Is this your first time reading the blog? Catch up with the Disney Canon HERE!
Well, I knew this moment was going to come, and so I have to talk about The Lion King. I was kind of dreading this moment; not because I don’t like the movie (quite the contrary), but because I have such a long and tight relationship with it that I simply don’t know how I could talk about it in any critical terms. This is the very first movie I saw on the big screen. I don’t have memories of the event itself, since I was only two years old at the time, but I certainly liked it enough to have repeatedly watched the film on VHS for the next eight or nine years of my life. In my discovery of Disney and its movies, I clung to the movie as sort of totem (just like other people I know clung to The Little Mermaid or Toy Story). The Lion King not only was my favorite movie for the longest part of my life, it was also a movie through which I came to understand movies and cinema as a whole.
I’ve watched the movie so many times, I know the plot from beginning to end. I know the exact order of the scenes, almost all of the dialogue, the beats. I just know this movie like the palm of my hand. In the years when I was becoming more and more of a cinephile, The Lion King was the story through which I understood the mechanics of plot, main characters, motivation, villains, love interests and sidekicks. Elements that are not present in the more avant-garde films in cinema history, but parts of a movie’s narrative that help me understand the language of story telling. I will try to be as objective as possible in the following paragraphs, but if the piece ends up feeling like the Chris Farley Show, at least you’ll know why. It’s hard for me to put aside the feelings I have to The Lion King, and the lessons I learned from it, like how effective the beginning of a movie can be.
That first image of the sun rising up in the savannah set to the african chants has become as iconic and culturally prevalent a cinematic moment as the crawling text of Star Wars or Indiana Jones running from the big rock at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Just loudly sing anything close to “naants ingoya!” and everyone will now what you’re referencing. The fact that The Lion King has remained in the public consciousness is unarguable. There is a whole generation that grew up on the films of the Disney Renaissance and none of those films seems to have been as influential to them as The Lion King. When it came out in 1994, the movie became the biggest success Disney had ever had, and it remains the highest grossing traditionally animated film of all time. Popularity at the time of its release, however, is not enough to justify a film’s cultural legacy; at least not to the degree The Lion King stands above its contemporaries.
I Googled Disney’s biggest Renaissance films and this is what I got: 56 million results for The Little Mermaid, 60 million for Beauty and the Beast, just 9 million for Aladdin (a surprisingly low number, but that’s a story for another time). None of those numbers are small by any means, but they all pale in comparison to the more than 200 million results I got for The Lion King! There is, without question, something that makes audiences connect to The Lion King, and as someone who holds the movie so dear to my heart, I refuse to think it’s only nostalgia that is playing a role here. If I have to find a purpose to this post, then it might as well be trying to find out what is it exactly that makes the difference in The Lion King’s cultural dominance.
Let’s start at the very beginning. Watch the video of “Circle of Life” I embed a couple paragraphs ago, and you’ll see why someone who is watching the film for the first time would be drawn in. There are very few places in which I’ve seen more beautiful animation. I mean, that shot of the ants and the zebras is insanely gorgeous. Since the movie has become such a cultural giant, it has also gained a lot of detractors, but even they can’t argue with the fact that The Lion King is a beautiful movie to look at. It is the absolute pinnacle of the Disney Renaissance as far as technical proficiency is concerned. I talked last week about how Aladdin already showed the animators comfortable with the rhythms of producing a new movie every year and the best integration of the CAPS (computer animation) technology so far. Well, for as technically great as Aladdin is, The Lion King makes it look rather unimpressive. The stampede that comes roughly at the halfway mark of the movie, and is simply the best use the studio made of CAPS up to that point, and the animators make a wonderful use of color and geometric design in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”.
Considering how visually outstanding and technically flawless the film is, as well as for its rather epic plot, it’s really weird to hear that back in the day this was regarded as the black sheep amongst the studio’s projects. It was developed at the same time as Pocahontas, and since it wasn’t based on a pre-existing property, and it didn’t have as an immediate hook as the Romeo and Juliet-like plot of Pocahontas, the executives believed the movie wasn’t probably going to be a huge success. The Lion King was the project nobody at Disney really wanted to be working on. Beauty and the Beast‘s producer Don Hahn was put in charge of the project, with directorial duties going to Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. We know, of course, how things turned out, but the massive success of the film was a big surprise.
It was advertised as the first Disney film to not be based on a pre-existing story, but The Lion King is basically an adaptation of both William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Disney’s own Bambi. The influence of the latter on The Lion King, I think, is gigantic. I am on the record as not being the biggest fan of Bambi, but there is no question it is an absolutely beautiful movie to see. It shows Walt’s classic studio working at its peak, with art direction and character animation that are virtually flawless. The animators followed a lot of the procedures used to make Bambi such a visually striking film, including the observation of lions in order to get he most realistic animation possible. They also got a lot of their story beats from that film. The similarities between Bambi and Simba’s journeys are numerous, to say the least. From the movie opening with all the animals coming to meet the young prince, to their early curiosity as children, the loss of a parent and their comeback to become king.
