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Disney Sundays: The Lion King (1994)

          Without a doubt, the defining Disney movie of my generation was The Lion King! Not only was it the highest grossing animated film up to that point, but EVERYONE had seen it, loved it, and had some personal connection with the film’s characters or themes. It was the latest Disney movie my home had on VHS and most other kids I knew had it as well. And admittedly though I don’t think it was my favourite Disney movie even then, it was watched more than any of the other Disney animated movies we owned!
          So yeah, The Lion King is a movie I like most people my age, know very well. It’s left a massive impact on Disney and animation in general being one of the most famous films of the art. But is it really like the box office, critics, and audiences would seem to suggest, a pinnacle of animation? 
          Let’s take a look at the story: Simba is a young lion being reared to one day become the King of the Pride (to whom all the animals of the Savannah including the prey seem to worship). He has a very close relationship with his father Mufasa who teaches him about the circle of life. However his uncle Scar plots to overthrow them both and become King himself. With the unintentional aid of young Simba, Scar (spoiler alert for the couple larvae out there who don’t know) kills Mufasa and guilts Simba into thinking it’s his fault, causing him to run away. However as Simba grows into an adult far outside the Pride Lands it becomes apparent he’ll have to fulfil his destiny and become King.
          What a lot of kids (myself included) didn’t realize until later in life is that The Lion King is basically an adaptation of Hamlet. I really feel I should point that out because many people seem to think it’s one of Disney’s few (by that time) original stories. But that being said The Lion King is still one of Disney’s most unique and ambitious films. As much as I love films like Bambi and Beauty and the Beast, there are other similar Disney movies with which to compare them favourably to. There is no other Disney movie like The Lion King and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so beloved. And of all the stories to adapt, Hamlet is a pretty damn good one, and Disney managed to do it in a way that’s appropriate for and resonant with children while also knowing just when to be dark and brutal for the sake of its message.
          That message being the importance owning up to your responsibilities and not running from the past; it’s reiterated literally a number of times in the movie. It’s a theme that’s well done except for one minor technicality: Simba didn’t do anything. All the guilt the audience is supposed to understand through him and the whole reason behind him running from the past is a fallacy because he isn’t actually responsible for Mufasa’s death. Those circumstances were all put in place by Scar, so even though Simba believes he’s finally doing right when he learns this lesson, in reality there was no reason for him to experience it in the first place. Accepting responsibility for what you did wrong is a good message, but it’s best to convey it by actually having the protagonist do something wrong. You can argue that this journey is an atonement for Simba’s childhood recklessness, but that’s not quite enough. The film’s focal point is the death of Mufasa and how it affects Simba. Even if he had just a little more of a hand in it, it could work. If it really was his roar that caused the wildebeest stampede for instance or if he had brought Mufasa to the gorge himself. Clearly Disney wanted to solidify Scar as a villain and have that money shot of him tossing Mufasa while saying “long live the king” (it is admittedly pretty terrific), but it hurts the films’ central theme. As is, it’s a moral that still holds weight and works enough for kids (I know when I was a kid I just took the moral as owning up to responsibilities in general, in Simba’s case, just becoming king), but that logical misstep makes the “learning from your mistakes” lesson hollow for adults.
          Apart from that though the movie is very compelling -in fact up to the scene in the gorge I’d definitely rank it with Disney’s very best. And I admire that it actually gets dark at times. The elephant graveyard and hyena chase were frightening when I was young, and still today are pretty impressive. The hyenas are great henchmen, the first in Disney (and perhaps the only ones) who are plenty threatening in their own right and fully capable of taking out the main villain whom they have no real loyalty to. And of course there’s the big scene of Mufasa’s death which builds very well to it’s tragic climax. I will say though, and I’m not trying to boast, but I never cried over his demise. I’m not entirely sure why it didn’t elicit tears the way Bambi’s mother or Littlefoot’s mother did. Maybe it’s something to do with mothers, or maybe I just expected it with how much it was being foreshadowed. But it is a scene that leaves an impact regardless, and I understand completely why so many get emotional over it.
