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With one of us four years old and the other five when The Lion King was released in the UK in October 1994, this is a milestone moment for us in the canon, as it came out at a time when we remember the release ‘hype’. But what we didn’t know, until the last few years, was that two films were made simultaneously by two different teams – one film was perceived as the ‘A’ project (predicted to be a prestigious, Best Picture-winning, ‘West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet meets Native Americans’, guaranteed hit) and the other the ‘B’ project (dubbed as experimental ‘fill a gap’-ish). The former was Pocahontas and the latter was The Lion King … one of the most commercially successful films of all time.
Let’s swivel back! Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney and Peter Schneider came up with the initial idea for a film based in Africa, during a plane journey to Europe to promote Oliver and Company. Thomas Schumacher became involved because ‘lions are cool’ … Scripts flew around over the next few years from a number of writers, from Thomas Disch writing a treatment called King of the Kalahari, to Linda Woolverton writing King of the Beasts, and then King of the Jungle. The plot was rather different, focusing on a war between lions and baboons … More on that in Story!
Initially Oliver and Company’s director, George Scribner, was appointed as The Lion King’s director. However, he would leave after six months, as he clashed with Roger Allers’s style and disliked the choice to make it a musical film, as he had envisioned a more documentary-like ‘National Geographic’-esque film, probably closer to Bambi than your average Renaissance era musical. Producer, Don Hahn, Directors, Rob Minkoff (Scribner’s replacement) and Roger Allers and Head of Story, Brenda Chapman, rewrote the story, aiming to focus more on the theme of ‘leaving childhood and facing up to the realities of the world’. Screenwriters Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts came on board, and the title changed to The Lion King as King of the Jungle made no bloody sense. Fun fact: Apparently Richard Curtis and Ben Elton were approached to write the screenplay.
As we said, The Lion King was the B project. Most of the top animators chose to work on Pocahontas, while The Lion King was filled up with more inexperienced – but eager – staff and top animators who were interested in animating animals (e.g. Andreas Deja and Ruben Aquino). At that point Pocahontas seemed like the better option – Glen Keane had been assigned to work on it (allegedly everyone wanted to work with Keane as he was perceived as the crème de la crème of animation at that stage … because he’s awesome), Mike Gabriel who’d directed The Rescuers Down Under, Eric Goldberg who’d received acclaim for Genie, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s music was already there on display, and to top it off, animators were excited that it was an ‘American’ story. The Lion King was not in a great place when it came time to choose a project – the African rhythms had not yet been incorporated into the film, so Elton John’s tunes sounded very poppy next to Menken’s Broadway pizazz, and it hadn’t quite found its feet in terms of story – it was being pitched as ‘Bambi in Africa’. Some even tried to transfer over to Pocahontas but were told ‘no’.
Despite Katzenberg’s feelings that the film was ‘a little a bit about [him]self’ (based on his early career in politics), he set up this competitive streak between Team A and B, stating that Pocahontas was a home run, and The Lion King was a base hit. It was being stressed that animals don’t sell – audiences want to see people. Ultimately, like the animators being kicked out of their building and into rickety-old Glendale, it inspired Team B to work even harder and prove themselves. Akin to two siblings, the golden child wound up being the disappointment despite high expectations, and the black sheep became incredibly successful despite low expectations …
Do we think the Black Sheep proved itself? Let’s see! But first …
Original Trailer Time! Disney made a landmark move in that they released the entire ‘Circle of Life’ sequence as a teaser trailer in 1993. It was so well-received that many became concerned that the film as a whole wouldn’t live up to the teaser trailer.
However because it was a teaser (and a scene from the film), we won’t be looking at it, but instead the full trailer released in 1994:
- Lebo M you are AMAZING!
- Oh hi Original Trailer Man – any mystical epic vibe you had been going for in this trailer has now officially been squashed
- We genuinely misheard 32nd animated motion picture as ’30 second’ – hardly qualifies as ‘feature-length’
- For some insane reason, Hans Zimmer’s incredible score gives way to a trumpet fanfare straight out 1960s Disney … looking at you The Sword in the Stone! … just WHY???
- ‘This’ll all be mine’ ‘Everything the light touches’ ‘Wow’ … misleading editing there!
- We’ve got to commend the trailer for strategically avoiding giving away Mufasa’s death
- Oh wait no they DO give it away … cheers trailer. Compliment withdrawn
- What’s with the AWFUL score in the background? 90s to the max!
- Unsubtle name dropping – ‘Grammy winner Elton John and Academy Award winner Tim Rice’
- A very different arrangement of ‘Circle of Life’ there … we’re not fans
For a long time, the two of us had it in our heads that Simba is a frustrating protagonist, particularly young Simba, perceiving him to be a brat, and to an extent adult Simba, for being a tad flat – forgive the genuine unintentional rhyme. While we knew we were going to be objective, it did come up beforehand in conversation. Did we feel this way after watching it again?
We learned something that we had not considered before and it feels so obvious now. Young Simba is supposed to be a brat – it is how he has been written. Simba is supposed to be irritating, arrogant, self-centred, and delusional with a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a king. This was a lot clearer viewing the film this time around. We first see baby Simba (who is so adorable that an ‘aw’ slips from your mouth in a Pavlovian fashion), and he is very easy to like on first sight, simply because: ‘cute’. The next time we see our protagonist, he is doing something incredibly offensive – annoyingly waking up his parents at the crack of dawn – not a great start. This one day in Simba’s life, sees him behaving like a brat, e.g. demonstrating egocentric behaviour, expressing a ‘don’t you know who I am’ attitude, showing off, whinging, disobeying his father, treating his ‘chaperone’ like dirt, endangering the lives of said chaperone and best friend, etc.
‘And I’m gonna ruuuuuuuuuuule it all HEH HEH HEH!’
This is the one time in which we felt on Scar’s side …
‘DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM???!’
These scenes accentuate his failings, but also he is putting on an act because it’s what he thinks a king is supposed to be like, and when his father gets angry with him, this bluster falls away and we see a child who is clearly out of his depth. He is a very flawed protagonist and is not always likeable, which is a risky move. Simba’s failings are at the heart of his story, unlike previous Renaissance characters who get to ‘glow’ more – Ariel and Aladdin are very flawed and selfish too … but Ariel has species dysphoria and Aladdin has grown up in poverty. Simba by comparison is a pampered cocky little prince, until his father dies, and your perception of him changes, as he becomes a child struggling not only with grief, but also with guilt, believing he is responsible for his father’s death. His ‘obnoxious’ day becomes completely irrelevant, and your heart just breaks for Simba during the worst day of his life.
Simba is vulnerable and is easily swayed by others who do not necessarily have his best interests at heart; like Scar, Timon, and Pumbaa, and ironically he is not swayed by others who do, like Nala, his parents, Zazu, Rafiki, etc.
Simba wants to resist responsibility throughout his journey in the film, and this is revealed in a series of different manifestations. In this early shot, the weight of responsibility feels significant:
Born to rule, but happy to rule?
(Special Note from Melissa: Even as a child, I felt discomforted by all the animals gawking and making noise at this infant who clearly would much rather by snuggled up with his mother)
As he grows older, he is drawn to shallow ideas of leadership: in ownership, doing whatever he wants, getting his way, seeking danger to prove his bravery, and generally being pushy, self-centred and arrogant. His head is particularly inflated by his talk with Mufasa (perhaps Mufasa could have done a better job there …) – responsibility is non-existent is his mind. Mufasa reprimands him harshly for this behaviour, but only after he nearly gets himself and others killed. After his father’s death and his own exile, with ‘teaching’ by Timon and Pumbaa, Simba neglects responsibility in a new form, by turning his back on his family, his people and his past, and consequently by being lazy, selfish and idle – leading into another point – is Simba a Generation X stereotype?
The Lion King was released in 1994, and production had taken place during the early 1990s – an era in which Generation X-ers were the youth of the day – when young people were perceived as ‘slackers’, ‘disaffected’, ‘cynical’, ‘narcissistic’, ‘holistically spiritual’, ‘alienated’, ‘amoral’, ‘pessimistic’, ‘individualistic’ and ‘independent’. We’re not saying this is how it was (as we know very well from being labelled as ‘Generation Y’), but this was the perception, and it was being reflected in popular culture. In the case of film and television, through Richard Linklater films like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and through shows like Friends, among many others we’re sure. Simba embodies the stereotypical negative perception of a Gen X-er during his time with Timon and Pumbaa – he has taken on the ‘slacker’ lifestyle, he has become cynical, alienated and disaffected in response to his troubled childhood, and he is focused on number one: ‘I needed to get out on my own … live my own life … and I did … and it’s great!’.
