The Lion King (1994)
Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton
Directed by Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff
I just never saw the original Lion King. I was 13 when the film came out, and in our large family, we couldn’t afford a lot of theater trips. My siblings watched Beauty and the Beast to an absurd level so that film dominated the Disney obsession our home. With the release of the computer-animated remake this weekend, I thought it was a good time to finally watch this seminal animated movie, which is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary this year.
You all likely know the plot, and I knew all the major beats just from cultural osmosis over the years, but for those of you out of the loop: Young Simba is the prince of the Pridelands in complete awe and admiration of his father, King Mufasa. Slinking around in the shadows is Scar, Simba’s uncle, who has designs on taking the throne for himself. Using an alliance with the hyenas, Scar manages to cause tragedy and drive Simba out. However, Simba befriends Timon and Pumba, a meerkat and warthog, respectively who help him work past his guilt and fears so he can reclaim the throne one day.
This is a Disney film that sticks out from the majority. For the longest time, Disney made adaptations of popular fairy tales starting with the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. Eventually, they branched to novels like Pinocchio and Bambi and continued to dabble in different literature. The Lion King isn’t based on a singular piece of storytelling but combines elements of the Christian Bible and Shakespeare’s Hamlet to tell a very primal story with tons of archetypes and mythic imagery. The Lion King is an original story but is composed of very familiar components.
Not a lot happens in The Lion King, and the world feels relatively small. The opening of the film features the widest variety of animals in the picture, and the rest feels very unpopulated for the African savannah. This is due to the limitations of cel animation. Whereas in computer animation cutting and pasting to create larger numbers of on-screen characters is a matter of a few clicks, hand-drawn animation means you’re going to get the main and supporting characters, and that’s it. It’s also very short as most Disney movies are, clocking in around 80 minutes, so that third act feels somewhat rushed. The actual effect Scar has on the Pridelands doesn’t get much depth; he sort of makes things generally miserable and ugly.
The voice acting by James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons as Mufasa and Scar respectively is fantastic. Both actors have a depth of control and command with their voice and can put nuance into their performances. Mufasa is powerful but gentle, his love for Simba is apparent, but he can also roar and put fear into the hyenas. Scar is obviously the villain, but he’s also sly and charismatic, you can see how the character can convince people to follow him while thinking they are making the decisions.
The songs are classics, of course, and it was odd hearing them in a different voice from Elton John’s who I was most familiar with singing them. They follow a classic Broadway musical structure, being used to illuminate the inner thoughts of their characters. There aren’t a lot of songs; it feels like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast had more, but I could be misremembering those other pictures. I wasn’t very impressed with Hans Zimmer’s score though; it sounded artificial, electronic over a real orchestra. There are some moments of brilliance, but the songs are the high point over the score.
The Lion King is a pretty decent movie, but I feel like I missed the boat by coming to it so late. I’ve found the same is true about The Goonies, a film I watched over and over as a kid but have seen adults who watch it for the first time coming away unimpressed. For certain movies, you need childhood nostalgia to enshrine them in this place of sanctity. The Lion King is something I plan on showing to my niece and nephew, but it will likely never be one of my favorite films.