Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 15 June 1994
In April 1994, I visited the Walt Disney World Resort with my family. At the end of the Backstage Studio Tour at the Disney-MGM Studios, we were ushered into a small theater. There, we were treated to the entire opening sequence from the upcoming animated feature The Lion King.
I was astounded. The song "Circle of Life," together with the outstanding animation, both of which culminated in a resounding thump as the main title appeared -- it was probably the most powerful piece of animation I'd ever seen.
It remains powerful today and is still an exemplary work. The opening sequence set the tone for the entire film, which went on to become Disney's most successful.
The Lion King easily broke the record for an opening weekend by an animated feature and became many children's favorite film on video. Although it's hard to compare, it probably matched (if not exceeded) the popularity of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney's first animated feature. The reasons for this are many. The animation, the music, the writing, and the acting were all superb, coming together all in the same movie -- a rare feat.
The story is fairly simple. After a cub, Simba, is born to the current Lion King, Mufasa, Mufasa's brother Scar realizes he'll never ascend to the throne. He plots with a group of hyenas to kill the other two lions, but Simba escapes, conviced he was responsible for his father's death. Scar takes over the pride, but runs the pridelands to ruin. Simba must face his fears, his past, and his uncle to save the pridelands and take his place as king.
The songs this time were not as many as in past features, but they fit in perfectly. Alan Menken, who had written all of the music for the past three Disney films, had lost his long-time lyricist Howard Ashman to AIDS during the creation of the songs for Aladdin. So instead of Menken, Disney tapped famed rock artist and composer Elton John to compose the songs for The Lion King. Tony-winner Tim Rice, the Broadway lyricist who took over for Ashman for Aladdin, collaborated with John on the songs. Hans Zimmer wrote the score and arranged John's works. All three can take credit for the excellent soundtrack.
The opening song, "Circle of Life," is, as stated above, a powerful opening and fits perfectly with the animation, showing all the animals of the savannah coming to Pride Rock to see the new prince. "I Just Can't Wait to be King" is an inventive comedy song. "Be Prepared" is the best villain's song since "Poor Unfortunate Souls" (The Little Mermaid), full of creative lyrics and accompanied by wonderfully dark imagery. "Hakuna Matata" is a great comedy song, wherein Simba's new friends Timon and Pumbaa convince him to have "no worries" and forget his former life. And the requisite love ballad, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" is mercifully short, ending with a bit of humor from Timon and Pumbaa to keep the mood light.
Elton John recorded successful pop versions (with very different lyrics from Tim Rice) of "Circle of Life," "I Just Can't Wait to be King," and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."
The success of the songs, particularly "Be Prepared" and "Hakuna Matata," is largely due to the excellent voice work. Disney went all-out for this film and recruited many big names as actors. James Earl Jones' unmistakeable voice leads the cast as Mufasa. Jeremy Irons is suitably cunning as Scar. Young "Home Improvement" star Jonathan Taylor Thomas voiced young Simba, with Matthew Broderick as the adult Simba. Broadway veteran Nathan Lane is perfect as the hyperactive meerkat Timon. Rowan Atkinson, better known as "Mr. Bean," voiced Mufasa's major-domo Zazu. Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin (previously Tito in Oliver and Company) voiced two of the hyenas. And last but not least, "Benson" himself, Robert Guillaume gave voice to the baboon shaman Rafiki. No doubt such top-caliber voice talent cost Disney a lot of money, but it was worth it.
The film was showered with awards. It won the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Score (Hans Zimmer). "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," "Circle of Life," and "Hakuna Matata" were nominated for Best Music, Song, and "Can You Feel" won. It also won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Comedy/Musical.
The Lion King has had one sequel: The Lion King 2: Simba's Pride, wherein Simba's daughter Kiara and one of Scar's exiled sons meet and fall in love; Romeo and Juliet-type conflicts result. Also, Timon and Pumbaa, the sarcastic meerkat and the flatulent warthog, were given their own television series, which chronicled their wacky adventures in the jungle.
This film was also the second of Disney's animated features to be turned into a Broadway musical (after Beauty and the Beast). Featuring additional songs (by Rice and John) and extremely innovative staging, costume design, and choreography (for which Garth Fagan won a Tony), it's become the most successful of Disney's three shows to date (the third is Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida).
The Lion King is probably the zenith of the new age of Disney Animated Features. The subsequent films have not been nearly as successful as this one, and Disney seems to still be searching to recapture the magic they found this time around. Not to say any of the recent films have been bad, but they must be lacking somthing -- that something that The Lion King posesses that makes it the beloved classic it is.
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.
12 January 2001:
Last night, I watched the IMAX re-release of Beauty and the Beast. Before the movie, they showed the trailer for the IMAX re-release of The Lion King, which will be Christmas Day 2002. This new trailer is identical to the old one I mention above, just bigger -- and it still looks great, and it is still one of the most powerful and most moving pieces of animation ever created.
16 September 2011:
The Lion King was released to theaters on September 16, after being converted to 3D. It was the top film at the box office throughout its two-week run. It became the first re-issue to reach the top spot since Star Wars Episode IV in 1997.
16 January 2001: Added paragraph on Broadway musical.
25 September 2011: Added 3D re-release.