‘The talk in the early Nineties was of a disconnected and disappointed Generation X and its embrace of slackerdom, an about-face on avaricious Reaganism that turned a refusal to take responsibility for your life into a kind of heroism … the bourgeois bohemian was having a second coming’
Simba’s life of slackerdom, his refusal to take responsibility and his bourgeois bohemian lifestyle is not applauded, and the focus of the middle act is to get him to turn away from this negative perception of Generation X lifestyle.
Let’s let Roger, the creepy psychologist, explain this:
‘Actually it’s… it’s quite, you know… typical behaviour when you have this kind of dysfunctional group dynamic. You know, this kind of co-dependent, emotionally stunted, sitting in your stupid jungle with your stupid big bugs … and you’re all, like, “Oh, define me! Define me! Love me, I need love!”’
Both Young Simba and Adult Simba are selfish, initially via an overinflated ego, and later triggered by response to grief, and ironically enough, a lack of confidence in himself. He doesn’t listen to Nala, barely to Rafiki, and even when his father appears in the sky, he’s still not certain, ‘I know what I have to do but …’ There’s that ‘but’ – even a visitation from beyond the grave leaves him unsure – there’s the Hamlet in Simba popping out – just do something!
Hamlet needed a Rafiki in his life
Yes, he does decide to go back, after all his disappointed father tells him ‘You are more than what you have become … you are my son and the one true king. Remember who you are’. When he returns, he is still reluctant to take action unless pushed to extremes – his mother is smacked across the face, he makes his appearance; Scar pushes him to a cliff’s edge, he only pins him down when Scar admits he killed Mufasa, etc. Matthew Broderick was an interesting choice for Adult Simba. Initially we thought, ‘eek this does not sound right at all’, focusing mainly on the fact that the majestic deep bombast of James Earl Jones fathered a high pitched, sometimes nasal Broderick. But when we thought about it, it makes sense as Simba is hung up on the fact that he cannot live up to his father’s legacy, and the film foreshadows that he may always feel that sense of inferiority, not unlike Scar. The strong dominant parent, with a deep voice, a smooth mane, and chunky build, next to Simba with his slighter frame, nervous disposition, higher voice and a mane reminiscent of Jon Bon Jovi’s hair.
Looking not only at Generation stereotypical traits, the Renaissance has provoked an interest in birth order for the main characters. While Ariel has six older sisters, Belle, Aladdin and Simba all have something in common – they are all ‘the only child’ – they don’t have siblings. Simba and Aladdin latch onto friends, while Belle feels lonely and indulges in reading. Interestingly enough, when looking into ‘single child’ families, something rang particularly true for Simba: ‘Only children have never had to compete for their parents’ attention or share toys with their siblings, so they do run the risk of developing a self-centred streak. They’re also used to feeling important and may have a hard time when things don’t necessarily go their way, Leman says. Because their role models are competent adults, onlies are even more susceptible to perfectionism than firstborns’.
Used to feeling important
Hard time when things don’t go their way
The Lion King feels like new ground for Disney in what the protagonist has to go through – Simba is an animal lead but he is dealing with very human issues of duty, responsibility, guilt, love, etc. The closest comparison is Bambi, but The Lion King goes further – inspired by Bambi, Simba is a prince learning his trade, he experiences parental loss, picks up a few bachelor buddies, faces a fiery climax and stands high on his ‘throne’, falls in love, loses his virginity and sews his seed – completing the circle of life.
Alas poor Fluffy … where’d he go in the sequel?
Simba is part of the ‘chosen one’ narrative, like Aladdin and Belle before him, and countless stories in literature and film over time, including this very canon. He becomes the prodigal son – the protagonist who returns home unrecognised, like Odysseus arriving in Ithaca. He overcomes his demons …
A true manifestation of the literal and metaphorical as he races through a tunnel-like forest – confronting his guilt and the past – everything he has repressed
… and rescues his Pride from dictatorship because it is what he is supposed to do – only brave because he has to be. The stride up Pride Rock is incredibly moving as he has been through so much – his conclusion is a bittersweet one – the death of Scar does not bring back his father, but his spirit lives through him as the boy becomes a man, and the lost prince becomes the king – taking responsibility for the first time in his life – his bildungsroman is wrapped up.
Scar – up there as one of Disney’s most infamous villains, for the fact alone that he commits fratricide on-screen. Truth be told, the two of us were a little wary before watching The Lion King again, as Scar seems to divide viewers, with some thinking he’s one of Disney’s greatest villains, and the others perceiving him as massively overrated. What did we think, keeping an open mind? Let’s start at the very beginning; The Lion King has something in common with Disney’s first full length animated feature – the antagonist speaks first. Scar, like the wicked queen, delivers the first line, immediately following the film’s iconic opening sequence which contains no dialogue. He says frankly, ‘Life’s not fair is it?’ – not only a fitting introductory phrase for the character, but a perfect summing up of what The Lion King presents to its audience. This monologue is about as close as Disney will likely ever get to the legendary ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ speech, unless they literally adapt Richard III as an animated film … rather unlikely! Jeremy Irons naturally has a purring quality to his voice, so it is used to great effect, as he speaks his line with droll humour and relish.
As the character is introduced we encounter both his arrogance and his inferiority complex, he takes malicious delight in taunting smaller, more vulnerable creatures – speaking lazily and philosophically as he prepares to swallow a helpless mouse – but is then reduced to muttering insults under his breath once his brother arrives on the scene. His inferiority complex stems from a lack of physical prowess, early on he laments that Mufasa was blessed with all the ‘brute strength’ which he himself lacks.
Consequently, many of Scar’s plans are meticulously thought out in such a way as to avoid him getting his own hands dirty: he won’t physically act, unless absolutely necessary. His initial attempt to get Simba killed without having to lift a finger, was a clever and slippery move reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Richard III, manipulating Simba’s need to prove that he is brave and his childish foolishness. He very easily would have succeeded had it not been for Mufasa’s interference. This then forces him to up the ante, and his new plan is to have both Mufasa and Simba killed, as he realises that his older brother now has a weakness that he can take advantage of – he has become a parent and would die to save his child. Again, it is set up to look like a freak accident, from which Scar will appear blameless in the eyes of the rest of the pride. This plan too, nearly fails, as Mufasa is able to get Simba to safety, and he almost survives himself – which forces Scar into physically intervening for the first time – with a weakened Mufasa in a disadvantageous position, Scar reveals his betrayal and throws his own brother from the cliff. This is by far his boldest action in the entire film, and yet it is completely cowardly at the same time. He knows he could never defeat his brother in a fair fight, and ‘Littlefingers’ his way to the top, with manipulation, acting (check out his ‘performance’ during the stampede scene), avoiding getting hands dirty whenever possible, pushing someone from a height to their grisly death.
Worst of all, Scar’s ultimate act of villainy is that he convinces Simba, his nephew and a child, that the death of his father was his fault – that he was to blame for the tragedy, all under the guise of the ‘caring uncle’ – forcing Simba to live with that guilt. In turn, we never see Scar show any remorse for killing his brother. Even when Simba returns, Scar is still able turn it to his advantage – always the tactician, he reignites the old guilt that he had burdened on Simba years earlier, and tries to turn the lionesses on the exiled prince, cross-examining him like a prosecutor in a court scene. Scar as a character brings up the notion that people that you love, in this case family members, are not necessarily to be trusted, long before the likes of Tangled and Frozen. Simba trusted his uncle and clearly had affection for him, but Scar took advantage of his nephew and emotionally abused him, and later he physically abuses Simba’s mother. This may be one of many reasons why Scar resonates with so many people – despite its royal setting and animal characters, Scar can seem very real, particularly in his quieter moments.
As Simba defies the laws of physics and tackles Scar after finding out the truth via a whispered gloat (poor move Scar poor move), a fight breaks out between the lions and hyenas, and Scar tries to sneak away unnoticed – cowardly to the end. He begs for mercy, and even as Simba banishes him with Scar’s own words, he throws in a dirty move, swiping burning embers into Simba’s eyes – a cheater to the end. He exploits the more honourable traits in the other lions, to maintain an advantage – not restricted by honour.
Scar is something of a contradictory villain, ambitious enough to carry out a coup to usurp the king, but simultaneously lazy and disinterested in the act of ruling. Once he succeeds in becoming king, Scar does very little as ruler – proving that all of his grand declarations to the hyenas were just hollow and meaningless statements. Nevertheless, he is permanently insecure about his status, flying into a rage any time anyone mentions Mufasa’s name. Yes, his rule is accompanied by a drought (divine intervention rearing its ugly head we’re sure), but it’s how he deals with it that reveals an awful leader – as Sarabi points out, they should leave Pride Rock – but Scar can’t be bothered to leave and can’t admit failure. By the film’s conclusion Scar has become dangerously deluded, insisting that he is the superior ruler, and that he would sooner lead the pride to extinction, than heed the counsel of anyone else, simply because he is the king … he can do whatever he wants and live the life of ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’ … the life of a spoiled child’s view of the world.
