Original Release: June 15, 1994
Runtime: 88 Minutes
Directed By: Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
Notable Actors: Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin
To be a lion, or not to be a lion–that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous lions, Or to take paws against a sea of troubled lions and by opposing end them. Oh hello, I didn’t see you there. I’m just…well, I’m not too sure. One thing is for certain. I’ve got lions on the brain. Maybe that’s because today we are talking about The Lion King. Curious enough, I was not looking forward to this film. When I was growing up, this was the Frozen of my generation. Everyone ranted and raved and thus, I had seen it a billion times. I thought I’d be bored watching this movie I’d seen so many times, once again. As it turns out, The Lion King is absolutely amazing and it took my adult eyes to realize that fact. Let’s take a journey to the Savannah and find out what makes this film so full of Liony goodness, shall we?
The most important fact for you to know about The Lion King is that it was the B movie in the cycle of films. Here’s how it works. Disney wanted to release films frequently. This meant that there would be a super huge budget with the best animators, the A movie, and then the next year, a lower budget film with the lesser animators would release, basically just to keep Disney on people’s minds. The B movie. The Lion King, originally called King of the Beasts, and then called King of the Jungle, (obviously changed as the film doesn’t, you know, take place in a jungle) was the B movie. No one wanted to work on it. In fact, the ‘better’ animators chose to work on Pocahontas, which was in production at the same time, thinking it would be the ‘stronger’ film. This meant that most of the animators on The Lion King were new animators, many of them being ‘head animator’ for the first time in their careers and others simply choosing to join the team because they wanted to draw cats. Understand that most employees at Disney Studios thought that this film wouldn’t fly with audiences.
Like many of our recent films, The Lion King went through a lot of drafts. At one point it was more of an animated national geographic film. At one point Scar was in charge of an army of baboons. At one point Nala had friends, and a brother and Serabi sang a song. A lot changed over the course of different writers, directors and ideas. One of the best changes I think was a song about eating bugs. Supposedly this was to be sung by Timon and Pumbaa. Of course, no one was really sold on this idea. In the meantime, several animators had gone to Africa to get an idea of the landscape and animals, and when they returned, they brought with them a phrase that would change everything: “Hakuna Matata.” Reminding the songwriter Tim Rice of “Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo,” a new song was born.
The Lion King was the very first original story in a Disney animated film. I mean, yes, it’s very heavily based on Hamlet, and supposedly the story of Moses, but it was the first non-rip off of a book or fairy tale. Progress. It’s the highest grossing hand animated film of all time. It WAS the highest grossing animated film, until a little indie flick called Frozen came along. It also ended up costing quite a bit more than initially planned. The fatal chase scene in the gorge took a whopping 2 years to animate and even took a new computer program being developed in order to help guide the wildebeests to their target location: Mufasa. Live animals were also brought into the studio to help the animators create characters on four legs. This was of course until an Earthquake hit Disney Studios, causing many of the animators to have to finish their work at home.
The cast of the film is pretty hefty with more stars than we’ve ever seen I think. Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella both went in on the same day to audition to be hyenas. Upon seeing each other in the lobby, they requested to audition together. Obviously they were hysterical and were instead cast as Timon and Pumbaa. Cheech Marin was supposed to perform opposite of Chong as the hyenas but literally no one could get a hold of Chong sooooo Whoopi Goldberg was cast instead…obviously. James Earl Jones was cast as Mufasa as his voice reminded the directors of a lions roar. Matthew Broderick was cast as adult Simba as his voice reminded everyone of a wishy-washy kind-of sort-of king. Just kidding.
And then there’s the music. Oh the music. I’ll admit, this isn’t my favorite score of all time from Disney but Tim Rice and Elton John certainly hit the mark for most people. The music of the film went on to be in the musical version on Broadway, which is easily the most successful Disney Broadway Musical to date. In fact, the producers loved the final version of “The Circle of Life” so much that they made it to the official trailer for the film. It’s curious to note that Elton was not Rice’s first choice of collaborator though. Abba was, sadly, busy. Somehow I wish we’d have seen Simba singing Mamma Mia. Aw well. Another time, another place.
