The Lion King (1994) Starring the voices of: Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Rowan Atkinson, Robert Guillame, Madge Sinclair, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings. Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. Screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton Produced by Don Hahn Run time: 88 minutes. US. Color. Animated, Musical, Adventure
The period between 1989 and 1999 is known as the Disney Renaissance. Following the death of founder Walt Disney in 1966 and Roy O. Disney in 1971, The Walt Disney Studios continued to produce animated films, but they did not perform as well or were not as critically acclaimed as their predecessors. Adding to Disney’s woes was the departure of long-time animator Don Bluth, who left during the making of The Fox and The Hound (1981) to form his own rival animation studio, Don Bluth Productions. For a time films produced by Don Bluth actually outperformed those from Disney, including The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986) and The Land Before Time (1988).
Changes began in 1984, when Michael Eisner and Jeffery Katzenberg, both formerly from Paramount and Frank Wells, formerly of Warner Bros., arrived on the mouse lot. After the failure of The Black Cauldron (1985), Disney animation seemed in jeopardy. In 1988, Oliver & Company opened against The Land Before Time, which went on to be, for a time, the top-grossing animated film of all-time.
With the help of Steven Spielberg, who had produced An American Tail and The Land Before Time, Disney released Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), a hybrid live action-animated film. That film’s success sparked renewed interest. Films, like The Little Mermaid (1989), which had been in development since the 1930’s, were greenlit and the Renaissance was on.
Conceived on a European promotional trip for Oliver & Company, The Lion King’s setting of Africa was jumped on by Katzenberg (a setting he would revisit as head of DreamWorks Animation with Madagascar I, II and III). It was Katzenberg who also added the elements of coming of age and death to this family feature. While this was the first Disney animated feature to be based on an original idea, the filmmakers did admit the story was influenced by the Bible’s Joseph (The 11th son of Jacob who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, but rose to the second most powerful man in Egypt next to the Pharaoh) and Moses (a former Egyptian prince and warrior turned religious leader, bringing the Jews out of slavery and receiving the Ten Commandments from God); as well as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (a tragedy wherein Prince Hamlet takes revenge on his uncle Claudius for murdering King Hamlet and taking the throne). Incidentally, the Bible and Shakespeare are two of Hollywood’s favorite source materials and just happen to be in the Public Domain.
In the Pride Lands of Africa, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Madge Sinclair) welcome the birth of their only child, a son named Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas). The whole jungle celebrates the arrival of their future sovereign, with one exception, the king’s younger brother Scar (Jeremy Irons). Having been displaced as next in line to the throne, Scar is jealous and resentful and does not attend the presentation at Pride Rock. And Mufasa is not pleased.
|Rafiki holds up baby Simba for all of the kingdom to see.|
Months go by and Simba grows into a curious cub. Mufasa starts training his son to rule in his place and takes him on a tour of the Pride Lands. He tries to teach his son that there are limits to the power of the king and that he has responsibilities to the other animals, even the ones they eat.
|The future king in training. Father and son look out over the kingdom.|
Scar takes advantage of Simba’s curiosity by enticing him to explore an elephant’s graveyard, which is just outside of the Pride Lands. Simba convinces his best friend, Nala, a female cub to go with him. But Queen Sarabi only gives her consent if Zazu (Rowan Atkinson), Mufasa’s hornbill (bird) majordomo, accompanies them. Knowing he would not approve, Simba and Nala manage to shake loose of Zazu and make it to the graveyard.
|Simba and Nala under the watchful eye of Zazu.|
But the Elephant’s graveyard is the domain of the Hyenas and three of them, Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg), Banzai (Cheech Marin) and Ed (Jim Cummings), attack the defenseless cubs. But Zazu has alerted Mufasa of the cubs' peril and the king arrives in time to ward off the attack. After the rescue, Mufasa forgives his son’s actions.
|The three Hyenas that attack Simba and Nala at the Elephant's Graveyard.|
Later that night, the hyenas plot with Scar to kill Mufasa and Simba. The next day, Scar lures Simba to a gorge and has him wait while he gets Mufasa. On Scar's orders, the hyenas stampede a large herd of wildebeest that run into the gorge towards Simba. While he tries to outrun them, he is no match for their speed and takes refuge in a tree. Mufasa arrives and saves Simba, but can’t get out of the gorge. He manages to climb to the ledge where Scar is watching and asks for his brother’s help. Scar reaches down for the King’s paws all right, but only to disengage them from the cliff and he throws Mufasa back into the stampede where he is killed.
|Simba narrowly escapes being trampled in the wildebeast stampede.|
Simba finds Mufasa's body and Scar convinces the young cub that Mufasa's death is his fault. He advises him to run away forever, which Simba does. And no sooner is he on the run than Scar orders the hyenas to kill him. But the hyenas lose the cub in a thick briar of thorns. Figuring Simba is as good as dead, the three stop their pursuit.
Scar then announces to the pride that both Mufasa and Simba were killed in the stampede and steps forward as the new king. He allows the hyenas to live in the Pride Lands, calling for co-habitation of Lions and Hyenas. (I’m not aware lions and hyenas are mortal enemies, so I’m assuming it’s a cat and dog sort of situation).