(Special Note from Both: We must point out that a crucial scene was cut that he feel has had a detrimental effect on Scar’s character, and consequently on the narrative, that we will come back to in Story)
Scar always shifts the blame, never owning up to his actions or feeling any guilt himself (though he is clearly still terrified of his brother, even post death). Like a dirty politician, he makes promises to the oppressed community of hyenas, and then he doesn’t fulfil them. He allows them to starve, and they eventually turn on him and eat him alive, as betrayed followers often do.
‘My hyenas will never harm me … they’re loyal beasts’
‘They were. Now they’re starving …’
A cruel, vicious end for a cruel, vicious character
We have seen many fathers in the Disney Odyssey – they come in droves – especially in comparison with mothers. However, we have not yet seen a paternal character die, after having got to know him for a third of the film. Mufasa was the Renaissance’s own take on the Golden Age’s infamous parental death with Bambi’s mother – still one of Disney’s most traumatic and devastating moments – and Mufasa’s death is just as traumatic and devastating, and perhaps even more, but that is open to debate. Rather than copying the Golden Age by killing off a mother, they have given focus to the death of a father in a child’s life, and have taken it a step further than they did in Walt’s days by showing not only the murder, but the body – a graphic, hard-hitting image. It is as effective as Bambi but different – what makes it more painful is that at least Bambi has a parent to console him. The Lion King reveals what could happen if the ‘wrong’ person is there:
In this case Simba’s father’s murderer is that ‘wrong’ person under the guise of the ‘caring’ uncle who injects guilt-tripping poison into Simba that will haunt him for the rest of his life. There is no ‘Come my son’ from a poised, strong Sarabi for Simba. It is a tough life lesson, learning that your parents aren’t invincible, and that’s what makes the film so painful.
When we first see Mufasa, he is stately and at the height of his power – King, loving husband, affectionate father and benevolent and respected ruler – and this carries through up to his death. It is a lot for both Scar and Simba to measure up to, which Scar, as we discussed earlier, is clearly insecure about in the second half, and Simba … despite the ‘happy’ ending, it is clear he will have a tough time living up to his father’s legacy, as foreshadowed earlier when his small paw steps through his father’s large paw print.
The relationship between Mufasa and Scar invokes many unanswered questions – this is not a criticism – it is that there is so much tension and nastiness between them that we cannot help but wonder, what happened between these two brothers? It is as if we have begun in medias res. Mufasa is willing to fiercely challenge his brother, and yet afterwards acts like he is a minor inconvenience – perhaps his fatal mistake is that he completely underestimates his brother.
A touch of the Orys the First about him?
Mufasa, like most parents, puts his son before his own life – he loves him that much and in the end he does die for him, to the detriment of the kingdom. But he tries so hard to live – there is such determination and it ultimately shows what Scar gets both right and wrong about his brother – he would risk his life for his son, but he would ensure that Simba is safe at all costs – Scar assumed that they would both perish – he underestimates the fierce paternal instinct.
While Timothy Dalton, Sean Connery and Liam Neeson were considered for Mufasa, James Earl Jones was a perfect fit – his deep, gravelly resonance (coupled with the growls merged with his voice) and fantastic diction offers a fitting combination of a lion and a king all in one role – he can make anything pound with reverence.
(Special Note from David: I’d just like to say that there’s something about the way James Earl Jones says the word ‘Antelope’ which makes it sound really appealing – I could sure go for a bite of Antelope right about now)
Jones said that during the process, Mufasa became less of a grand king and more of a ‘dopey dad’. What works really well with that is that Mufasa is a father that viewers in 1994 (and today) can relate to, in much the same way that parents in the 1940s could relate to Bambi’s father. Parenting styles have changed, and instead of the grand, yet distant and intimidating father, he is the affectionate loving Dad who’s vulnerable yet seems invincible in the eyes of the child.
Considering parental relationships that we have seen so far during the Renaissance Era, for example – the father-daughter relationship with Triton and Ariel and the father-son relationship with Mufasa and Simba – what do they have in common? Both fathers are strong yet vulnerable parents who sacrifice themselves for their children – they both have loving yet difficult relationships with them, but with conflicting and arguably gendered priorities – the father not wanting to let his daughter go versus the father wanting his son to take responsibility and ‘be a man’ – wanting the child to stay safe versus wanting the child to grow up.
Following the incident in the elephant graveyard, Mufasa reprimands Simba for his reckless behaviour and pulls no punches about it – if we were to make a small criticism, likely due to the short running time, Simba does get off lightly in the end – we would have liked a little more grilling before the touching moment between the father and son in the stars sequence, making it even more earned. However, that changes with Ghost Mufasa. Something rather unsettling about Ghost Mufasa, which neither of us felt as children watching it, is that he is strangely unnerving and a lot scarier than we remember. The affectionate ‘dopey’ Dad has gone – he is a manifestation of distorted images …
Including the sinister final image in which he has no eyes …
… a fleeting visit and a righteous figure who is sad, disappointed and angry. It evoked a question in our minds – is it even Mufasa or is it a manifestation of Simba’s guilt? Is it all in his head? Technically, he is the only one who ‘sees’ and ‘hears’ him.
‘Of course this is happening inside your head Simba, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’
(Special Note from Melissa: There’s something that’s always rubbed me up the wrong way, which is that Young Simba calls Mufasa, ‘Dad’, and yet when he is an adult, he refers to him as ‘Father’. I can understand Simba referring to him as ‘My father’, but it’s not like he has had progressive time with Mufasa to invoke the transition into ‘Father’. I’m guessing that it’s to sound more serious and to indicate that Simba has grown up and has distanced himself from his father, but it never rang true to me, even when I was little. Simba’s first line in the film is ‘Dad’, which he repeats over and over again, and the last time he says it is ‘Dad … Dad come on … we gotta get up … Dad … we gotta go home’. It feels significant … Perhaps he can’t bear to say the word anymore?)
While The Lion King, despite its higher proportion of lionesses to lions, is close to Aladdin as being the most ‘boys club’ film of the Renaissance so far, the female characters are strong women, arguably stronger and more stoic than the men. Nala is an effective foil to Simba in his younger arrogant years – she is no pushover, holds her own and is physically stronger, pinning him twice in one go, and later pinning him again when they reunite later in life.
The only time he ever ‘pins’ her is after they have rolled down the hill and it is technically unintentional, but Nala this time doesn’t do her signature flip, and instead lets him ‘drive’.
Must’ve been an awkward day at the studio when this was animated …
Their romance is juxtaposed with their platonic friendship as kids when they’re both grossed out by the idea of marriage.
Their reunion is very sweet and sad all at once; both have been through hell and take a moment for some tenderness and loss of virginity – indulgence in innocence and maturity all at once. Before their romantic encounter, Nala offers a reminder of what Simba ran away from, fittingly saying ‘And your mother … what would she think?’ … where have we heard this before?
What a parallel! Everything comes back around
Furthermore, Simba’s bubble is burst as she reveals to him what is really going on. Simba had no idea that everyone thought he was dead and how much he has been loved and missed. He truly didn’t think how it would have felt for others – only seeing his own grief, as Nala calls him out on his selfishness: ‘You don’t know how much this will mean to everyone … what it means to me’. In their post-coital argument, she cross-examines him, confounded that he was alive the whole time and never came home, revealing how hellish it is and that he has to face up to his responsibility, mimicking his late father, much to Simba’s chagrin. She tries to get him to open up but he refuses.
‘You’re not the Simba I remember’ …
The Simba THAT ran around saying that he just couldn’t wait to be king rather than oh no thank you I’d rather not
‘… I never said that’
In many respects there is so much focus on the father-son relationship that the mother-son relationship is tossed aside by comparison – interesting when you consider how close mother lions are to their cubs, much more so than father lions. There are such sweet moments when Sarabi and Mufasa look so proud and loving towards their baby son, and later when she gives him a bath, much to his irritation, and she smiles down at him – not knowing that the very next day, she would lose him. It’s a horrible thought. We do wish there had been more attention towards Sarabi’s grief – after all she has lost her husband and her son – perhaps a scene between Nala and Sarabi before Nala leaves could have been effective … though this is the same studio whose executive said ‘SHE’S A ZERO! 86 THE MOM!!!’