The Lion King is an incredibly powerful film. The music is powerful. The emotional beats are powerful. The story and the characters and the message are all powerful. Everything about this film feels like a struggle for power and whoever has that power affects the balance of everything around it. Within that struggle though, is a scared kid who’s biggest challenge is learning to grow up and accept who he is, despite his shortcomings.
Simba is a wonderfully dynamic character. We feel so deeply for him and when Mufasa dies, we feel that pain with him. I remember writing about Bambi and talking about how the animators chose to not show Bambi’s mother dying. Here, the gloves are off. Simba goes to his father and curls up in his arms hoping for just a little more time to learn how to be a leader and to feel loved. It’s incredibly heartbreaking and regardless of how many times I’ve seen this film, it still wrenches my stomach to watch. I still want so desperately for Mufasa to wake up, slap Scar, and for them to go on their way, but that won’t ever happen.
Scar is a superb villain. His want for power is a great motivator but I love that he has no idea how to be a real leader and that he only knows how to yell the loudest. Still, he’s slimy and cruel and too smart for his own good. Beyond that though, he’s funny. Scar is one of the most hilarious characters in the film. When he yells at Zazu to stop singing “It’s a Small World,” I cracked up laughing more than any Timon or Pumbaa joke. He’s the perfect example of a villain that we have so much fun despising. His send off is that he is eaten by the very animals he swore to keep fed. How poetically brilliant. The hyenas make great sidekicks to him. They’re funny and raving mad, but at the same time, they ARE threatening and we do feel a dread when they show up. That’s important as many sidekicks in the past have just been flat out dumb.
Timon, Pumbaa, Rafiki and Zazu are all integral parts of the film. Sure, they’re silly and colorful. BUT, they also all help to shape who Simba will become and watching them do so is really quite thrilling. Timon teaches this wonderful lesson of “letting go,” while Rafiki asks Simba to reflect on who he is. Pumbaa teaches forgiveness and in many ways thoughtfulness, while Zazu teaches humility and grace. Whether we realized this as kids or not, this is the village that is raising this cub and it takes all of their lessons for Simba to finally ascend pride rock in the end. Take away one of them and he would never be a great ruler.
This film is absolutely stunning. The colors are wonderfully vibrant and the wide-shots of the Savannah look grand in scale to this day. We’re seeing things here we haven’t seen from Disney before. Lens flares and shifting perspectives. The film feels alive and real. Carl remarked to me as we were watching it that he remembered seeing the large shot of the flamingos flying at the start of the film and when he was younger, he remembered thinking “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” This film is more Disney in that way than many films we’ve watched before in this project. It transports us to a new world. It invites us in and begs us to look out with Simba and Mufasa. To really take in everything the light touches.
I think what I love most about this film is that it doesn’t have the feeling that Aladdin gave me. I don’t feel like I’m watching a rehash. I feel like this is something completely new, a world I’ve never seen. There’s a similar love story here to Aladdin but I believe it even more because we’re watching childhood friends fall in love as adults. They have a history and it all seems so organic. While I’ve never been partial to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” I can’t deny that the song works perfectly for these reunited besties as they explore a new kind of relationship. Strangely, the romance in this scene feels much more real and adult than our previous films.
The Lion King is superb. It’s a colorful, musical, powerful film that is quite possibly the most emotionally moving we’ve had so far. It’s a tear jerker to be sure, but that moment when Simba fights back and then ascends the throne feels more than earned and nothing about this is overly optimistic Disney fodder. This is a fight with casualties and it forces us to ask the question, what are we running from, and what would it take for us to go back? The score is different than anything we’ve heard before and the characters feel 100% new. Most importantly, it proves that when people work hard, they can turn something that everyone else deems a crap shoot into something truly extraordinary. I didn’t want to watch The Lion King, but I am so happy I did, because how sad it would be to forget this film, which is so fantastic that it does indeed deserve to be watched a hundred times and more.
Next Up: Pocahontas
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!