Personal Overview: I can remember a lot of fanfare about The Lion King when it was first released, mostly about the music, for which Elton John had contributed most of the songs in collaboration with musical maestro Tim Rice. The animation was touted as being something special, which it was. Then there was the voice cast. The Lion King didn’t just have one star member, it had a constellation. Home Improvement star Jonathan Taylor Thomas provided vocals for the young Simba and Matthew Broderick the older grown up version. The voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones was Simba’s father the wise Mustafa. Jeremy Irons voiced the dark and brooding Scar. Comedians Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin (in his second Disney film, he was the Chihuahua Ignacio in 1988’s Oliver and Company) voiced in order; Mustafa’s fussy hornbill major domo Zazu and the hyenas Shenzi and Banzai.
The story itself had a few origins. The basis for it was Hamlet with biblical influences from the stories of Joseph and Moses.
I can remember when first seeing it being totally wowed by the scenes of Africa and the depictions of the animals. I found out two things when I went to Africa on safari and spent most of my time there in Kenya. Hornbills really do look like Zazu and the phrase ‘Hakuna matata’ which means no worries in English really is a way of life in Kenya. I really like the song for that reason, because it’s so accurate.
It’s a grand story and in stark contrast to the lighter full out fun of Aladdin. Once again Disney showed that they were unafraid to tackle seeing an important character die. This time they killed not only a villain, but a hero as well. I think that one set a few people back on their heels. They managed to leaven it with comedy relief from the meerkat and warthog duo of Timon and Pumba as well as the eccentric mandrill shaman Rafiki doing his best Bruce Lee impersonation during a climactic fight scene. That was another gag that the kids didn’t quite get, but a lot of adults laughed at.
Hero/es: like with Aladdin this one is bursting with heroes. Simba as one of the Kings of the title. There are actually three Lion Kings in the film. Mustafa, prior to his untimely passing is one, the title is then usurped by his villainous brother Scar and eventually taken by the rightful holder in Simba. I’d argue that as well as comedy relief Timon and Pumba are heroes in their own way, as is Simba’s former playmate and eventual mate Nala and Zazu in the way he tries with Simba’s mother Sarabi, to hold things together during Mustafa’s disastrous reign.
Villain/s: by my count there were 4. Scar is the predominant one as the engineer of his brother’s death so he can take the title and rule over the plains, he also manages to drive his nephew away and arrange for his 3 hyena associates to do away with the lion cub, they of course fail, but think that he’ll perish away from the plains. The hyena leaders who are basically Scar’s lieutenants are the other 3 villains of this piece. Having actually seen hyena’s in the wild I think they get a bit of a bad rap. Lions are every bit as opportunistic and will eat carrion just as much as any hyena will.
Cuteness Factor: initially this is filled by Simba and Nala, because lion cubs are very cute. The scene where Nala tells Simba that he’s come in the middle of her bath, as her mother diligently licks her clean is absolutely precious. Later on it’s Timon and Pumba. Okay, Pumba isn’t exactly what you call cute, but Timon is both cute and amusing as real meerkats are.
Animation: you can really see the vast teeming plains of Africa in the animation in The Lion King. The visual ballets they do with the various animals during show stoppers like The Circle of Life are breathtaking, and as they often do, Disney took time to get the look of the animals right, even if the behaviour was changed for the film. Watching them quickly like this you’re struck with how far the animators art has come between The Jungle Book (1967) and this just under 30 years later.
Final Words: this could have been a very expensive flop. The studio went from it’s funny largely human peopled Aladdin and even moved away from the operatic and romantic feel of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast to do another animal story, but everything about it just worked. It became a huge success as a film and was even bigger as a stage musical and is still running on both Broadway and in London’s West End. If only they’d been able to add Nala to the Princess Franchise.