Drawing back on the comparisons we made between The Lion King and Bambi, Sarabi is sadly not there for Simba the way in which Bambi’s father was there for him. Simba has not been orphaned – he still has a parent. The little screen time that Sarabi gets is great – such a dignified character, presenting a queen and a lady, emphasised further by Madge Sinclair’s brilliant voice. Wonderful actresses with great voices like Helen Mirren, Virginia McKenna and Vanessa Redgrave were apparently considered for the role as well – all Brits interestingly enough. When Sarabi stands up to Scar, she presents herself with dignity, grace, frankness and bite – seeing his mother being treated like dirt is what truly wakes up Simba to what he has allowed to happen all of these years and he feels ashamed. It’s heart-wrenching when she gets smacked across the face, and it is what drives Simba to come out of hiding.
Even Sarabi thinking that Simba is Mufasa adds to Simba’s guilt that it is not his father, but him instead …
So sad …
There is a really strange moment when Simba claims responsibility for Mufasa’s death, Sarabi says ‘It’s not true. Tell me it’s not true’.
‘Tell me it’s not true. Say it’s just a story. Say it’s just a dream. Say it’s just a scene. From an old movie from years ago. From an old movie with Marilyn Monroe’
It’s a very odd moment which we’ll come back to in Story, but really how can Sarabi possibly think Simba is responsible?
‘Something doesn’t add up’
What was it with Disney and stuffy British majordomos? Sebastian and Iago were initially envisioned as stuffy and British, until Howard Ashman pushed for Jamaican (and eventually Trinidadian to accommodate the lovely Samuel Wright), and the Aladdin team ended up doing a complete 180 and picked Gilbert Gottfried. But Cogsworth was British and stuffy, and now Zazu is British and stuffy. Trope indeed, but at least they’re both funny characters. As adults, we’re completely on the side of the neurotic, bumbling, fastidious Zazu during the ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ sequence, as he calls Simba out on his entitled behaviour and doesn’t think much of his rubbish attitude, deeming him a ‘pathetic king indeed … if this is where the monarchy is headed, count me out!’ However when it comes down to it, despite being a percentage of their size, he throws himself in front of Simba and Nala during the elephant graveyard sequence (while Simba runs behind them both like the ‘brave’ boy he is). It is such a rewarding moment at the end when Zazu bows and says ‘your majesty’ to Simba, very different from the child he once stated would make a pathetic king.
Although when Simba said, ‘Well in that case you’re fired’ in the early stages of the film, it turns out that he really meant it.
No room for you on Pride Rock, Zazu
Let’s be frank, with the exception of a few funny moments and that they do work from a story point-of-view, the hyenas are annoying … very annoying and not necessarily funny. They extract the seriousness and tension out of scenes, with some badly misplaced comic relief, specifically just after Mufasa’s death. They do work effectively in the roles that they play in the villain’s rise and fall, as supporters for Scar – the masses who get duped by a corrupt leader making empty promises. The case that they make when they confront Scar about the food shortage is also a strong moment as they are in the same boat as the lionesses. The hyenas are at their most threatening and effective (and get to shine) as they turn on their leader – the leader who told them to stick with him and they’d never go hungry again – this leader starves them, and they eat him – hoist by his own petard.
Timon and Pumbaa offer the classic comic dynamic of the little guy and the big guy, in many respects emulating the voice actors themselves. Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella’s own casting was very much a matter of chance, as they were auditioning for separate roles, but then asked if they could audition together. Lane and Sabella have great chemistry and rapport as this double act, with the brash Timon who thinks he’s smarter than he is and gentler soul Pumbaa who doesn’t realise that he’s actually smarter than he thinks. While they have some funny lines, they do feel very jarring after Mufasa’s death (as well as during the film’s climax), and we’re not sure if we can quite call them a welcome interruption. They save Simba’s life, but do so for selfish reasons. They play the roles of the equivalent of friends you meet in your young adult life who ‘pull you down’ in your ‘act like a loser’ years, e.g. thinking that you’re having deep conversations when you’re not. They’re from that phase of life when your friends become your family, as they treat Simba more like a peer than an adopted child (it is astonishing that they don’t ask Simba where his parents are … at least Pumbaa asks ‘Is there anything we can do?’), forcing the exiled prince to ‘grow up’ by detaching from familial roots rather than taking responsibility. Less Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (despite what many say), and more like Falstaff and his pals.
The mantra Hakuna Matata/‘no worries’ is technically a good one (we can all afford to worry less!), but it has been distorted and manipulated by this pair, to mean ‘no rules and responsibility’, and their denial of responsibility comes from an insecure place. They’re a strange combination of both the best and the worst friends for Simba, as they give him the opportunity to have fun and relax during a difficult time, but on the other hand, they’ve unintentionally encouraged him to repress his grief and sweep it under the carpet. The moment when they laugh at Simba during the stars sequence does rub us up the wrong way, and really shows the damage that it has done to Simba as he has to dismiss a lovely memory between himself and his father as ‘pretty dumb’. Again they’re not intentionally malicious, they’re just thoughtless. When Simba and Nala ‘hook up’, Timon and Pumbaa’s own insecurities do come to the surface as they are despondent. Their lives as bohemian bachelors are coming to an end with their wing man getting into a relationship – the end of an era, and revealing how much Simba actually means to them. Consequently they choose to help out in the climax, despite this being completely against their ethos, we assume because they’ve come to care for their fluffy protégé and this redeems them in the eyes of the audience. Either that or being on the winning side of a kingdom may come in handy – selfish to the end!
‘And this means no animals can eat us! HAHA! Security for life!’
Could have ended up this way though:
‘I know thee not old hog’
In many respects Timon and Pumbaa, like the hyenas, don’t always fit the overall tone of the picture – they are a deviation from the film’s overall mood. It still works, but there’s no denying that they do feel a little shoehorned in. Pop cultural references worked more in Aladdin as the Genie could dish them out due to being a ‘magical’ character, but what are Timon, Pumbaa and the hyenas’ excuses? Another thing that annoys us is that they steal the thunder from the lionesses – they’re the ones who have been oppressed! We want to see them duff up their oppressors!
Fun fact: Tim Rice allegedly wanted Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson to play Timon and Pumbaa as he was inspired to write lyrics for Hakuna Matata while watching Bottom.
‘It’s our problem-free philosophy HAKUNA MATATA!’
Rafiki is a genuinely charming character – an enigmatic presence, a man of few words, and an eccentric mentor figure, akin to Merlins, Myagis and Yodas, voiced by Robert Guillaume. Initially a cheetah, he became a baboon later when they realised in order to make the iconic moment happen, hands were quite necessary. He doesn’t speak a word until the second half of the film, and when he does exchange words with Simba, he feigns madness to get through to him and lull him into a false state of security, treating the heir apparent with no respect to get him to listen. He calls him out on his own lack of self-identity, and leads him of course to Mufasa’s ‘Ghost’, as we discussed earlier. Rafiki, Nala and Mufasa all tell Simba to face up to responsibility and sort himself out, but even after a vision from beyond the grave, Simba is still uncertain, and Rafiki, THANK GOD, smacks him on the head, showcasing the audience’s own frustrations. This allegedly came from a joke made in a story session from Irene Macchi when they were trying to figure out what would drive Simba to return home – one of the animators joked, ‘Perhaps he gets a knock on the head’ … and they did it! It’s a great message from Rafiki that the past can hurt, but you can either run from it or learn from it.
Although really thwacking someone on the head and saying ‘it doesn’t matter it’s in the past’ shouldn’t always stand on easy ground …
‘It doesn’t matter! It’s in the past!’
Also did anyone feel miffed that Simba got a bit trolled as Rafiki said that his father was alive? Imagine Mufasa just appearing from the bushes – ‘Yes sorry son that was my twin brother Flufasa that you saw fall from the cliffs. I just needed some me-time, you know how it is!’
One of the film’s loveliest moments is Rafiki bowing to Simba, and the latter giving him a hug – ‘It is time’. Wonderful.
Artwork and Imagery
The Lion King has aged very well, possibly because they didn’t have the restraint of having to animate any human characters. While a lot of less experienced animators worked on The Lion King, top animators like Andreas Deja and Ruben Aquino chose this project because they wanted to work on animal characters in a more natural environment. Deja has frequently stated that he is a big fan of The Jungle Book, which inspired him to want to become an animator. The characters, while anthropomorphised to an extent in order to be relatable, really do move like animals. The animators went on a research holiday to Kenya, they took trips to zoos and wildlife expert Jim Fowler would bring animals into the studio, in order for them to create the best and most authentic work that they could. Consequently there was a lot of live action reference, invoking a real throwback to the days of Bambi when they brought in animals for the animators to study. The Pridelands themselves are modelled on Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya, and many of the photos that they took ended up recreated for the film’s backgrounds.
