At first I wasn’t really planning on doing this vs. but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it would be worth it. After all, these are the two most profitable movies of the Disney Renaissance period, they both won two Academy Awards (Best Original Score and Best Original Song), with multiple best song nominations each. The Lion King is the most profitable hand drawn animated movie of all time, and Aladdin is number 3. 2007’s The Simpsons Movie is number 2, but if you adjust it for inflation, Aladdin slaughters The Simpsons. There’s also a lot to talk about with these movies. Although their core stories are very different, there are a lot of similarities between them. But most of all, these are my two favourite Disney Renaissance movies, and I kind of need to do this to firmly decide which one I like better.
As usual I’ll be organizing this in categories, but I won’t be keeping score. One movie may narrowly win in a number of ways, but loses badly enough in one specific element to lose the war. I’m also not trying to say definitively which movie is better. I’m just saying which one I prefer and why. With that introduction out of the way, let’s compare the most profitable movies of the Disney Renaissance.
I debated myself a bit as to which characters I’d state as the main characters for Aladdin. The title character is one of them for sure, but I was split as to whether Jasmine or the Genie would be the second. Both of them have significant effects on the plot, and they both have character arcs. I ended up picking Jasmine since the genie only shows up about a third into the movie, and Jasmine has just as much screen time as he does after that point.
Anyway, Aladdin is a fantastic lead character. He’s an orphan with nothing, so he must steal to survive. He’s a quick thinker and emotionally driven. Despite his struggles, he’s kind, generous and willing to protect those in danger. He believes that he deserves more, and he does his best to find his big break. However, after he finds the genie and wishes to become a prince, he struggles with being true to himself. He struggles with this even around Jasmine, who is already attracted to street rat Aladdin. His struggle to be himself is his main character arc, and one that almost leads to disaster when he fails. In the end, he learns his lesson.
Jasmine doesn’t have as deep of a character arc and unfortunately she doesn’t get to do too much in the third act, but she’s just as compelling as a character. She’s struggling with a law that forces her to marry a prince by the time she turns 16, which is days away. She doesn’t see herself as a prize to be won, something that every one of her suitors can’t understand. She’s generous like Aladdin, open minded and has an adventurous spirit. She’s also smart enough to see through his act.
With The Lion King, there is only one main character. The entire movie revolves around Simba. One could argue that he’s not the deepest character imaginable, but he’s also an animal. You’re seeing Simba at different stages at his life. He starts off as a reckless, somewhat rebellious young cub who just can’t wait to be king of the pride lands. After his father dies and his uncle convinces him that he’s to blame, he runs away, trying to avoid his past as much as possible. Eventually he learns to accept what happened, so he stops running and returns to save his childhood home from his tyrannical uncle.
Simba is a good lead character, but The Lion King isn’t really a character focused movie. It’s very much a story focused epic with a heavy dose of emotion. By no means is that a bad thing, but Aladdin is the deeper, more complex character. Throw in Jasmine who is also a great character, even if underused in the third act, and you’ve got the winner for this round.
Aladdin has the better main characters.
Both Aladdin and The Lion King have a brilliant set of supporting characters, and before I write this, I know this category will be close.
In Aladdin, you’ve got a small but significant supporting cast. There’s the Sultan, who’s a kind man. He’s sympathetic to Jasmine’s feelings, but he still supports the law that she must marry a prince through most of the movie. He’s also a bit of a dufus. One must wonder how Agrabah is doing so well with him in charge. There’s also Abu, Aladdin’s monkey. He’s mostly a comedic relief sidekick, but he’s also very useful for Aladdin. Not much else to say there.
By far the most important supporting character is the genie, voiced by none other than Robin Williams. Williams actually received a Special Achievement Award for his performance in this movie, and he totally deserved it. He ad-libbed all his lines, and the animators based his animation on his performance. He’s consistently funny with his gloriously out of place references, his pure energy and his clever use of impersonations. Even when he sings with his mediocre singing voice, he’s delightfully crazy. Despite all this, the genie gets some very well done dramatic moments. He’s got his own character arc of hoping that Aladdin will set him free. He goes from trusting Aladdin to doubting him, to be willing to turn Aladdin into a prince again instead of waiting for his master to set him free. He’s got a complete character arc good enough to make him a main character if he was in the movie longer.
The Lion King has a whole bunch of supporting characters. First off, there’s Mufasa, Simba’s father and king of the pride lands. He’s a very loving father who clearly wants to raise his son to be a wise prince, but he’s also terrifying when he gets angry. He’s such a wise leader that he impacts his son’s development in a positive way, even long after his death when Simba’s tried to forget about him. It helps that Mufasa is voiced by James Earl Jones.
There’s also Zazu, the king’s royal advisor who is in some ways like Sebastian from The Little Mermaid, but both wiser and snobbier. Rowen Atkinson does a great job voicing him. There’s Timone and Pumba, who act as the movie’s main comedic relief. They also save Simba when he almost dies in the desert and they help him learn to relax, but it also delays Simba’s emotional recovery. In that sense, they’re both helpful and not, and that makes them interesting in their own right. Nala, Simba’s childhood friend and lover when they meet again as adults, isn’t that deep of a character, but she won’t take crap from anyone, she’s wise, and she helps snap Simba to his senses. There are more characters, but most of them don’t affect the plot in any significant way.
The Lion King is full of good characters, but like Simba, none of them are particularly deep. Timone and Pumba go through a small character arc where they decide to help Simba save his kingdom, but apart from that, most of them remain the same. They exist to help the plot move along, or to help Simba take his place as king. By no means is that a bad thing, but Aladdin features fewer, but deeper supporting characters. Several of them go through their own arcs. And of course it’s got the genie, who is up there with the best Disney characters of any kind. The genie alone makes a strong case for Aladdin winning this round, and the others just tip it over the edge.
So far, Aladdin’s won both categories.
Like most movies in the Disney Renaissance, Aladdin and The Lion King both feature great villains. They’re both seeking the throne, and they’re willing to do very evil things to get it. That makes this category easy to compare the two.
In Aladdin, you’ve got Jafar, the Sultan’s main advisor. He’s very motivated to find a magic lamp that’s been locked in a mystical cave for 10,000 years, implying that he’s very smart. He also seems to know something about chemistry, and his staff can hypnotize weak minded people … like the Sultan. When he gets his power, he’s a complete monster, unleashing his magical energy wherever he can. He’s not afraid to kill those who get in his way or refuse his wishes. Iago, his parrot, is also a great villain. In some ways Iago is more intelligent than Jafar, and Jafar is willing to acknowledge this. They have their arguments, sure, but they’re partners in crime instead of the villain and his sidekick.
In The Lion King, you’ve got Scar. Scar is Mufasa’s younger brother, voiced by Jeremy Irons of Die Hard with a Vengeance and more recently, Alfred in Batman v Superman. Like Jafar, he’s devious and observant. He’s a schemer who is masterful at exploiting possibilities, and he’s willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. He’s sarcastic at first, pretending to like Simba. Even after he becomes king, he’s still a bit sarcastic, when he’s not being short tempered. But also like Jafar, he’s deadly when he’s pushed into a corner. His assistants are all hyenas, and while they’re all kind of dumb, they’re frightening with their cackling laughter and they’re deadly in numbers.
Unlike the first two categories, this one is a tough call. Jafar and Scar are great for a lot of the same reasons. That said, Scar is better at being subtle. He doesn’t need a hypnotic staff to control his king – he’s sneaky enough to convince everyone that he’s on their side. He’s also smart enough to make good use of his stupid hyena followers. He drives almost every aspect of the story, whereas Jafar only affects it from time to time. Also as much as Iago is a great secondary villain, there are times when he gets a little annoying. I never felt that way with the hyenas.
Scar from The Lion King is the better villain, but this category is very close.
This is the easiest category to decide a winner.
Aladdin is fantastically drawn, with an appearance that doesn’t really match any period of history, but that’s part of the movie’s style. It kind of looks more like Vegas’s interpretation of the Persian Empire, and it’s a great look for a movie like this. The action is fast and moves smooth, the costume designs are great and the animation behind the genie is just as creative as Williams’s ad-libbing is. The movie uses CGI sparingly, and when it does, it stands up fairly well today for a movie that’s mostly hand drawn.
