The Lion King (1994) remains one of the most critically-acclaimed and beloved films ever produced by Walt Disney’s animation studios. To this day, it is also the highest-grossing non-computer animated feature in history, and the most successful film to emerge from the Disney Renaissance period of the 1990s. And does it deserve its numerous accolades and legions of fans? Why, yes, it does.
The movie depicts the life of Simba, a lion cub born to the king of the African Pride Lands, Mufasa. The king’s brother, Scar, resents the birth of the new, young interloper, as Simba’s existence now removes Scar even further from the throne he covets. As young Simba grows and learns about his place in the “circle of life,” Scar teams up with the lions’ enemy, a pack of wild, unpredictable hyenas, to murder his brother and his nephew and claim the kingdom for himself. But while Scar succeeds in killing Mufasa, Simba manages to escape the Pride Lands and eventually forges an easy, carefree life for himself out in the wild with his new friends, a meerkat (Timon) and a warthog (Pumbaa). When Simba reaches adulthood, a chance encounter with the wise mandrill Rafiki forces Simba to remember his obligations to his family and his pride. But first, he has to contend with his uncle, who is none too willing to give up the throne …
Upon the film’s release, there were accusations that the movie is a rip-off of a Japanese animated show from the 1960s called Kimba the White Lion, though Disney maintains that any similarities between the two properties are purely due to coincidence and not a concentrated effort to plagiarize the earlier cartoon. To this day, Disney maintains that The Lion King is the first wholly original story ever to be animated by the Disney studio.
This is not to say that the movie wasn’t inspired by other sources, however. The Lion King continues along the similar vein of Shakespearean references that populated the script of its predecessor, Aladdin. Where Aladdin started with Iago, The Lion King runs rampant. Most people consider it to be inspired by Hamlet (however loosely), but there are shades of Macbeth and several other pieces, too. It’s not surprising. Scar’s coup evokes memories of the Bolshevik revolution, the infamous Nazis (with the Hyena march), and almost any other coup in history. It’s the classic fear of old ruling families: being killed so as to be replaced. As the story really emphasizes a monarchy, it makes sense for the Disney crew to use these types of ideas to create their story.
Scar is a perfect villain (and even has the full Shakespearean look), and he was gifted with the perfect performer to provide his silky vocals. Jeremy Irons, with amazing tone and inflection, accomplishes uncommonly good expression with only his voice. This, combined with his excellent lines and brilliant manipulations, makes him one of my favorite evil film characters.
Removed from his family and desired destiny, Scar simply creates one to suit his mind and his ambition (with the help of the hyenas) and then seeks to make that everyone’s reality. It’s what creates great, insane villainy and gives him observable motivation. However, one must wonder what his name was before he received his unexplained injury and scar.
Disney also brought in some stalwarts of Broadway for the film (which, fittingly enough, was itself adapted to Broadway in 1997 and is still going strong). Matthew Broderick (adult Simba) and Nathan Lane (Timon) both have done extensive work on Broadway (The Producers, The Odd Couple) as well as in films. They were great friends before the movie, which makes it perfect that their characters were friends, too. Rumor has it that Timon was created for Nathan Lane at Matthew Broderick’s insistence that he be in the film.
The casting for The Lion King is the very definition of “star-studded.” In addition to Irons, the velvety, deep voice of James Earl Jones is unmistakable as Simba’s regal father, Mufasa. He adds the perfect amount of gravitas to the role, with just a hint of amused, fatherly indulgence, particularly in his early scenes with young Simba. Others in the cast include: Rowan Atkinson (most people recognize him as Mr. Bean) as Zazu, Whoopi Goldberg as the hyena Shenzi, Moira Kelly as adult Nala (The Cutting Edge), character actor Ernie Sabella as Pumbaa, and the amazing Robert Guillaume as Rafiki. Disney also brings back Cheech Marin (having played Tito in Oliver & Company) to play another hyena, Banzai. And rounding out the cast is Jonathan Taylor Thomas of Home Improvement fame (who was practically the Justin Bieber of the mid-nineties), who voiced Simba as a young cub.
In proper Disney style, the animation tends to mimic the art of its subject’s culture—not in a heavy-handed way, but in a few select scenes (such as “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”) and through Rafiki’s paintings. I’ve always admired that feature of the Disney films, as it gives each movie a special mood makes it unique. Additionally, the animators’ use of real-life animal subjects as inspiration—a practice first used in the creation of 1942’s Bambi—makes the movements and appearance of the characters appear very realistic. That realism is heightened amidst an authentic-looking African backdrop, which was reportedly inspired by a trip made by the animation team to Kenya. And though computer animation was used in some scenes, particularly the sequence with the wildebeest stampede, its integration into the film is seamless. Because of all of this painstaking attention to detail on the parts of the crew, The Lion King arguably boasts some of the most gorgeous animation to ever come out of the Disney studios.
The music by Tim Rice and Elton John is wonderful and a bit different from much of the previous Disney pieces by Alan Menken. Both “The Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” became pop hits for Elton John, and both were nominated (along with “Hakuna Matata”) for the Academy Award for Best Song (“Can You Feel” actually won). And the soundtrack as a whole won the Oscar for Best Score. What is especially different (and delightful) about the music in this film is the inclusion of non-original music such as “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” “It’s a Small World After All” (which naturally enrages Scar, as it does us all), and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”—which, though apropos, is not a piece composed specifically for the film.
The world that the animators and the Disney crew created with this film is so effective that I even like the sequel, 1998’s direct-to-video The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, which revolves around Simba’s headstrong daughter, Kiara. And again, the Shakespearean influences are obvious, as this movie depicts the Romeo-and-Juliet-esque love between Kiara and a male lion named Kovu. The film features many of the same voice actors (minus Irons, who does not return as Scar), and although some aspects are hard to line up in the story, it’s overall a good sequel. It’s a lot of fun, and the two films together make an overall great Disney piece.