Interestingly enough, while the ‘I Just Can’t Want to be King’ and ‘Be Prepared’ sequences are very stylised …
A ‘Circle of Life’ elephant
An ‘I just Can’t Wait to be King’ elephant
… the film overall has a much more natural feel to it. The original concept was that it would be very abstract, highlighting the colourful and graphic nature of African fabric patterns and tribal art. But when Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff took on the project, they were inspired by the films of David Lean and Leni Riefenstahl, in terms of majestic visuals, long shots and epic scale. It is no surprise that Lean is an inspiration, as The Lion King does an amazing job with perspective and scale, taking creatures like lions, and at times making them appear large and majestic, while at other times, incredibly small and insignificant, particularly through wide shots. It evoked that sense, that whether or not they’re royalty or top of the food chain, these lions are tiny in the grand scheme of things.
The crew also drew inspiration from the work of artist, Hans Bacher, as well as Charles Marion Russell, Frederic Remington and Mayfield Parrish. Even the 3D sequence with the wildebeest has aged very well, likely due to keeping in tone with the epic nature and focusing on long shot. It’s clear that they were trying very hard to emulate a live action film in terms of style, form and tone, not only with scale but also with focus, zoom, panning, etc. Most of the time, this worked brilliantly. Slow motion however …
Was a tad silly
The films just keep getting better during this period in terms of imagery. The colours and backdrops are just stunning. The Renaissance films have been feasts for the eyes! Here are some particularly gorgeous and/or iconic shots that we loved:
We question even whether The Lion King features the most iconic images in the canon so far – the initial sunrise, Pride Rock, Simba held up in the air, Simba and Mufasa looking at the stars, the Jaws look in horror moment, Mufasa’s fall, Mufasa’s dead body, the passage of time log, Simba and Nala’s caress, the ghost in the sky, etc. We could go on!
Not bad for the B team …
While we do enjoy The Lion King, we must admit that our favourite part of the film and what truly elevates it, is Hans Zimmer’s magnificent score, including arrangements by Lebo M. It is a fusion of European and African rhythms and styles, making for a rich, unique soundtrack. Zimmer said, ‘I deliberately didn’t try to write African music. What do I know about African Music? What right do I have to write such music? I wrote very European music and invited Lebo to sing’. Zimmer was initially reluctant to do this project at all because he didn’t like Broadway musicals: ‘I thought that’s what Disney wanted from me, but they kept saying, ‘No, no, no, we really like that you don’t like Broadway musicals. We want this to be different’.
Highest grossing Broadway show of all time …
Zimmer perceives his experiences working on The Lion King as one of the greatest in his career, despite his initial reluctance to work in animation. It even changed his perception of animated films.
Unlike the previous Renaissance era films, the score is less connected to the songs. Characters have themes that are little to do with the songs particularly, with the exception of Scar as ‘Be Prepared’ seems to be his leit-motif. Simba’s theme is very bouncy, higher and upbeat, while Mufasa’s is heavier, lower and more emotional (the most painful use of it is when Timon and Pumbaa laugh at Simba during the stars sequence, and when Sarabi sees Simba and thinks it’s Mufasa). The hyena theme mimics a horrible dissonant carnival-like tone, while Timon and Pumbaa’s charge evokes the sound of ballet and opera, reminding us of Carmen or Romeo and Juliet. Simba even has a ‘guilt’ theme that pops up when he’s getting reprimanded by Mufasa and later when he sees his mother harassed by hyenas. There are even little nods to Shakespeare here and there as you can hear Renaissance style tunes popping up, e.g. when Simba wakes his parents – a Shakespearean variation on his theme – perhaps intentional.
The score, despite its moments of wonder and joy, already reveal heaviness and darkness early on, foreshadowing the horror to come, and this combination of light and dark. Melancholy, sadness, and reverence soar through the score, complete with moody and gorgeous haunting themes. Even when there’s peace in the Pridelands, the undertone is ominous. Although use of woodwind seem to be the symbol of hope within the score.
The Stampede leading into Mufasa’s death really stands out musically. It perfectly evokes terror, urgency, chaos, the rhythms of running and heart racing, and that final descent into death and tragedy. The use of silence between the Stampede and Mufasa’s theme is chilling. It is a requiem for Mufasa that immediately reminded us of Mozart. It is no surprise that Zimmer confirmed that he was inspired heavily by Mozart, as the composer was Zimmer’s own father’s favourite. Zimmer’s father died when he was a child, and he claims that he never dealt with his death until writing the requiem: ‘I was sitting in front of this cartoon story about a son who loses his father and I suddenly realised that I’d never dealt with any of this or thought about it in an emotionally vulnerable way’. The music draws from European opera and choral church-like themes, and cuts like glass – it is heart-wrenchingly painful to listen to. Worse is that when Scar talks to Simba during this scene, Mufasa’s theme gets distorted and made sinister – as if Simba’s uncle is twisting the precious father son relationship.
The end of the climax is another stand out moment of music. The ‘Pridelands’ theme plays, followed by Mufasa’s theme, then the ‘Remember’ theme and finally after the roar, Simba’s theme plays with triumph developing into a reprise of ‘Circle of Life’ – brilliant musical communication! Glorious music. Hans Zimmer take a bow.
Songs! Tim Rice was hired as the lyricist and initially he invited ABBA to write the songs with him, but when that fell through he turned to Elton John. ‘Circle of Life’ may be the film’s most powerful song. Everything works perfectly – how many musicals try to emulate that kind of opening and how many achieve that effect? It is brilliantly arranged with excellent vocals – it surges and builds, it is just HUGE. The final drum is hair-raising and it really does make you ponder whether the film ever actually reaches the dizzying heights of the opening sequence, much to the fear of the crew. It’s that good. Elton John apparently wrote and recorded the song’s demo, after Tim Rice had given him the lyrics, in an hour and a half. The lyrics are simple but that soaring score behind it coupled with beautiful animation is cinematic magic.
‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’ invokes mixed feelings. It’s a very Jackson 5-like number (fitting as Simba’s singing voice Jason Weaver played a young Michael Jackson). Out of context, the song is fun, energetic, lively, full of joie de vivre and makes us want to get up and dance! However, when watching the film, we felt distracted by what a little brat Simba is during the sequence to Zazu, as the rest of the kingdom brown-noses their way through the number, blowing Simba’s trumpet.
‘If we tell you how awesome you are, will you promise not to eat us?!’
It is a new take for Disney on the ‘I Want’ song, and it is truly the most superficial ‘I Want’ song so far in the Renaissance. We never really get to know his true heart’s desire in song. Even Proud of Your Boy would have fit with Simba’s arc! Instead Simba has a vanity number that is closer to ‘Gaston’ than ‘Belle (Reprise)’:
‘No one roars like Simba / Has big claws like Simba!’ / No one’s got a full mane around his jaws like Simba!’
‘As a specimen yes I’m intimidating!’
‘When I was a lad I ate four antelope every morning to help me get large!’
To be fair, it is dressed like a fantasy sequence in many respects, as it’s more cartoony than ‘Circle of Life’. Still … Mufasa and Sarabi, parent your child!
Another villain number for the Renaissance! ‘Be Prepared’ is a very bouncy, yet heavy villain number performed by Jeremy Irons and Jim Cummings with villainous relish. It fits very well with all of the Renaissance villain songs so far, covering manipulation like Ursula and Gaston and vicious glee like Jafar. It’s full of descending musical phrases that sound like laughter, invoking a demented house of horror feeling, showcasing the film’s complete shift into a new and frightening mood, as the antagonist jazzes up his mob, creating a political rally, including small print: ‘Of course, quid pro quo, you’re expected / To take certain duties on board’. If we had to be critical, we are frustrated that the hyenas keep interrupting the song’s tension and some of the Nazi imagery is quite on the nose, particularly with the goose stepping hyenas.
(Special Note from Melissa: Especially since dictators have always been around, not just in the 1930s and 1940s … it isolates Nazism as the obvious connection to dictatorship and mob mentality. This is one of the reasons why I love ‘Mob Song’ so much from Beauty and the Beast; it reveals mob mentality and political rallying, but without saying ‘Oh Gaston is like a Nazi leader’. Instead he’s like any scary political or mob figurehead. I understand why they did it here, but it is on the nose)
‘Hakuna Matata’, the slacker song that is reminiscent of songs from The Jungle Book, particularly with the scatting at the end. It is a fun number – again Rice was inspired to write the lyrics by watching Bottom, for those who don’t know, it is a sitcom about two flatmates, described by co-creator Rik Mayall as ‘unemployed survivors’ ‘at the bottom of the heap’. Quite fitting for Timon and Pumbaa really. It’s a strange feeling hearing the song, reminiscent of ‘Falalala twit twittery twit twittery’ from Bambi as it’s such a massive shift after the requiem of an emotional hell we’ve just been through – you almost feel confused.
