Should I Watch..? The Lion King
What's the big deal?
The Lion King is a musical animation film released in 1994 and is the 32nd animated feature film released by Walt Disney Studios. The film is partly inspired by William Shakespeare's Hamlet but was the first Disney film to be based around an original story. The film takes place in Africa where a young lion called Simba must overcome his angst over the death of his father, the king in order to depose a tyrannical rival. The cast includes Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane and Cheech Marin. The film incorporated several scenes featuring CG animation alongside traditional animation, most notably during the wildebeest stampede. Released to a positive reception from critics, the film became the highest earner of the year and would go on to earn more than $968 million worldwide. It would also spawn the creation of a Lion King franchise including a number of sequels and prequels and a hugely successful Broadway adaptation.
What's it about?
In the heart of Africa, a pack of lions rule over all other creatures around Pride Rock. The king, Mufasa, celebrates the birth of his son Simba who will one day grow up to be king and take his place. However, Mufasa's younger brother Scar desires the throne for himself and Simba's arrival means that he now misses out on ever becoming king. Simba initially disregards his responsibilities and has to be rescued by Mufasa after getting tricked by Scar and his hyena cohorts into venturing into the dangerous elephant's graveyard.
With his plan thwarted, Scar arranges a wildebeest stampede which once again places Simab in mortal danger. Alerted by his faithful servant, the hornbill Zazu, Mufasa races to rescue his son once again but is betrayed by Scar and falls to his doom. Wracked with guilt, Simba is warned by Scar to flee and never return - a decision which leads to Scar's ascendency to the throne. Lost and alone, Simba must learn to accept his responsibilities as well as a few life lessons along the way from an unlikely pair of friends, the warthog Pumbaa and the meerkat Timon...
Jonathon Taylor Thomas
James Earl Jones
Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff
Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts & Linda Woolverton *
Release Date (UK)
7th October, 1994
Animation, Drama, Family, Musical
Best Original Score, Best Original Song ("Can You Feel The Love Tonight")
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Song ("Hakuna Matata"), Best Original Song ("Circle Of Life")
What's to like?
Emerging from the studios at the height of their renaissance in the late Eighties and early Nineties, The Lion King is a study in the power of animation. Combining a great story with gorgeous animation, a timeless soundtrack and a truly brilliant voice cast, the film shows you how far Disney has come from the olden days of retelling fairy-tales and producing derivative TV shows. It shows the confidence of the studio to produce an original story and use CG alongside traditional animation instead of swamping the production in digital gloss. The artwork generates real warmth with the golden colours of the African savannah and the brightly coloured characters within the film.
The film is awash with perfect casting from top to bottom - even James Earl Jones manages to escape his past as Darth Vader to provide a regal tone to Mufasa - but none of them manages to better the soundtrack. Written by Elton John and Time Rice, each song has the power to stand out on its own while also incorporating African choirs and instruments to further the film's atmosphere. With Broadway-style numbers like I Just Can't Wait To Be King to the powerful ballads Circle Of Life and Can You Feel The Love Tonight, the film is a veritable treat for the ears as well as the eyes. Finally, a special mention to Irons' performance as Scar - rarely has a Disney villain been so dastardly and so wonderfully voiced. He encapsulates the role so well that you can almost see him beneath Scar's feline frame but he still manages to get some laughs in as well.
- The film was the highest grossing film worldwide in 1994 and was second only to Forrest Gump in the US. It was also the second highest grossing movie in history at that time. It is still the biggest selling home video release of all time, a record unlikely to be broken since the demise of the format.
- An alternative version of Can You Feel The Love Tonight was to have been sung between Timon and Pumbaa according to the original storyboards. Both Elton John and Time Rice were shocked by this and lobbied to have the song intended for Simba and Nala.
- The film contains the first ever murder shown in a Disney film - every other film featured such acts happening off-screen or through implication.
What's not to like?
Given the film's reputation and the deserved five-star rating above, this may seem controversial but I am in the happy position of having seen this film both as a child and an adult. And as a child, I felt that the middle of the picture sagged a bit once the suggestive romance between Simba and Nala began. Despite the presence of comic sidekicks Timon and Pumbaa, the film suddenly stops becoming exciting and deals with dull grown-up concepts like responsibility, community and destiny. Of course, I'm older and wiser now (and considerably bigger, I might add!) and I can appreciate the film as a whole but younger viewers might find their attention wandering during the film's slower moments.
On a personal level, I would have liked more of the delicious performance Irons delivers as the baddie-for-the-ages Scar but other than that, I can't find much wrong with the picture. It was a brave decision Disney took with this film, a film with an original story and characters and set in a culture very different from most of its audience. But I applaud bravery, especially when it pays off. Disney could have played it safe but by pushing the envelope and the technology available to them (the stampede scene is truly chaotic and dizzying to watch), they have delivered a classic. Kids aren't stupid and recognise a good film when they see one and like the more modern Frozen, they will appreciate this movie and sing its songs for years to come.
Should I watch it?
The fact that so much of the film has passed into popular culture - the dramatic and graceful opening scene, the songs, the characters - probably demonstrates the film's staying power and brilliance. The Lion King is Disney at its very best, combining a decent story with memorable characters and unforgettable songs to create a film that rightfully remains king of the jungle. Younger viewers might not pick up on the more subtle themes in the movie but family viewing doesn't get much better than this.
Great For: families, zoo keepers, African audiences, merchandising opportunities
Not So Great For: very young children, anyone scared of big cats
What else should I watch?
Disney have enjoyed a long and unrivalled success in the art of animated feature films, ever since Walt himself produced Snow White And The Seven Dwarves back in 1937. Most of Disney's back catalogue remains thoroughly entertaining fare although a certain amount of caution is recommended for older films like Dumbo which has a slightly out-dated view on race relations that may cause offence. As the company grew, the quality of their output wavered somewhat with films like Pocahontas, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Brother Bear all disappointing.
Nowadays, Disney tend to fall back on producing films and concentrate more on distributing animation from other studios - chiefly the work of CG-animators Pixar. Since the mid-Nineties, Pixar have led the way with their pioneering work in CG while others have trailed in their wake. Among Pixar's greatest works are the beautiful sci-fi epic WALL·E, the highly emotive Up and the film that started the whole gig off, 1995's Toy Story.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox