The Lion King (1994) Review

The Lion King Poster 2

“The Lion King” is an incredible movie. I first saw “The Lion King” in the hazy days of 2003, and it left a lasting impression on me. I waited years to acquire my own copy of the film and revisit it, and it was well-worth the wait. So, why is “The Lion King” so awesome? Besides the near flawless 2-D and 3-D animation, and the spectacular soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, “The Lion King” feels well and truly unique, inventive and ambitious in the canon, being a cross between “Hamlet” and “Bambi” with lions in the Savannah. The Disney Renaissance formula is present in this movie, but it only ever adds to it and never makes the movie feel generic or predictable like it did with “Aladdin“. When you think about it, “The Lion King’s” story is actually pretty simple and basic (a prince is born to a good king, the jealous brother of the good king murders him to seize power and banishes the prince, the prince lives in shame for years until his friends find him in exile and convince him to come home, the prince fights his uncle for his birthright) and having a basic plot isn’t always a good thing because it often equals a thin plot, but in “The Lion King’s” case it works incredibly well in the movie’s favor, because it gives the filmmakers all the time and space they need to give the movie everything in every department.

More than that though, a large part of the reason why “The Lion King” packs so much power is because there are actual, lasting consequences to everything that happens. “The Lion King” is one of a very small number of films in the Disney canon where good, supporting characters are actually allowed to die (others include “Bambi“, “Brother Bear“, and “Big Hero 6“), and unlike the death of Bambi’s mother (which was quietly swept under the rug and ignored by the narrative for sixty odd years), Mufasa’s death has weight. It represents the point in the movie where literally everything goes wrong. The villain, Scar, actually succeeds in getting what he wanted for longer than five minutes, and even after he’s defeated in the end, it still doesn’t undo the years of suffering he dealt upon everyone in the Pridelands, Simba included. The sense of spirituality running through “The Lion King”, while a bit on the nose at times, is honestly so rich and works so well with the setting of the movie. After the injustice of Mufasa’s murder and the cruelty of Scar’s leadership, a terrible draught falls upon the Pridelands during his reign. When Simba and Scar fight for the title of king, they fight with the cleansing fires of hell itself surrounding them, and when the rightful balance is finally restored with the divine prince back in power, the weather relents and the rains return to the Pridelands. It’s obvious symbolism, but still good symbolism.

The Lion King Simba and Nala

Matthew Broderick’s Simba is a young lion prince, who really looks up to his dad, Mufasa, and his uncle, Scar, and eagerly awaits his time as king of Pridelands. Simba is quite frankly a little brat. He lies to his parents, mistreats his guardian, Zazu, puts himself and Nala in grave danger and really only wants to be king for shallow, narcissistic reasons. It’s clear Mufasa has been too soft on him. It’s hard to hold this against Simba though, because (1) he’s really only a small boy who doesn’t know any better for the most part, (2) Simba growing out of this childish notion of what being a king and an adult means is an important part of his character arc and meant to contrast with his evil, manchild uncle, who never does the same, and (3) anyone who’s ever seen “The Lion King” knows real life is going to hit Simba hard soon and he’s gotta enjoy that blissful innocence while he has it. Perhaps I spoke too soon when I said the Beast and his servants have the most messed-up backstory in the Disney canon, because Simba’s backstory is extremely dark. Scar arranges for Mufasa to be brutally killed and afterwards he blames it all on Simba, because he hates him. The guilt that would come from thinking you got your own beloved father trampled to death would warp and crush an adult man, think of what it would do to someone who looks to be the lion equivalent of eight. And Simba spends most of his life living with this shame.

After meeting some drifters, Timon and Pumbaa, Simba takes their well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful advice of burying his trauma and turning his back on his past. But by doing so, he also turns his back on his people for years, when they need him the most. With a coup against the tyrant Scar starting up, Simba is faced with the choice of remaining a troubled hippie without purpose forever, or going home and doing what’s right for his friends and family, even if it ends badly for him – facing his own demons as well as the ones Scar crafted for him. After some stern talkings-to, Simba does the latter of course, and by doing so and fighting his uncle, he proves himself worthy of being a king and finally gets some justice when he learns his uncle set him up. It’s not uncommon for Disney coming-of-age stories to end with the protaganist having kids and continuing that circle of life (“Bambi” laid down the template), but I think Simba’s case is the most satisfying. After everything he had to endure and everything he overcame, it’s great to see Simba eventually emerge with a loving mate, great friends, and two wonderful cubs (dat adorable Kiara cameo at the end).