Kids stop crying, it’s FUN!
Aside from that, it’s a bubbly little chilled out number, and it kind of has a relaxing beach-like feel to it. Familiar territory for Ernie Sabella?
Malibu beach holiday with the Carosi family!
Charmingly enough, ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ is heard in the score as early as Simba and Nala walking together as kids. It is a sweet number accompanying a moment of tenderness and passion before the storm. Also the pop ballad version that plays at the end actually isn’t bad! For a change. It was number one in France, four in the USA, and fourteen in the UK. However controversy surrounds this song. The team decided to give the song to Timon and Pumbaa, becoming a ‘mocking’ love song instead of a genuine one, as they thought it was a unique idea and it would be funny, turning the Disney love song on its head. Elton John attended a screening and went berserk. He called Katzenberg and told him that the film was now ruined, that it undermined the love story and the whole notion of ‘circle of life’, and that one of the reasons he did this film at all, was because of the opportunity to create a beautiful Disney love song, which was always his favourite part of Disney films growing up. They compromised with Timon and Pumbaa bookending the song, but allowing err ‘the heavens (?)’ to sing over the love scene itself, with little solos from Simba and Nala. To be honest, it is not the best love song in the Renaissance so far – Kiss the Girl, Beauty and the Beast and A Whole New World are stronger songs, but it is still a really lovely love song that fits the film’s mood. We’re glad Sir Elton went berserk.
(Special Note from Melissa: I have a terrible confession to make. When I think of the songs from The Lion King, the midi versions from the Sega Mega Drive version pop up in my mind …)
OK Hamlet … as much as the Internet world loves to claim this (especially those who claim it as if it never has been claimed before by anyone), The Lion King is not an adaptation of Hamlet. When The Lion King was initially being pitched to animators, it was known as ‘Bambi in Africa’, but progressively over time, themes and inspirations came flooding in to Disney’s first animated film that was not specifically adapted from a specific story or tale – their first ‘original’ film so to speak (we haven’t seen Kimba, we can’t judge …). There are shades of the Bible, various Epic and Mythology tales from all over the world from Greek to Arthurian to more contemporary, and of course, to Shakespeare – mainly from his Histories and Tragedies – the Henry plays, Richard III, Macbeth and of course Hamlet. So why do so many fixate on the story adapted from Hamlet when there were many sources of inspiration? In the early days of The Lion King, Scar was not Simba’s uncle – it was a war between Lions and Baboons, with Scar being Head Honcho Baboon, Rafiki being a cheetah, and Timon and Pumbaa being Simba’s childhood friends. The crux of the story was that Simba would become manipulated by Scar and end up a ‘lazy, slovenly, horrible character’ who gets overthrown by his own people as he came of age.
When the Lion/Baboon war drifted away, Scar became a rogue lion seeking to infiltrate the pride. This is why Scar looks so different from Mufasa. The team came to the conclusion that it would be more effective if Mufasa’s murderer was a family member – if the threat came from within the royal family – and a comparison with Hamlet was made, concerning Old Hamlet being murdered by Claudius. Later, the idea of Mufasa’s Ghost appearing to Simba was inspired by the Ghost scene in Hamlet, but more from an iconographic stand-point. Mufasa does not tell Simba that he was murdered and that he must ‘avenge him’, like Old Hamlet does …
And Norman Osborn …
… but rather to remember who he is and take his place in the circle of life – a gentler message. Simba’s inability to act can also be sourced as inspiration by the ‘all talk and little action’ Danish prince. They were going to be even more on the nose and have Scar say to Mufasa ‘Goodnight sweet prince’ (glad they didn’t do that!) and while he was playing with the skull (another little nod to Hamlet) say:
‘Alas poor wildebeest, I chewed him well’
OK that did make us laugh … well one of us, the other groaned. Based on the ever misquoted ‘Alas poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio’ (though seriously Google it, the misquoted line comes up before the actual line). But yes, while there are allusions, there are also allusions to other tales too, so calling it an adaptation of Hamlet doesn’t ring true – there’s fratricide, a ghost and a skull.
Anyway tangent over! The Lion King may be Disney’s greatest male coming-of-age Bildungsroman film, and they have done a number of those! There’s even a song literally called ‘Circle of Life’. The crux, as we discussed in Protagonist, of this story is responsibility – the main character’s various ways of avoiding responsibility and how he faces up to it in the climax. As we discussed earlier, The Lion King story-wise was on heavily shaky territory, and it’s amazing that it ended up with a solid story. When listening to the commentary and hearing what was thrown out, The Lion King could have been a disaster had they stuck with early ideas. We won’t go into them, but one really stood out as spectacularly awful – there was an idea that when Mufasa explains the circle of life to Simba, drawing on the conundrum of how lions can rule animals and yet eat them – he says to a passing antelope, ‘Catch you later Joe!’ ‘Not if I can help it!’
The Lion King is one of the most dramatically structured and paced stories that we have seen in the canon. It begins in medias res (in terms of Scar and Mufasa’s tension as brothers) with Simba’s birth, followed by a period of three separate days in Simba’s childhood (Simba shown the kingdom, Mufasa’s death, Simba discovered by Timon and Pumbaa), and finally Simba grown up and returning. It may not have the wittiest script in the canon (especially since we’ve had a few particularly witty scripts in the last few years), but it is storyboarded and acted very movingly and emotionally – that’s where the strength lies in The Lion King –it is an emotional story, full of a number of intelligent parallels. The film, despite being an animal tale, is an incredibly human and adult story, exploring themes such as kingship, responsibility, life and death, grief, identity, and the story itself has high stakes, from the plot to kill Mufasa and Simba, to the Pridelands falling apart. Despite the fact that the story focuses on Simba’s lack of responsibility, it is Scar who drives the narrative for a very long first act, which either concludes with Scar striding up Pride Rock, having ‘achieved’ his goal of becoming King and Rafiki wiping out Simba’s image, or with Simba grown up post ‘Hakuna Matata’. The second act is driven by characters trying to get the protagonist to act and drive the narrative, as the initially very active antagonist is now idle. The third act is Simba’s return to Pride Rock.
The story does call into question the divine right of kings – Mufasa says ‘You are my son and the one true king’. Nala and Rafiki turn to Simba because he is the rightful heir and all will be wrong in the Pridelands, unless the rightful heir is throned. It doesn’t matter whether or not Simba would be any good as a king – it’s just that Scar is illegitimate and Simba is legitimate, and there will be a drought, no food and dodgy weather until the one true king roars on Pride Rock.
(Special Note from David: The ‘right’ of kingship is emphasised through the use of a God-like sunbeam which acknowledges Simba’s birth, and also his ascendancy – whilst Scar’s ascent is met with no such divine endorsement)
We assume that Simba will be a better king, but it fixates on lineage. On the other hand, Mufasa, Scar and Simba’s ‘fights’ are close to what real lions do – the idea that there is one male lion in a pride, but a challenger can overthrow the alpha male in a fight – Mufasa even screams ‘Is that a challenge?’ to Scar. Scar later throws Mufasa from a cliff, and Simba throws Scar from a cliff … both Mufasa and Scar are killed by ‘followers’ in some respects. Wildebeest are part of the kingdom, Mufasa is trampled by them in a panic (unless he is killed immediately on impact), and Scar is eaten by his starving, angry followers in masses.
Despite being a strong story, where do the problems lie? One of their inspirations in storytelling was Shakespeare as we said earlier, and this meant playing into the juxtaposition of high tragedy and low comedy, e.g. Duncan is murdered, which is followed by the Porter scene, Antigonus is attacked by a bear, followed by silly shepherds, Hotspur tragically dies, selfish Falstaff appears, etc. Mufasa dies, Simba is exiled, and Scar commences his dictatorial rule … followed by Timon, Pumbaa, bright colours and HAKUNA MATATA. This works very well for Disney, as they’d rather not linger on anything too sad or painful for too long – bright colours and flatulent humour lead the way! But as we said … it does feel jarring.
Another issue is Scar’s idleness and lack of screen time for the lionesses in Act II. There was originally a scene between Scar, Nala and the rest of the pride, which was cut. Scar ponders why he isn’t a popular king; he gets the idea that he needs a queen to sire him cubs and fulfil a legacy. He chooses Nala (sexually harassing her), she refuses, and that is what leads to her fleeing the kingdom, explaining why she runs into Simba. On top of that, it is a great moment for the lionesses as they stand up to their ineffective king to protect Nala and refuse to obey him, leading to a sinister line from Scar, ‘I don’t need your respect, only your obedience’, revealing his use of intimidation tactics to retain his leadership as the hyenas loom aggressively around the lionesses – a frightening kingdom. It was cut as the team thought Scar advancing on Nala was too dark, but we think it would have worked very well in this context. We feel that this is a major weakness in the story, as the attention completely drifts away from Scar and he seems solely ineffective and lazy, rather than threatening as well – such a shame! It was incorporated back into the story for the Broadway show, showing that it could have been worked.