One of the film’s detractors main complaint is that Simba, as a character, is rather dull. I can’t argue that is pretty bland, but even if he is a little too vanilla, I think the movie does a good enough job of giving him enough personality to make us care about his journey. His personal arch is far clearer than most of Disney’s male heroes. He is a young kid who encounters the darker side of life and must learn to stand up to his problems and embrace his responsibility. It’s a coming of age story, basically. Also, compare Simba to Aladdin, for example, and you’ll see he has a few flaws in his personality that make him more interesting. As a cub, he’s a little bit of a brat and when he becomes an adult, well he has the whole running from responsibility thing.
As far as the influences of Hamlet on the film, well, they are a little more limited. They can be reduced mainly to the fact that Simba sees his father as a ghost and the villainous role of his uncle Scar. I think at the end of the day the heart of the matter is not that Simba is a bland character, but that Scar is such a great one. I talked last week about Andreas Deja, whom I learned about as the animator of Disney’s villains. He is the supervising animator in charge of Scar, his greatest creation ever. Like Ratigan and Jafar before him, he continues the line of theatrical and ostentatious villains. Jeremy Irons’ mellow and campy voice work in the role, as well as the flamboyant animation have long been regarded as hints that the character might be a homosexual. Whatever his sexuality, Scar is a fascinating character to watch, probably the best in the movie, and he gets a musical number worthy of a theater queen.
While we’re on the subject, this is a good time to talk about the film’s music. The music for the songs was famously composed by Elton John, with lyrics by Tim Rice. I already talked about Rice last week, and how he was far from the ideal replacement for the late Howard Ashman in Aladdin. I could say that Sir Elton and Rice’s compositions don’t quite measure up to the standard set by Ashman and Alan Menken in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but then again, who could? Listening to the songs as an adult, it’s easy to notice they are mostly good, or just ok, and never great. None are terrible songs, but they mostly just serviceable, with not very inspired melodies and pretty lacking in the lyrics department. The one exception, I think, is “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”, which has an infectious upbeat rhythm and kind of clever rhymes. If you are a huge fan of the movie and refuse to admit the songs aren’t all that good, let me point you to something I said earlier in this post: What is the single musical cue in The Lion King people remember the most?
The answer, of course, is that Zulu chant at the beginning of “Circle of Life”. Not many people outside Disney fans know the lyrics to “Circle of Life”, but everybody knows the chanting at the beginning. It’s composer Hans Zimmer’s arrangements and the African influence in their instrumentation that elevates the songs throughout the film. Zimmer is a composer who is much maligned lately (and rightfully so) for re-doing the same emotionally relentless score over and over again, and although his recent work is not such a great indication, he can be pretty great when he wants to. Case in point, I would point out to his score of The Lion King, for which he won his one and only Oscar, as the best work of his career. Whatever the film is lacking in the songwriting department, it makes up for it in ther musicalization and the visuals that are paired up with them. Take, for instance, the allusions to facism and Triumph of the Will in the way the hyenas march during “Be Prepared” and that moment in the middle of “Hakuna Matata” in which we see a silhouetted Simba growing up while he walks across a tree trunk and the day turns into night. That last one ranks amongst the most iconic and beautiful moments in any Disney movie.
This brings me to the last big thing I wanted to talk about in ragard to The Lion King, and that is the comedy. Before re-watching the movie, and especially after finally seeing the Broadway production last year, I was expecting the humor to be one of the weakest part of the movie. Despite Disney getting squeezing every penny they can out of Timon and Pumba, who are the biggest comedic force of the film and its breakthrough characters, the comedy in the movie is much more limited and well balanced than I anticipated. Yes, Pumba as a character pretty much introduces fart jokes into the Disney Canon, but the I personally think that, for the most part, this movie has comedy and drama standing in perfect balance. The way the theatrical production can’t seem to integrate its broad comedy in a way that makes the drama work was making me fear The Lion King was a step closer to something as lacking in good use of comedy as Shrek, so I was very glad my fears were unfounded. It’s true that the popularity of Timon and Pumba (and of Aladdin’s Genie before them) made animation look for bigger and grander comic relief for their movies, but at least in this movie, that is not a problem.
Like most questions about taste, I think there is no good answer as to why the public loves The Lion King so much. What I can say, though, is what I think makes the movie so great, and its in the little details. The plot and characters are good, but not far above those of The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast. What’s undeniable is that The Lion King is superbly made, and this actually provides the film with many inspired details that make the difference. What are some of these details I’m talking about? Well, I already talked about the rising sun at the beginning, the shot with the ants and the zebras and the way they convey Simba growing up. Add to that the moment in which Simba tries to scare the Hyenas and his roar is echoed by his father’s, or how when he comes back Scar and his mother initially think he is Mufasa. I think at the end of the day it’s those details that drive the film’s message home and announce its quality to those who watch it. It’s not a perfect film. It’s not the best film in the Disney Canon, but what can I do? I love The Lion King, but you already know that.
Next: Disney was at the top of the world, and wanted to go even higher with Pocahontas.