The Lion King Be Prepared

Scar is a villain that you seriously love to hate. Scar, at first glance, seems similar to Jafar from “Aladdin”. Jeremy Irons’ dry, sarcastic performance as the immature, compulsively lying brother calls to mind memories of the scheming vizier from the last film, but “Be Prepared” makes it clear Scar is an even more vicious, loathsome and dangerous character than Jafar was. A subtle but fundamental difference between the two is that Jafar stole power and status because he wanted it, while Scar feels he’s owed it, that it’s his birthright, and the latter is a much more personal feeling. Scar has spent years stewing in quiet, passive-aggressive jealousy and resentment towards his brother and his family, and now that he has nothing left to lose he’s decided he’s just going to rid of them.

Like Frollo from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame“, Scar is one of the more disturbing Disney villains because he lacks a magical fantasy element, and he’s the sort of evil that can actually exist in the real world. Sometimes mentally unstable people bottle up their feelings for years or even decades until they just snap, and that’s one way that you get murderers. Scar in particular has a festering vindictive and sadistic streak that’s first hinted at when we’re introduced to him ‘playing with his food’. He doesn’t just want Mufasa and Simba to die, he hates them so much he wants them to suffer before they do. He stabs Mufasa through the paws and lets him know he’s betraying him before he throws him to his death; he pins the murder on Simba and sends him away before sending the hyenas after him, because he wants him to die thinking he killed his father; he later attempts the same thing by telling Simba he killed Mufasa before he tries to do him in. Basically, Simba and Mufasa were extremely unlucky to have a psychopath in their family that they trusted.

Like cub Simba though, Scar has a narrow, immature idea of what to do with power once he gets it, since he only ever wanted to be a king he never learned what it actually entails, and his pride and spitefulness forbids him from correcting his course once it all goes wrong. He drags the Pridelands to ruin (which should give you an idea of how Ursula and Jafar’s respective reigns would have gone if they hadn’t been immediately dealt with). Lastly, I like how much of a complete and utter bastard this lion is, with no redeeming qualities besides his trademark wit. He does everything he possibly can to make you hate him, and when his vindictive streak and two-faced nature finally catch up to him and he gets ripped apart by his hyena henchmen, it’s one of the most satisfying Disney villain deaths ever (this fate was originally supposed to be Gaston’s from “Beauty and the Beast“, but Disney decided being eaten alive by wolves was too gruesome, even for Gaston. It was gruesome enough for Scar though).

The Lion King Sunrise 2

King Mufasa, head lion in charge of the Pridelands, is one of the most iconic and loving paternal figures in the Disney canon. The brawny lion is a lasting figure of strength, wisdom and humility in young Simba’s life, a role model to the young prince, and occasionally a playmate. We don’t dive too deeply into Mufasa’s personality, since he’s basically in this movie to be a good dad and then die, but do we know he would give his life for his son and he isn’t a perfect king, naturally. Simba becomes a bit spoiled under his watch, and while his hostile relationship with his brother is two-way street (what went down between these two in the past will always be a mystery) Mufasa still trusts the lion who hates his guts, apparently hoping their familial bond with make Scar reliable (he was wrong). When a ghostly Mufasa makes contact with Simba again after years of silence, I can’t be the only one who thinks of Jor-El from Richard Donner’s “Superman”, right? Mufasa’s sideman, in life, is his majordomo, Zazu. Zazu is one of Disney’s several stuffy Brits, and something of a blowhard who’ll talk big when he’s around Mufasa and turn wimpy elsewhere, but he’s still a likable character. Zazu cares greatly about the royal family, he’s a hard worker, and he has to put up with so much lion dickiness in this movie from almost everyone.

Simba’s childhood friend and future mate, Nala, is another awesome female character under the Disney renaissance’s belt. As a cub, Nala is a sassy girl and a fellow troublemaker, and as a woman, Nala is courageous, competent, and assertive. With the Pridelands going under, Nala decides to strike out on her own to get help and is one of two characters responsible for talking some sense into Simba. If there is one thing that stumps me, it’s where Simba and Nala’s sudden, mutual attraction comes from in “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, considering they only recently discovered each other was alive. But they do have good chemistry, as friends and mates, with their history contributing to it. Scar’s accomplices in usurping Mufasa is a trio of hyenas, Shenzi, Banzi, and Ed, and their greedy, poaching clan who overhunt in the Pridelands and wreck the local ecosystem. The hyenas are evil like their leader, or at the very least merciless, but they’re also very childish, making them the comedy relief of this movie, alongside Timon and Pumbaa. Hyena lovers were apparently frustrated for years that Disney taught a whole generation of kids that hyenas were evil. Personally, I’d be more bothered by the hyenas’ IQ level. Being portrayed as evil is one thing, but stupid and evil is a whole other thing entirely.

The Lion King Hakuna Matata

Timon and Pumbaa are Simba’s childhood friends, fellow slacker outcasts, and strangely enough adoptive parental figures. Timon and Pumbaa were the breakout characters of this franchise in the 90’s, and they’re also a lot of people’s least favorite characters in this franchise. It’s understandable. Timon and Pumbaa make Simba happy, but you can also feel a lot of the classiness “The Lion King” had been sporting drain out of the movie once they show up (since one of them is a farting warthog in a movie based on a work of Shakespeare). Revisiting this film for the first time in years, I thought for sure I’d hate them, but I wound up really liking them instead. Timon the meerkat is a snarky, condescending, Jersey wise guy sort of character (ever since “Pinocchio“, Disney has tended to have at least one American-type character in their movies set outside the US) , while his buddy Pumbaa is the relatively grounded, obtuse, sentimental and sensitive one of the duo. They’re both huge hams. They won me over by the time Timon did his cover of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, and they kept getting better from there: like how they both start bawling after “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, or how Timon takes one good look at the dried out Pridelands and remarks “Ugh, we’re gonna fight your uncle, for this?”, or even how Pumbaa lays the smackdown on some hyenas. “The Lion King” also teases the people who hate Timon and Pumbaa with the idea of them being eaten by hyenas when Simba makes them be live bait.

The most valuable player of Simba’s team is quietly Rafiki, the mandrill Shaman of the pridelands. I love Rafiki so much. Like the Genie from “Aladdin”, he’s nuts in all the right ways. Rafiki is a fairly quiet character, in fact it’s almost an hour into the movie that he actually has a conversation with someone, but the shaman seems to be a lifelong friend of King Mufasa and very invested in the state of the Pridelands. Rafiki is crushed when he learns Mufasa and Simba are dead, and his unbridled joy when he learns the boy he blessed as a cub is still alive is simply wonderful. Like Nala, he sets out to change things. Rafiki helps talk Simba into going back to the Pridelands, and when the revolution starts, he throws down with everyone else against the hyenas. It turns out he’s lived to a ripe old age for a reason.

The Lion King King Of Pride Rock

As I mentioned before, the hand-drawn animation in “The Lion King” is near-flawless. Disney obviously did their research studying animals and scoping out the African Savannah, because the opening sequence alone feels like an animated nature documentary.  The uncanny realism with the way the characters move is somehow another large step up from the studio’s already top-notch work on “The Little Mermaid“, “Beauty And The Beast” and “Aladdin”, with the character of Zazu providing the film with a number of high-flying tracking shots in the first half. The highlight of the film is of course the stampede sequence, when hundreds of computer-generated wildebeast barrel down a canyon towards Simba and trample Mufasa to death. It took more than two years to animate, and not only does it still look great to this day, but it’s also one of the most terrifying and thrilling chase scenes in the entire Disney canon. The only animation errors I can find is when Simba and Mufasa’s eyes randomly flash from yellow to white, which leads to me wonder why Simba’s eyes are sometimes depicted as white during the nighttime scenes (is it an artistic choice? Does it reflect lion biology?).

Like Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s collaborations for “The Little Mermaid’ and “Beauty and the Beast”, Tim Rice and Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is incredibly strong, and also where the African culture of the film really shines. The Zulu chanting and percussion used throughout the songs is absolutely beautiful and unique to the canon before now. “The Circle Of Life” (an affectionate homage to the opening of one Disney’s first coming-of-age stories, “Bambi”) is a tender and bittersweet moment shared by the Prideland animals as they celebrate the miracle of life, before their lives all get destroyed a few months later. “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” might actually be my favorite song, because it’s such a fun acid trip sequence, and Simba and Zazu slay the duet. “Be Prepared” features a surprisingly icy but altogether impressive performance from Jeremy Irons and Jim Cummings as Scar. “Hankuna Matata” is the weakest of the bunch, because of the lyrics, but it also features a very memorable chorus and some jazzy jungle beats that wouldn’t feel out of place in “The Jungle Book“. “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” is a good love song, but the tranquil Elton John cover is better. Hans Zimmer pens a childlike and eventually noble prince theme for Simba, along with a secondary, solemn and forlorn theme for his relationship with Mufasa.