The final problem lies in Simba’s guilt. His guilt makes sense – Scar manufactured a very intelligent plan. Scar puts Simba in the gorge, tells him to wait, belittles him and patronisingly encourages him to work on his ‘little roar’, all the while the hyenas are on standby to provoke the wildebeest into a stampede, following a signal from Scar. Always keen to prove himself, as Scar knows already (judging by the elephant graveyard ‘slip’), Simba practises the roar, and oh how convenient the stampede starts – Simba believes that his roar started it, and ergo that he is responsible for the death of his father. Well played Scar … Rafiki encourages him to learn from his past rather than run from it, and his Ghost father tells him he must go back and fulfil his role. But when Simba admits responsibility for his father’s death, after coaxing from Scar, no one rushes to his defence, and Sarabi looks stricken by the news. Why do the lionesses not question this? They only come to Simba’s aid when Scar says that he killed Mufasa. Well … we suppose Simba does at least learn from his past – that he didn’t commit the crime he thought he did after all. If he hadn’t gone back, he would have lived with that guilt for the rest of his life – so face responsibility. But it is a little muddled … if it had been Simba’s fault (his roar causing the stampede and Mufasa falling by accident), would the lionesses have still stood by him? We’ll never know … Perhaps the lead into the finale was a little rushed, and it suffers as a result in its context.
I was still very young when The Lion King came out, but I was old enough to be aware of all the hype which surrounded it. Strangely enough I remember growing really weary of the film after a time, particularly when the film came out on VHS, as I went to a friend’s birthday party around that time, and they got The Lion King on video and wanted to watch it that same day. I think I inadvertently carried a bias against the film for years as a consequence (even though I hadn’t re-watched the film since childhood) especially when Disney reappeared on my radar, and I became aware of how highly regarded The Lion King was held by so many people. The funny thing about this is that my prejudice against the film didn’t really have anything to do with the film itself, it was more an early occasion of trying to go against the idea of ‘hype’. Nevertheless I still vaguely clung on to my old prejudices against the film when I was older, feeling the need to put it down, especially when I’d encounter opinions that The Lion King was the best Disney film ever.
So when I came around to watching the film for The Disney Odyssey, I was able to ignore the old (misplaced) prejudices and view the film openly. It’s really good. The Lion King effectively marries the story-structure of Bambi with a more dramatic narrative (part Henry IV Part I, part Richard III and traces of Hamlet). The film is really tightly structured and paced, dedicating time to character development and relationships without anything feeling drawn out, and interspersed with another selection of memorable songs, which all serve a purpose within the narrative. There are also several iconic moments/scenes in the film, such as the opening ‘Circle of Life’ sequence (and the image of Rafiki holding Simba up high in the air) and the tension-fuelled stampede sequence which ends with the death of Mufasa – perhaps Disney’s boldest attempt to out-do the death of Bambi’s mother.
In spite of all this, I would say that The Lion King is probably my least favourite out of the ‘big four’ from this era – which I’d largely ascribe to how much I like the other three, as opposed to disliking this one. That’s my personal preference anyway. However, there is something which The Lion King does even more effectively than its predecessors, and also more effectively than a great many live action films: the musical score. Hans Zimmer’s classical-European-style compositions, combined with Lebo M’s African rhythms create so much mood and atmosphere, that the score elevates every dramatic moment within the film exponentially. So, while it’s not my favourite film from the Renaissance Era, it still ranks pretty highly overall.
In seeing the Frozen hype in the last few years, it brought me back to when The Lion King came out – merchandise was everywhere. I had a lunchbox, t-shirt and shorts, a headband, bedspread, the CD ROM Animated Storybook …
That really wasn’t as good as it seemed in the advertising …
… the Sega Megadrive game, the Playstation game, the ‘Circle of Life’ Sing Along Song video, matching Simba and Nala cuddly toys who had magnetic noses, and more. I used to ‘play’ Lion King with my sister in which we pulled out the sofa cushions and ‘built’ our own Pride Rock – being older she was always Simba and I was always Nala. I saw it in the cinema, I remember getting The Lion King on VHS, and being so excited that when we got home, my sister and I immediately watched the film on the tiny box TV we had in our room. I even have a memory of getting a Happy Meal in which they had cards with screenshots from the film; my one was the image of dead Mufasa and Scar wrapping himself around Simba … bleak.
Enjoy your Happy Meal …
Do I love it as much as I did as a child? I probably get more excited about The Lion King for different reasons than when I did when I was little. What makes it stand out the most for me now is Hans Zimmer’s score (potentially my favourite score in the canon so far … it’s so intelligently woven and emotionally rich – elevating the film beyond what it is), the beautiful animation and iconography, its use of dramatic tension and its very mature themes and narrative. The ‘Circle of Life’ sequence leaves me awestruck, Simba’s stride up Pride Rock I feel breathless, Simba and Nala having a moment of tenderness I feel softened, the Stampede sequence blows me away … and the Stampede leading into Mufasa’s death still makes my hair raise and depending on my mood, I either get a huge lump in my throat or I start bawling. The team did an amazing job in making me feel emotionally invested in this father/son relationship, despite the fact that Simba is such a pain for about twenty minutes of the film. On my old VHS it said ‘Some scenes may be upsetting for young children’. I think as a child I handled that scene better than I do as an adult! The Lion King instilled and still instils a child’s, and let’s be frank, an adult’s most dreaded fear in life – losing a parent. It resonates and it feels gut-wrenchingly sad. Simba’s grief takes up more than half of the film’s running time and I think it is a bold move for Disney, going beyond what Bambi did in 1942, which had a heart-breaking death scene, but no one ever speaks of it again. Both films are effective but different. The Lion King in many respects is an epic packed in less than 90 minutes – an impressive feat!
There are criticisms – while I love the score, the songs are not the best in the Renaissance era canon, Timon and Pumbaa and the hyenas can feel cringey and a bit out of place within a rich story about facing responsibility, the circle of life, murder and grief (and the comedy doesn’t always land …), Simba’s story arc is compelling and his obnoxious phase is understandable but it is still annoying to get through, and some story tweaks could have benefited the film (e.g. they really shouldn’t have cut Scar’s ‘only your obedience’ scene). It’s stunning how even with my favourite underscore and moments that leave me breathless or in tears, I still prefer The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast overall … I’m still not sure whether I prefer Aladdin or The Lion King! I’ll let that grow over time. I had the same issue with the other two (but now I know that The Little Mermaid is in the lead … for now). Overall, The Lion King is a beautiful film with a glorious underscore and a strong coming-of-age story that bravely handles difficult and emotional themes. I feel sad to say goodbye to Renaissance Part 1 – this period has been a wonderful experience.
Commercially, The Lion King did amazingly well … so well that not only was it the highest grossing film of the year worldwide (2nd domestically … behind Forrest Gump … that’s unfortunate), at that point it became the 2nd highest grossing film of all time, grossing $968,483,777 worldwide … nearly a billion dollars. Where we stand in June 2017, it is 33rd worldwide, but it is still the highest grossing 2D animated film of all time, and was the highest grossing animated film until 2013 when Frozen was released. Domestically, when adjusted for inflation, it is 19th. The Lion King is a record-busting beast it would seem! How’s Bluth by the way? Thumbelina happened … it grossed just over 10 million dollars domestically … not great next to The Lion King’s $422,783,777. Richard Rich who we haven’t seen since The Black Cauldron (yikes) decided to release his The Swan Princess (an idea floating around Disney if you remember) through Rich Animation Studios the same year as The Lion King. What incredibly unfortunate timing. If made less than Thumbelina.
Reviews at the time were generally positive for The Lion King. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called the film ‘a movie of exhilarating surprises, not the least of which is its eagerness, revolutionary in the cash-cow business, to break with custom. Nobility rears its head — as it must with Disney — but there’s also vulgar, violent life. For every cuddly creature there’s an animal who’d like to bite his warm and fuzzy head off … It’s a hugely entertaining blend of music, fun and eye-popping thrills, though it doesn’t lack for heart. The father-son relationship is movingly rendered’. Jeremy Gerard of Variety stated, ‘Set off by some of the richest imagery the studio’s animators have produced, and held together by a timeless coming-of-age tale, The Lion King marks a dazzling — and unexpectedly daring — addition to the Disney canon. There’s little doubt that this film, abetted by a marvellous cast of star voices and songs by Elton John and Tim Rice tending toward huge, sonorous choral numbers, will draw huge, sonorous crowds this summer and beyond’. Jami Bernard of The New York Daily News wrote, ‘At this point in animation history, we can expect no less than perfection from Disney, and they deliver’. The critics particularly praised Jeremy Irons’s performance – we’d write them here, but it would likely get repetitive!