          The cast of The Lion King is magnificent! Who better to voice a lion than James Earl Jones! Every word spoken in that booming voice has a sense of power and wisdom behind it. And bear in mind, by 1994 Jones was still best known as Darth Vader, so to play this opposite a father figure and make it work was really impressive. I can’t decide who steals the movie more, James Earl Jones or Jeremy Irons! Irons is fantastic as Scar! In a film that’s very Shakespearean there needed to be a Shakespeare-calibre performance for the villain, and Irons delivers fully on the malice, treachery, cunning, and even pathos of the character, making him pretty cool and another to add to the line-up of great Disney villains. To this day despite his many great live-action roles Irons is still recognized most for voicing Scar! As for Simba I’ll admit it, I actually like Jonathan Taylor Thomas. I think there’s a believability to his mischief and his emotional responses are pretty spot on. His adult counterpart Matthew Broderick is perfectly serviceable and Moira Kelly and Niketa Calame are both alright as Nala. Rafiki voiced by Robert Guillaume who I remember annoyed me as a kid, I like a lot more now despite how much he hammers you over the head with the message. My favourite performance though has to be Rowan Atkinson as Zazu -but Atkinson’s my favourite comedian and one of my heroes, so to me he makes every movie he’s in just a little better. Madge Sinclair is great for the little time she has as Sarabi. Whoopi Goldberg is an unusual choice for Disney’s first female henchman but she’s really good, as is Cheech Marin (whose talents are put to much better use than in Oliver & Company) and Jim Cummings. Maybe one of my few disappointments watching this film again though is that Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa aren’t as funny as I remember. They’re an okay duo but they don’t get the laughs they used to. It might have to do with them being more pop culture aware than the rest of the cast which is distracting at times.
          A couple of Timon and Pumbaa’s song bits are trying as well. Though their impromptu luau song I’ll always find funny, that “Lion Sleeps Tonight” bit (as well as the couple ditties Zazu started singing in captivity) are pointless. The songs by Tim Rice and Elton John are certainly nothing like what we’ve gotten from Disney before. I love “Circle of Life” and would put it up with the best Disney songs; it builds the mood and atmosphere of this grand story perfectly to an awesome momentum, and all before the title even appears. “Be Prepared” I also really like with it’s detailed lyrics and Nazi imagery. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is a decent if sappy love song and though “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” isn’t good, I enjoy it purely for my Rowan Atkinson bias (though like Beauty and the Beast there was one song cut from most versions, “Morning Report” also sung by Atkinson that even I think is too terrible). Ironically the song that everyone remembers most from the movie is the one I actually don’t like. “Hakuna Matata” is unfocussed, takes too many detours, and by the film’s own admission is espousing a negative virtue. If kids leave The Lion King remembering that song more than the moral, they’re retaining the opposite of what the filmmakers intended (I also never really liked how cavalier Timon and Pumbaa were about eating bugs). But forget about the songs, the musical score by Hans Zimmer for this movie is epic and incredible! I actually want to buy the soundtrack I just get mesmerized by it. 
          It’s almost as mesmerizing as the animation. Aside from just how close the designs match real animals, the scope of this movie is just incredible. It feels like a Disney epic the scale of which I don’t think I’ve felt since Fantasia -hell it even surpasses that. You really get an idea of the vastness of the Pride Lands and it’s a spectacle to behold. Like Beauty and the Beast there are plenty of scenes you can just get lost in. The wildebeest stampede looks terrific, most of the song sequences do too, the night encounter between Simba and Rafiki, and so on. My two favourite scenes visually are that opening “Circle of Life” scene and the closing where Simba takes his place on Pride Rock. It’s stunning, and it’s just classic Disney!
          While I may not like it quite as much as when I was a kid, I can see why The Lion King was the monster hit that it was. There really is some specialness to it that anyone can latch onto. Though a couple of the characters aren’t as fun as I remember, and there is a major plot hole that derails a principal moral for an attentive or adult audience, I still love it. Is it the nostalgia talking? A little, but I do believe my problems with it are fewer than everything it does so so well. I might hesitate to declare it one of Disney’s all-time bests, but for what it was and the effect it had, The Lion King is still a peak few Disney movies have surmounted since.

Next Week: Pocahontas (1995)

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