Before Frozen took over the entertainment world in 2013, there was the animated epic musical film called The Lion King. Released in 1994, the movie took over the entertainment world by storm. It’s the most profitable movie of 1994 and at the time, it was the second most profitable movie in history. It remains the most profitable hand drawn animated movie of all time, even if you don’t count its 3D re-release in 2011. The initial run made a massive $763 million on a $45 million budget, and the re-release bumped it up to just short of $1 billion. It’s estimated that its ticket sales numbers is the highest of any animated movie in the last 50 years.
As such, I’m going to get more detailed into the making of for this particular movie than usual. After all, so many people have seen this movie and analyzed it far deeper than I care to that it’s not worth explaining the story or characters too much. Of course I’ll still share my opinion on the movie.
The Lion King was critically acclaimed upon its release for its epic scope and its story. It won two Academy Awards, for Best Original Song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and for Best Original Score (By Hans Zimmer, who moved on to score Gladiator, The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and many others). Two other songs from The Lion King, “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata” were also nominated, taking up 3 of the 5 contenders. The fact that it still won the award with all that potential for vote splitting says something about the movie’s cultural impact.
The movie spawned two straight to video sequels (one being a mid-quel of sorts). The first of which, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, is often considered one of the better Disney sequels. It also spawned two TV shows. One of which, The Lion Guard, is currently ongoing with the second season set to begin on July 7th. Three video games released within a few years of the movie, and several others have been made over the years. One video game is even based on the first TV show, Timone and Pumba. It’s been adapted to stage multiple times, and the live action/CGI remake is planned for release in 2019.
I first saw this movie while it was in theatres, but on a bootleg copy at a babysitter’s house. I immediately loved it and couldn’t wait for the official VHS release. Even now I really like this movie, even if like almost every movie, it’s not completely flawless. Just last night I learned about the controversy regarding the similarities between The Lion King and the Japanese show from the 60’s, Kimba the White Lion. Having not seen the show I have no opinion on this matter, but if you’re curious, more information is out there. But with the story based on a number of other sources, I would hesitate to call it a rip-off on any level, whether the similarities were intentional or not.
Although the story is noticeably influenced by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as well as hints of Moses and Joseph from the bible and the previously mentioned Japanese show, it is the first original story in the Disney animation canon. It’s the story of Simba, a lion prince destined to take over as King of the Pride Lands once his father passes on. Simba’s uncle Scar wants the throne for himself and ends up murdering Mufasa (Simba’s father) and chases Simba away to usurp the throne. After growing up, Simba gains the perspective he needs to return to Pride Rock and challenge Scar for the throne. There’s a lot more detail, but it’s better to just tell you to see the movie if you haven’t.
Aladdin included Robin Williams in the voice cast, and it worked very well. The Lion King takes the success of Aladdin’s celebrity voice cast and expands it greatly. Matthew Broderick voices adult Simba, and he actually seems to be a much better voice actor than he is a live action actor. Jeremy Irons voices Scar, and he’s perfect as the scheming, intimidating hopeful king. He really sells Scar’s sarcasm earlier in the film, and his straight up nastiness before he and Simba fight. Mufasa is voiced by none other than James Earl Jones, and he shows a lot of range in his relatively short role. Other famous voice actors include Rowen Atkinson and Whoopi Goldberg. That’s not to say there weren’t voice actors involved also, because there were.
Everything about this movie feels big, from the story to the visuals and the sound. The opening “Circle of Life” song starts off quiet and atmospheric, setting the general tone of the movie with touches of traditional African music throughout the songs and the score. The song builds up as it goes, combined with all the animals lining up below Pride Rock to catch a glimpse of the young cub, Simba. Scar’s song, “Be Prepared”, is up there with the best Disney villain songs. It starts off soft and sinister, but eventually grows into a chorus with deep vocals and dark visuals to match with, concluding with the haunting sound of laughing hyenas. “Can you Feel the Love Tonight” is a surprisingly deep love song that touches on character development, like how Simba is clearly hiding something from his love interest, Nala. It’s actually hard to choose whether that or “Circle of Life” is the better song. The soundtrack continues to sound big throughout the larger scenes in the movie, from the stampede in the canyon to the final battle on the burning Pride Rock.
The stampede scene in particular was done mostly by computer, by creating 3d models of the running buffalo, multiplying them and shading them like cells to make them appear hand drawn. They randomized their paths to make the scene look more chaotic. They digitally added particle effects, smoke and lighting techniques. It took a small team more than 2 years just to perfect the two and a half minute action sequence. This all makes the stampede by far the most impressive scene of the movie from an animation standpoint, and arguably the most impressive sequence ever constructed in hand drawn animation, with or without CGI.
Like Bambi before it, The Lion King used video and photo references to study animal movement in advance. The result is a movie where pretty much everyone moves naturally. The vast African landscapes are based on the Kenyan national parks visited by the crew during pre-production.
Speaking of Bambi, The Lion King actually touches on almost every plot thread that Bambi does, but it handles everything better. Simba and Mufasa clearly love each other, and Simba looks up to his father quite a bit, like Bambi and his mother. When Mufasa dies, The Lion King doesn’t just brush it aside like the death of Bambi’s mother. It’s a major plot point and it sparks Simba’s greatest character flaw in the second half of the movie. He actively tries to leave his past behind, fleeing Pride Rock and trying to live a life of leisure and luxury. No matter how hard he tries to forget the past though, he can’t. He eventually falls in love and returns and fights his biggest rival to prove himself worthy, just like Bambi fights another deer to prove himself worthy to his girlfriend. The difference is, The Lion King has an actual story and deep character drama behind all these beats.
With all that said, this movie isn’t quite flawless. Disney movies have a history of relying a bit too much on comic relief. The Lion King is far from the worst offender (The Rescuers Down Under is far worse), but Timone and Pumba do slow down the storytelling from time to time. They are important to Simba’s character arc mind you, and they remain loyal to him when he decides to take his rightful position as king. But as fun as their Hakuna Matata song is, it does take up a significant portion of the second act. Personally I find them entertaining and mildly funny, but they may get annoying for some people. It clashes with the overall tone of the movie that’s a lot more serious, even if their comedy does bring some needed levity to the most dramatic part of the story. The point is, like any comedic character, how you feel about them depends on your personal taste.
There’s also the song, “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”, which isn’t as strong as the rest and kind of goes on a bit too long. The visuals also feel different than the rest of the movie, exchanging beautifully drawn environments with weird, vegan lighting in the backgrounds. Also as great as the cast is in general, Nala isn’t all that well developed. She’s just there to be Simba’s childhood friend and lover later in life, and to help Simba snap to his senses and take on some actual responsibility.
In the grand scheme of things, these are minor flaws in an otherwise fantastic movie. The character focused epic story balances plot and drama very well. The movie feels big. It’s got what might be the greatest overall collection of songs in Disney history. It manages to take a dark, depressing story like Hamlet and turn it into a family friendly masterpiece. I could do a joke The Rescuers Down Under vs. The Lion King post, but the entire body of the post would be “Lion King wins”. If for some reason you’ve never seen this movie, you should.
After this, it’s Pocahontas, the first Disney movie I ever saw in theatres, and it also marks the beginning of the downfall of the Disney Renaissance. Next it’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, followed by the only 90’s Disney movie I’ve never seen, Hercules.