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times gave The Lion King three and a half stars out of four (reminder: he gave four to Mermaid and Beauty, and three to Aladdin). He said that it was a ‘superbly drawn animated feature’ and that it was ‘surprisingly solemn in its subject matter, and may even be too intense for very young children … Basically what we have here is a drama, with comedy occasionally lifting the mood. The result is a surprising seriousness; this isn’t the mindless romp with cute animals that the ads might lead you to expect. Although the movie may be frightening and depressing to the very young, I think it’s positive that The Lion King deals with real issues. By processing life’s realities in stories, children can prepare themselves for more difficult lessons later on’.
Janet Maslin of the New York Times was critical, stating that The Lion King takes its place ‘in the great arc of neo-Disney classics that began with The Little Mermaid’ and it’s ‘as visually enchanting as its pedigree suggests. But it also departs from the spontaneity of its predecessors and reveals more calculation. More so than the exuberant movie miracles that came before it, this latest animated juggernaut has the feeling of a clever, predictable product. To its great advantage, it has been contrived with a spirited, animal-loving prettiness no child will resist … the wizardry of “Beauty and the Beast” managed to seem blissfully formula-free, while “The Lion King” has more noticeably derivative moments. Strangely enough, the fact that this film has an original story makes it less daring than Disney films based on well-known fairy tales’. Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune said that The Lion King ‘suffers only in comparison with other recent Disney animated features. Kids will enjoy it; adults won’t mind sitting through it, but I doubt if many people will rush back to see it again. There is beauty; there’s a beast. But it’s not Beauty and the Beast.’
Highest grossing 2D animated film of all time!!!
The songs in particular received a fair bit of criticism, particularly aimed towards Rice with Travers referring to Rice’s ‘Circle of Life’ lyrics as ‘indigestable’, and Bernard stated, ‘While no one can replace the late Howard Ashman, who wrote the hyper-clever lyrics for most of the recent Disney projects, surely they can find better lyricist than Rice, whose credits include Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Here, his only discernible asset is that he can rhyme’. Both Ebert and Siskel praised ‘Circle of Life’ and ‘Hakuna Matata’, but the former said that the rest of the songs aren’t as memorable as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid’s songs, while the latter emphasised that ‘the rest of the playlist goes in one ear and out the other’, as ‘Disney animation lost a major asset with the death of tunesmith Howard Ashman’. Gerard similarly remarked that the songs ‘lack the charm and subtle wit of the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman tunes’. Maslin wrote, ‘The film’s musical numbers are a peculiar hybrid of Mr. John’s bouncy, irrepressible pop sensibility and Mr. Rice’s fastidious, remarkably joyless lyrics … Sometimes the derivativeness is just plain irritating, as with the cute, lilting ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’, which sounds as if Michael Jackson were singing ‘Under the Sea’. Pop music doesn’t get any safer than that; nor does it get any more familiar’.
The Lion King was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning for Best Song for ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ …
Bet Elton was smug …
… and Best Original Score – deservedly so. ‘Circle of Life’ and ‘Hakuna Matata’ were also nominated. Not only did it win for score and song at the Golden Globes, it also won ‘Best Comedy/Musical’, as well as a nomination for ‘Circle of Life’. It won three Grammy Awards, including ‘Best Male Pop Vocal Performance’ ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’, ‘Best Musical Album for Children’, and Best Instrumental Arrangement with Accompanying Vocals, as well as three nominations. At the Annie Awards, it won Best Animated Film, Best Individual Achievement for Story Contribution in the Field of Animation for Brenda Chapman, and Best Achievement for Voice Acting for Jeremy Irons, as well as three other nominations.
At the Circuit Community Awards, The Lion King won Best Achievement in Sound and Best Original Score. Zimmer won a BMI Film Music Award, while John and Rice won the ‘Most Performed Song’ award for ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’. Brian Chavanne won ‘Best Casting for Animated Voiceover’ at the Casting Society of America awards. Zimmer won for Original Score at the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards. At the Young Artist Awards, while The Lion King won ‘Best Family Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical’, there’s a touch of controversy, as Jason Weaver won the ‘Best Performance by a Young Actor in a Voiceover – TV or Movie’ award while Jonathan Taylor Thomas was only nominated. Similarly, Laura Williams won ‘Best Performance by a Young Actress in a Voiceover – TV or Movie’, while Niketa Calame wasn’t even nominated. The film won ‘Best Family Film’ at the National Board of Review, ‘Best Animated Film’ at the DFWFCA Awards, ‘Best Animation’ at the LAFCA Awards, ‘Best Animated Film’ at the KCFCC Awards, Favourite Movie at the Kids’ Choice Awards, and it won several Golden Screen Awards. The film received many nominations as well, not only at the awards ceremonies mentioned, but at the BAFTAS, the Saturn Awards, CAS Awards, the MTV Movie Awards, and the PGA Awards.
Retrospectively, The Lion King was voted as 4th in the American Film Institute’s Top 10 list for Animation, ‘Hakuna Matata’ is 99th in their 100 Songs List, TIME named it as one of their 25 Best Animated Films in 2011, and in 2008 Empire called it the 319th greatest film of all time. In 2016, it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The film had an IMAX release in 2002 and a 3D re-release in 2011 … 3D for a 2D animated film … sense! It became a successful Broadway show in 1997 and a West End show in 1999, directed by Julie Taymor, and they are both still running today, with many international productions being performed across the world. The Broadway and West End shows won Tony, Drama Desk and Olivier awards. Currently it is the highest grossing musical of all time.
Timon and Pumbaa got their own spin-off television show, which ran between 1995 and 1999. This was followed by two direct to video/DVD sequels, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride in 1998, which centred around Simba and Nala’s daughter falling in love with a young lion who looks like Scar from a rival ‘pride’ –
(Special Note from Melissa: It tried so hard to convince viewers that the young lovers are not related when they clearly are – to paraphrase Hamlet, Disney ‘protests too much, methinks’ … apparently they were initially related but Michael Eisner, appalled, shut it down, hence the shoehorned ‘he wasn’t my father’ … stupid)
– and The Lion King 1 ½ in 2004. The second film is often perceived as being inspired by Romeo and Juliet, and the third by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead … sure Tom Stoppard is thrilled by that. Disney Junior recently started airing another spin-off television show called The Lion Guard, featuring Simba and Nala’s son … who doesn’t appear in the sequel … despite it happening during the sequel’s timeline. As we speak, The Lion King is following this current wildly popular trend as a live action remake is in the works, with Jon Favreau, who directed the live action version of The Jungle Book, directing, and James Earl Jones reprising his role as Mufasa.
It wouldn’t be a Disney film if there weren’t a little controversy; in The Lion King’s case, it left behind a lot of controversy: the Jungle Emperor (aka Kimba the White Lion) controversy; the two hyena controversies; and the SFX controversy. Many claimed that The Lion King plagiarised the 1960s anime show, which the creators have repeatedly denied. There were many complaints that the film was bad press for hyenas as a species, with one hyena researcher even suing Disney for it, and on the other side, some perceived the film as presenting an anti-immigrant policy through the hyenas. Apparently SEX is written in the sky. It’s not. It’s SFX.
Before we call it a day, the film was dedicated to President of the Walt Disney Company, Frank Wells, who very tragically passed away in a helicopter crash that same year. Often described as the mediator in the power team that was Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, Roy Disney and Wells himself, the company was incredibly shaken up. This led to some terrible tensions that led to Katzenberg resigning. The gist is that Katzenberg was hoping to get the ‘No. 2’ job, this didn’t happen, there seemed to be a lot of whispers, murmurs, and the equivalent of Mean Girls crossed with corporate boards of directors and … well Disney.
And he left …
‘I’m going to start my own animation company and we are gonna start a revolution and you’re going to be a funny little footnote on my epic ass’
Or words to that effect …
Watch Waking Sleeping Beauty to see the true awkwardness at the end of The Lion King’s production between Katzenberg, Disney and Eisner. It’s fascinating to watch and ultimately that their greatest success resulted in their breakup.
Katzenberg would team up with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg to form Dreamworks – a new rival in the animation world for Disney. In many respects, the death of Frank Wells and the departure of Jeffrey Katzenberg does lead us to saying that The Lion King marks the end of the Renaissance Era Part I. Stay tuned for Part II …