I grew up in the age of the Disney animation renaissance. One of the first films I was ever taken to see was a re-release of The Aristocats in 1987 by my mom and my aunt. While my family didn’t go to a whole lot of movies, every year when I was a kid we took in the big Disney movies, starting with The Little Mermaid in 1989 ( which led to a futile campaign by me and my younger sister to try and name our forthcoming baby sister “Ariel”), The Rescuers Down Under in 1990, Beauty and the Beast in 1991, and Aladdin in 1992. We usually heard about them through good old fashioned TV ads, trailers before the film on VHS and a now defunct kid’s magazine called Disney Adventures.
One movie got a full issue devoted to it, complete with a collectible cover and everything I read about it sounded good. That movie was The Lion King. Everything I read about it sounded interesting, and since I was entering the “girls have cooties, kissing is gross” phase of my life, the fact that Lion King wasn’t a billed as a “girly” story like Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast made it all the more interesting to me. Much to say, it didn’t disappoint.
It’s hard to believe but back when the movie was still in development, many of the staff at Disney feared it would be a critical and commercial flop. It is well noted that the most successful Disney films tend to be based on existing fairy tales. The Lion King drew inspiration from a plethora of literary and mythological sources, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and not just one story. Further while talking animals may feature in the film, none were as extensive as Lion King.
Yet when this movie came out in 1994, it went on to become one of the highest grossing animated movies films of all time. By that year’s end it had even taken its place alongside Star Wars, ET, and Jurassic Park as one of the top 10 highest grossing films of all time. This was a feat that went unrivaled until Pixar animation was launched, and not achieved by Disney on its own until 2013’s Frozen. What was it that made this movie about a talking lion cub strike a chord with so many and has allowed it to receive the well deserved title of “classic”?
Despite the fact it is a kid movie, one of the big factors contributing to the success is the story itself. Lion King deals with very mature matters of love, loyalty, betrayal, death, and revenge and yet in a manner that is understandable to children and yet it is not condescending to adults. There is some humorous moments, much of it thanks to Timon and Pumbaa the story’s Rozenkratz and Guildenstern but they aren’t allowed to dominate the film like Sid the Sloth in the Ice Age movies or Donkey in the Shrek series. But more over what makes this story so great is the fact that while there is a love story between hero Simba and his girlfriend Nala, the real core of the story is about a father and son.
Perhaps then it’s fitting that the second secret of Lion King’s success is its stellar voice, anchored by the legendary voice of the one and only James Earl Jones. His casting is nothing short of an inspired choice. Having already been in Field of Dreams and the Star Wars series, films that deal with a son reconciling with his father, Jones lends his majestic voice to the roll of Mufasa, Simba’s father. He brings genuine wisdom and authority to the character, and yet he is also filled with a sense of compassion and warmth for his son.
He is also one of the few “good” parents in the Disney canon. Many times parents in a Disney movie are either dead, absent like Bambi’s father, over protective like King Triton in The Little Mermaid, or worse inept like the Sultan in Aladdin or Belle’s father in Beauty and the Beast. However Mufasa is wise, experienced, loving, has no problems playing with his son, and yet the rules he sets for his son are fair. In fact the only rule we clearly see Mufasa establish for Simba is that he must not to go the dangerous elephant graveyard, which makes sense. After all what good parent would let their kid go play in a junk yard or an abandoned building?
Because of what Jones brings to the roll it is no wonder that until Liam Neeson took the roll in 2005, that legions of fans of CS Lewis’s Narnia books had him as their first and only choice for The Great Lion Aslan. In contrast to Mufasa is his sinister brother, Scar, performed brilliantly by Jeremy Irons to almost Bond villain perfection. Scar is clever, cunning, deceptive, manipulative and yet charismatic. With a plan to usurp his brothers throne that is ripped right out of Shakespeare’s play book he is the perfect blend of the archetypal villain we love to hate.
Then between the two is the future king of Pride Rock, Simba. As a cub he is voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, who at the time was on the TV show Home Improvement , while as an adult he is voiced appropriately by Ferris Bueller star Matthew Broderick. Simba is clever, mischievous, adventurous, and curious. Half of which get him in trouble more times than it is worth. When he does get himself into trouble, the only way out is to be rescued by his father.
It is this very weakness that Scar exploits and leads to the tragic death of Mufasa which is perhaps one of most powerful deaths on a Disney film since Bambi’s mother died. It is not only Scar’s order to run away, but his guilt that causes Simba to run away from his destiny and from his father and the guilt that he feels. The rest of the story is then about him learning from his past as opposed to running from it, forgiving himself and learning the truth about what really happened so he can not only become the rightful king, but reconcile himself with his memories of his father.
Rounding up the cast are such colorful and memorable characters as Rafikki the wise old mandrill, Timon the meerkat, Zazu the hornbill, Pumpaa the warthog, and Simba’s girlfriend Nala. There is also the three hyenas Shinzi, Banzai, and Ed, Scar’s evil hench-creatures, who on at least one occasion make him roll his eyes and utter the classic villain lament, “I am surrounded by idiots.”
The animation is top notch and still holds up. Much as they did for the forest creatures in Bambi, Disney animators spent years studying real African wildlife in an attempt to bring a sense of realism to the characters, and to insure that they did not look like cheesy cartoon animals. The use of CGI is done sparingly, mainly to help enhance the movie’s beauty, handling more difficult scenes like a wildebeest stampede or the Ghost of Mufasa. Add to it some of the stirring vista shots, true-to life drawings of the African wilderness, pans and aerial footage, at times it feels like an animated National Geographic Special.
Then there is the music. Much has been written about the movies memorable songs, including “The Circle of Life”, “Hakuna Matata”, and the love theme “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.” Elton John and Tim Rice did a stellar job with the music, crafting brilliant and memorable songs , so much so that “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” has become a standard for weddings, proms, and Valentine’s Day. But as great as these songs are, special mention should go to the score by Hans Zimmer, now better known for his work on the Christopher Nolan Batman films. His score is joyous, exciting and perfectly captures an African feel in its instrumentation. This is, in my opinion one of his best scores.
20 years later the movie has led to three sequels, two animated series, a Broadway musical, and a host of undergraduate and graduate thesis papers comparing the story to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Richard II, and even Bible stories like Joseph and Moses. Parents have written to Disney to tell them how this movie helped them explain the concept of death to children, and how it helped even adults cope with loss. More importantly, it reminded us that we all have a place in this great circle of life.
While my love for some Disney movies would wan during my teenage years because they were largely seen as “girls movies”, or “kids stuff” Lion King was one I never stopped loving. It’s stunning score, breathtaking animation and wonderful characters were certainly a factor, but that relatable story of the bond between a father and son was what made it mean so much to me. Further as I got into college I began to relate to Simba’s journey as during my Freshman year there was even time in my life where I “forgot” who I was and tried to embrace the Hakuna Matata philosophy of life, only to reembrace my true destiny.
Maybe that’s why it still speaks to so many. There are times in our life when we forget who we are and what we are meant to do and settle for the grubs and bugs before us, and it’s only when we remember who we really are that we can take our place in life. There are times when our parents may not be physically with us, but their love, and guidance always goes with us. There are even those times in which we feel we have screwed up so badly in life that we can never go back and that our past is to painful, but yet for all of us there is a chance for healing, forgiveness and redemption if we only accept it and learn from it.
Thank you Lion King, for all you’ve given us. Enjoy your place in the great circle of Disney movies. You’ve earned it.