With all that said, The Lion King is a marvel of hand drawn animation. The stampede scene alone combines hand drawing and CGI with particle effects, hundreds of buffalos in slightly randomized paths and a huge canyon environment. The stampede took more than two years to complete by a dedicated team, and it really shows. It might just be the most impressive sequence in traditional animation history. And that’s just one scene. The environments are consistently big and the animals move realistically thanks to heavy use of photo and video references. The Lion King is both more visually impressive and it makes better use of facial expressions.
As good as Aladdin looks, The Lion King is the clear victor in the Animation department.
Right away, I know this will be the hardest category to decide which is better. Both movies won the Oscar for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. The soundtrack for Aladdin is just the right balance of a middle-eastern sound with a fantasy sound and a touch of mystery. The Lion King is a huge epic score by Hans Zimmer that incorporates touches of traditional African music to give the movie a consistent feel.
I think this category is a tie from a soundtrack standpoint. Both movies also feature so many good songs that we might need to break down each song from each movie at a time to see which has the better collection. So let’s compare each songs with similar feels or contexts within their respective movie. Aladdin’s theatrical release has one extra song, so I’ll talk about “One Jump Ahead” on its own first.
Aladdin’s “One Jump Ahead” doesn’t really have a direct comparison in The Lion King. It’s sung when we first come across Aladdin, and it’s a fun song that shows Aladdin’s situation, what the general public thinks about people like him, and a quieter, more emotional moment where he shows some of his venerability. It’s a great introduction, and I’d say it’s on the upper end of average for Aladdin’s songs. Considering two of its songs were nominated for an academy award, that’s saying a lot.
And I know there’s a deleted song in The Lion King called “Morning Report”, but even in newer releases you can’t watch the song inserted back into the movie. As such, I’m not talking about that one.
Both movies open with an anthem that perfectly sets the feel and mood of the movie. “Arabian Nights” in Aladdin talks about Aladdin’s environment, while touching on the mystery of the lamp. With The Lion King, you’ve got “The Circle of Life’, which received an academy nomination for a reason. In fact, it’s one of three songs from the Lion King that got nominated, and somehow that didn’t split the vote too much for one of the songs to win. “The Circle of Life” could have just as easily won as the real winner, but more on that later. “The Circle of Life” starts a bit quiet as the animals move toward pride rock to see Simba’s reveal (as a newborn cub). As the song moves on, it builds in scope and tempo, before it suddenly ends. The lyrics touch on some of the movie’s central themes as well.
As good as “Arabian Nights” is, “The Circle of Life” is the better anthem. It feels bigger and the lyrics touch on the movie’s central themes. When you think Lion King, it’s hard not to think of this opening anthem. “Arabian Night” isn’t quite that good.
Next up, there’s “Prince Ali” vs. “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”, both are kind of secondary anthem songs. “Prince Ali” introduces Aladdin to Agrabah after the genie turns him into a prince. It’s a very fun song that’s full of people bragging how rich and powerful Prince Ali is, with Williams occasionally chiming in with comedy bits. It’s yet another song that’s hard to get out of your head when it’s done. “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” is Simba’s song as a kid, when he’s just talking about how excited he is to take charge of pride rock. It’s not necessarily bad. I liked it as a kid, but now it’s my least favourite song in the movie. It kind of just wastes a few minutes when in the long run, Simba and Nala were just trying to ditch Zazu so they could sneak off.
Aladdin wins this one.
And now for the “friend” songs – “Friend Like Me” vs “Hakuna Matata.” Both of these songs were nominated for the Best Original Song academy award, yet neither of them won. “Friend Like Me” is the genie’s song, where he’s basically showing off to Aladdin what he can do. It’s kind of like advertising what kinds of wishes Aladdin can go for. Like I said before, Williams doesn’t have the greatest singing voice, but it’s passable. What makes this song so well is that Williams is putting so much energy and passion into it that it’s a pure joy to listen to. “Hakuna Matata” is the song Timone and Pumba sing shortly after they meet Simba, introducing him to their way of life. It’s also a fun song, with kind of a relaxing feel. I’m not sure what else to say about it. They’re both beloved classics. With that said, I find “Friend Like Me” to be the more entertaining song.
This is a close one, but I’m giving this one to the late Robin Williams.