Simba collapses from exhaustion on the desert floor and is about to be picked apart by buzzards, when Timon (Nathan Lane), a meerkat, and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), a warthog, chase the birds away. After some discussion about helping a predator, Timon and Pumbaa nurse the cub back to health. Simba joins in the pair’s carefree existence in the jungle under the motto "hakuna matata" ("no worries"). Since this is a musical there is a song of the same name sung.
|Simba grows up sharing the carefree life of Timon and Pumbaa.|
Years pass and Simba (now voiced by Matthew Broderick), now a young adult, rescues Timon and Pumbaa from a hungry lioness, who turns out to be Nala (now voiced by Moira Kelly). The two friends reconcile and fall in love. Nala encourages Simba to come back home, telling him about the state of the Pride Lands under Scar’s rule. Once a lush jungle, it is now a wasteland with not enough food and water. But Simba’s guilt over causing his father's death still runs deep. Simba refuses Nala’s pleas and storms off.
|Now adults, Simba and Nala get reacquainted.|
Wise mandrill Rafiki (Robert Guillaume), a former adviser to Mufasa’s, senses Simba’s presence once again and tracks him down. Rafiki spouts some nonsense, but tells Simba that Mufasa is still "alive" and takes him to see him. But the trail ends at a pond where Rafiki convinces the boy that Mufasa lives on in him. Then Simba is visited by the ghost of Mufasa who appears in the clouds in the sky. Mufasa tells Simba that he must take his rightful place as the true king of the Pride Lands. Convinced, Simba realizes he can no longer run from his past and goes back home with Nala, Timon, and Pumbaa in tow ready for a fight.
At the Pride Lands, Simba confronts Scar, who once again taunts about his "part" in Mufasa's death. But in the confrontation, Scar admits to Simba that he killed Mufasa. Enraged, Simba forces Scar to reveal the truth to the other lions. Timon, Pumbaa, Rafiki, Zazu, and the lionesses fend off the hyenas while Simba corners Scar at the top of Pride Rock.
Scar then begs Simba to show him mercy, saying he is family and places the blame on the hyenas for what he’s done. Simba who doesn’t believe Scar still spares his life, but commands him to forever leave the Pride Lands. Scar meekly walks past him, but then attacks his nephew. In the ensuing fight, Simba throws Scar off Pride Rock. Even though Scar survives the fall, he is attacked and killed by the hyenas, who have overheard his betrayal.
|Scar in the final fight with Simba. More scary imagery for the kids.|
With Simba now in charge over the kingdom, the rain falls again. Later we see that the Pride Lands have once again returned to their former glory. Simba looks down happily at his kingdom with Nala, Timon, and Pumbaa by his side as Rafiki presents a newborn cub to the inhabitants of the Pride Lands and the "circle of life" continues.
Seeing as this is a musical, the songs are very important. Having written the songs for Aladdin, lyricist Tim Rice was asked to write songs for The Lion King. When his Aladdin co-writer, Alan Menken, wasn’t available, Rice chose Elton John as his partner. Influenced by the Jungle Book (1967), John and Rice tried to write fun and catchy songs they thought would appeal to the children the film was aimed at, as well as the parents that brought them. Together they composed five songs that were used in the movie: “The Circle of Life”, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”, “Be Prepared”, “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, the last one sung by John over the closing credits. “Morning Report”, a sixth song, was rescued for the subsequent stage musical.
While The Lion King was aimed at children, the movie covers some very dark subjects like death and murder. It’s hard to imagine a film featuring cold-blooded premeditated assassination would receive a G rating from the MPAA. No doubt there is a little magic pixie dust in play with that decision.
I always find it hard to critique acting from voice-talent, since they are reading lines with emotion, but not acting in the traditional sense. That said, Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella provide comedic relief. Lane would eventually be teamed with Broderick on Broadway, but not in the Disney musical based on the film, but rather in The Producers based on the first film from Mel Brooks and later in a revival of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.
Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings make for a menacing trio of hyenas, while James Earl Jones delivers his lines as Mufasa with the authority we’ve learned to give his voice. (He was Darth Vader and the voice of CNN prior, not to mention an accomplished actor in his own right.)
While there is a lot to like about The Lion King, even with the dark interludes, my only real criticism is the film’s reliance on the sadly tried and true standards of belching and farting for kids films. The warthog could smell without having to be flatulent. Instead of trying to elevate the discourse, this cliché is aiming at the lowest common denominator and really doesn’t belong in a Disney film. I’m pretty sure Walt would not have approved of the idea.
Along with the accolades, the film did win Academy Awards for Best Score (Hans Zimmer) and Best Original Song (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight”), but there is also some controversy as well. Certain elements of the film were thought to resemble those used in a 1960’s Japanese Anime Kimba the White Lion. Despite similarities in composition and camera angles, Tezuka Productions settled out of court, rather than go to trial against the much larger Disney Corporation.
Some Christians were upset when they thought they saw the word SEX spelled out in dust flying in the sky. The animators claim the word is SFX, shorthand for special effects. I have to admit, I didn’t really notice the word either way.
|What word do you see? Or did you even notice?|
And the depiction of Hyenas was protested as well, with one researcher going so far as to sue Disney for defamation of character. Some people apparently have too much time on their hands.
Despite these protests, the film would go on to be a huge success for Disney, along with subsequent releases in IMAX in 2002 and 3D in 2011; the box office cume is a little below a billion dollars.
The film’s success led to a TV Series for Timon & Pumbaa, which ran in syndication for three years and 85 episodes, though neither Lane nor Sabella reprised their roles. There was also a made-for-video sequel The Lion King II: Simba's Pride in 1998; video games: The Lion King (1994), and Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, where Pride Lands is a playable world; and of course, the inevitable Broadway musical, which opened in 1997 and is still playing to this day.
As a parent, I wouldn’t show this film to small or sensitive children. This is a hard G and really should be spared until the child is old enough to handle some of the film’s darker subject lines. After that, I would say this is definitely a film worth watching, if not for the entire family.