s Hamlet with lions.
Further inspiration came from Biblical figures like Joseph and Moses. Disney also “borrowed” ideas from a certain Anime by the name of Kimba the White Lion. But The Lion King was still primarily original. The idea was simply to make a National Geographic type film set in Africa. Which grew into a musical originally titled King of the Jungle. Like Bambi, animators studied real animals at the zoo in order to be as authentic as possible. The Lion King was then given an unprecedented all-cast cast, commercially successful artist Elton John, and boundary pushing animation. The Lion King beat the record set by Aladdin to become the highest grossing animated movie of all time. An honor it still holds in 2D animation…
The Lion King is practically a right of passage for all 90’s kids. Of course it helps that lions are my favorite animal. When I was a cub, my brother and I watched our VHS copy a countless number of times. I only wish I was born at a time when I could experience The Lion King on the big screen. 1994 was a great year for film, but it was a mistake not nominating the movie for Best Picture. Fortunately it was the second animated movie to win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy (after Beauty and the Beast). The Lion King is definitely the most beloved animal starring film in the Disney brand. The opening is the greatest in animation history. If not one of the best cinematic openings of all time. It all starts with a breathtaking sunrise that slowly reveals all the animals that make up the great circle of life. We’re then taken to the iconic Pride Rock where the lion king and queen welcome an adorable cub into their family. Equally iconic is shaman mandrill Rafiki presenting the cub to a bowing herd of elephants, giraffes, and zebra. The sudden boom of the title gets me everytime.
The African savannah is full of animals that Disney hasn’t attempted before. Although barely anyone speaks in an African accent, the cast is one of the most impressive ever assembled for a Disney movie. You can’t beat James Earl Jones as powerful lion king Mufasa. Casting Mage Sinclair as the Queen Sarabi was a genius Coming to America connection. Unlike Jones’ other great cinematic fathers, Mufasa has a comforting approach that makes him the best Disney dad. His brother Scar on the other hand, is the most evil Disney villain ever made. There’s nothing worse than plotting to kill your own brother and nephew to become king. Obviously a sinister looking lion with a black mane doesn’t exist in nature and his scar raises a lot of questions. Jeremy Irons was an inspired choice to voice Scar. He’s both classy, ambiguously flamboyant, and sardonic.
Robert Guillaume brings a lot of fun pep to Rafiki in his guidance of Simba and Rowan Atkinson is particularly funny as hornbill advisor Zazu. I’m not sure how someone with such African parents would end up with a cub voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, but he makes a fine young Simba. Simba just can’t wait to be king and his father teaches him everything he knows about ruling. We learn about everything the light touches, the delicate balance of life, and the great kings of the past. Scar leads Simba to the forbidden shadowy place. A spooky elephant graveyard that he sneaks to with his spunky best friend Nala. It’s there they encounter a trio of cackling hyenas. The sassy Shenzi, short-fused Bonzai, and brainless Ed are the funniest secondary antagonists in any Disney movie. Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings (to a degree) play off each other well. Scar commands the Nazi-esque hyenas to be prepared to overthrow the kingdom. While I don’t agree with their methods, the hyenas are only evil because they’re hungry.
The gorge stampede of wildebeests is the single most heartstopping sequence Disney has ever done. Mufasa bravely rescues Simba, but Scar unforgivably sends his brother to his death with four chilling words, “Long live the king.” It’s impossible not to cry the moment Simba finds his father’s body and cries out for help. As if he wasn’t evil enough, Scar manipulates his nephew into thinking he’s responsible, then orders his hyenas to kill him. Simba survives, but Scar assumes the throne and does such a horrible job that everything dies. This would be the perfect time for comic relief. Timon & Pumbaa are a hilarious bug eating meerkat & warthog double act that were so good they hijacked the entire franchise. Nathan Lane is a quipping gem and Ernie Sabella keeps up with his naive charm. They help Simba get through his problems with the no worries philosophy of “Hakuna Matata.”
A quick dance against the moon ages Simba into the mighty lion we all know and love. Matthew Broderick was always a strange choice, but he makes sense as a more laid back future king. A grown up lioness Nala returns, hunting for food, and her pounce reunites her with Simba. Nala may not be a Disney Princess, but Moira Kelly makes her a proud and far more noble heroine. You can feel the love tonight, because Simba & Nala’s childhood friends turned romantic mates progression is true love. Simba still rejects his past, but Rafiki knocks some sense into him. In one of the most iconic moments, Mufasa appears in the clouds to help his son remember his destiny. Simba, Nala, Timon & Pumbaa return to Pride Rock where the latter make a brilliant distraction and Simba confronts his uncle.
Scar reveals the dark truth in time for a mood setting lightning strike. The lionesses fight the hyenas, Rafiki goes ape, and Timon & Pumbaa add some levity to the dramatic climax. Simba and Scar’s firy slow motion standoff only ends when Scar is thrown off Pride Rock. In one of the most gruesome Disney villain deaths, Scar is deservedly eaten off-screen by the hyenas he’s betrayed. Rain finally arrives to wash away his rule and Simba assumes his rightful place with a cheerworthy roar. The circle of life is at last complete when Simba and Nala bring their own cub into the world. Ending with another satisfying boom.
The Lion King does everything right with the winning Disney formula. It’s not exactly a fairy tale, but the royal characters, comic sidekicks, and larger than life villain are all there. The comedy is at least 50% animal puns. Along with some fun pop culture jokes or songs like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “It’s a Small World Afterall.” Really it’s the animation and music that’s the biggest draw. The Lion King makes excellent use of computer animated CAPS backgrounds. Making the African savannah feel enormous with subtle details in its ecosystem. The stampede alone was a visual feat that included hundreds of digitally rendered wildebeests. While the traditional animation gives life to all sorts of expressive animals. The non-anthropomorphic approach feels all the more natural.
All five songs in The Lion King are Oscar worthy, but only three could get nominated. Not since The Jungle Book has an animal story had such catchy hits. Elton John elevates the Broadway caliber soundtrack into one of the best in Disney history. “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is an upbeat childhood jam that Simba & Nala taunt Zazu with. The colors and animal involvement make it extra enjoyable. “Be Prepared” is the Disney villain song all villain songs aspire to. Scar’s dastardly delivery is only supported by the green hue and edgy Third Reich imagery. “Hakuna Matata” is the carefree Timon & Pumbaa motto that kids like me couldn’t get outta their heads. Even with the fart jokes. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is the Oscar winning love theme that works just as well on its own. Although it’s great, I would argue it isn’t the greatest song in the movie. Easily the best song is “Circle of Life.” I don’t understand Swahili, but I don’t have to understand to appreciate, get pumped, and feel emotional every single time I hear it. The Lion King is an African masterpiece.