Next up, the villain songs. Aladdin’s villain song is mostly a reprise of “Prince Ali”, but that’s perfectly fine. It takes place after Jafar wishes to become a very powerful sorcerer. It takes the joyful “Prince Ali” tune and makes it sound menacing. That said, The Lion King’s “Be Prepared” is just plain better. The whole song sounds menacing, with harsher jungle drums than the rest of the movie. It stars off soft yet intense, with Scar going back and forth between speaking and singing his intentions. As the song builds, there’s a dark chorus in the background as Scar picks up his voice. By the end, it’s a huge sounding song that’s almost a little scary. It ranks up there with the best Disney villain songs of all time, thus it easily wins this round.
So each movie won two rounds, and it’s close enough that I’ll declare the next winner the tie-breaker.
Finally, we come to the last songs from each movie. They’re both the love songs, and they both ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Aladdin’s “A Whole New World” vs “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”. “A Whole New World” also holds the unique distinction of the only time a Disney movie won the Grammy for Song of the Year. “A Whole New World” is a romantic duet sung by Aladdin and Jasmine as they take a magic carpet ride across the world. Their singing voices mesh very well together in this lovely sounding balled. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is a more energetic song, matching the epic tone of The Lion King, but it’s still a balled compared to the rest of the movie. The difference here is that, while the lyrics in “A Whole New World” are romantic, The Lion King’s equivalent is more than that. The lyrics touch on how Simba’s scared to admit what he thinks happened to his father. Nala’s lyrics show that she knows he’s hiding something, and that he’s clearly scared to be the king she sees in him. The song not only shows how they’re falling in love, but it also furthers Simba’s character development and by extension, the story.
This is yet another very close call. If I was going for the songs alone, I would lean towards ‘A Whole New World”, but “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” serves its movies story better. It’s that depth that tips it over the edge to me.
The Lion King’s academy award winning song wins, giving it the win in this category as well, just barely.
The previous section went on a very long time, so let’s rush through the story. This is also the biggest difference between Aladdin and The Lion King in terms of their genre.
Aladdin is a straight adventure fantasy film, whereas The Lion King is more of an epic musical. Aladdin is very much character driven, while The Lion King is story driven. Neither storytelling style is inherently better than the other. So let’s see what movie’s story and morals are better. And I’ll just say this up front – the winner of this category is also my favourite movie of the two.
Aladdin is the story of a kind, caring orphan who gets the opportunity of a lifetime. He finds a genie that grants him three wishes. Having fallen in love with a princess beforehand, he wishes to become a prince in hopes that he can now marry her. However, he struggles to be himself afterward, keeping up the facade instead of telling Jasmine the truth. It’s a story about accepting who you are. It’s about being honest. It’s a great lesson that a lot of people struggle with. There’s also a political struggle with the Sultan’s advisor who wants the crown, and is willing to kill or enslave anyone to get it.
The Lion King is loosely based on Hamlet. It’s about a young lion prince who is destined to be king. His uncle schemes to get both Simba and his father killed, and he succeeds with the latter. For a long time, Simba flees and tries to forget about his past, until he realizes that he’s needed. He needs to confront his past, and take his rightful place on the throne to save the pride lands. The lesson is a bit harsh, but a very important one. The lesson is that you should stick to your responsibilities, no matter how tough they get. It’s a lesson that sometimes bad things happen and sometimes you make mistakes, but running away from them won’t solve anything. Sooner or later, you’ll either need to confront them, or they’ll tear you apart inside and out.
These are both very good stories, and they each feature the right characters to tell their stories. They’re both entertaining when they need to be, and dramatic when they need to be. They both feature very important and universal lessons for anyone, anywhere in the world. However, as great as Williams is as the genie, he is also Aladdin’s biggest fault. There are times when his comedic routine gets in the way of dramatic moments. Because of this, I never got close to the point where I’d shed tears. There were several moments in The Lion King where that happened, most notably Mufasa’s death. I’m not afraid to admit as a man that a good enough movie can bring me to tears at its saddest or its happiest moments. My favourite movies tend to be the ones that touch me on every emotional level, and The Lion King does that.
Both Aladdin and The Lion King are fantastic movies. They were two of my childhood favourites, they remain my two favourite Disney Renaissance movies so far and I have no doubt that they’ll both end up in my top 6 by the time I’m done this project. With that said, I prefer The Lion King. As with my The Little Mermaid vs. Beauty and the Beast post, I will say that whichever of these masterpieces you prefer, you’re not wrong.