“The Lion King” was Disney’s most successful franchise for decades, until “Frozen” came along twenty years later to challenge it and offer some friendly competition (that circle of life is already moving). “The Lion King” is considered by many to be Disney’s top dog and has another friendly rivalry with the Oscar-nominated “Beauty and the Beast”, as to which of them was the best film of the renaissance. I can safely say that “The Lion King” has lived up to it’s high reputation, and might be the closest the studio has ever come to perfection. It gets top marks from me.

Rating: 10/10.

Side-Notes:

The Lion King The Pridelands

* People like to joke about how Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” has Stockholm Syndrome, but no one ever talks about how all the herbivores on the Pridelands have come to worship their greatest predators as their leaders, and how that probably happened over the years.

* Young Simba was voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas from “Home Improvement”, but when we first meet young Simba he sounds just like Dana Hill’s Max from “Goof Troop”.

* As he was being used for target practice by the prince, with the amused king looking on, Zazu decided he didn’t get paid anywhere near enough for this job.

* “So, where are we going? It better not be someplace dumb!”

* “Everybody look left, everybody look right, everywhere you look I’m standing in the spotlight!” “Not yet!” “Let every creature go for broke and sing, let’s hear it in the herd and on the wing, it’s gonna be King Simba’s finest fling!”

* “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?!” “You mean like you?” “Oops”.

* Lion pimp slap, complete with claws.

* It would seem Scar was lingering around the elephant graveyard. He was most likely there to see if the hyenas would finish the job, but considering he’s a sadistic fuck, he also most likely really wanted to see Simba and Nala die.

* “We’re always gonna be together, right?” The real reason why Simba feels responsible for his dad’s death is because he totally jinxed that the day before.

* “I’m surrounded by idiots” What anyone who’s not insane thinks after spending a significant amount of time on Tumblr.

* “What do you want us to do, kill Mufasa?” “PreciselyEEEEVVVVVIIIIILLLLLLL!!!

* “So be prepared, for the death of the king!” “What, is he sick?” “No fool, we’re gonna kill him. And Simba too”.

* When you think about it, “The Lion King” universe is actually kind of disturbing. Every animal is just as sentient and sapient as the other, they can all communicate easily but the real world food chain remains. They all seem to coexist well, right up until one of them gets hungry and someone else gets eaten. That implication is there in the movie but it didn’t set in fully until “The Lion Guard” series years later, when characters in that show try to casually murder / eat each other every episode. With that in mind, lions in “The Lion King” universe are lucky sons of bitches. They’re on top of the food chain, so they don’t have to worry about too many other species gunning for them besides each other.

* “Long live the king” Lion murder.

* “There ain’t no way I’m going in there! You want me to end up like him, cactus butt?!”

* Pumbaa’s right. Simba is pretty cute, even when he’s sad.

* Fun fact, no matter how young or old he is, Simba’s singing voice is always much smoother than his speaking voice. As a cub, as an adult, even as an older king in “The Lion Guard”, Simba has some sweet pipes.

* “Try something with a little more bounce?” “It’s a small world after all-” “NO! Anything but that!”

* “You mean a bunch of royal dead guys are watching us?”

* “I’m still the same guy you know” “But with power!”

* “Well, this stinks!” “Sorry” “Not you, that!”

* “He’s holding back, he’s hiding, but what, I can’t decide. Why won’t he be the king I know he is, the king I see inside?!”

* Simba’s been going a bit heavy on the eye shadow.

* One of the many fun things about Disney movies is that you can have a meerket and a warthog dress in drag and do the hula when they shouldn’t even know what either of those things are.

* I laugh so hard when Scar hisses “He admits it, murderer!” (you lying, backstabbing hypocrite). But not as much as I laugh when the fool sabotages himself minutes later (“And now here’s my little secret, I killed Mufasa“)

* “Run. Run away Scar, and never come back” Simba clearly wanted some payback, but it didn’t pan out. And because lions don’t have fingers or thumbs, the final fight between Simba and Scar is pretty much the world’s most epic slapfight.

* “Til we find out place, in the path unwinding! It’s the circle, the circle of life!!! Circle of… life!!!”

Further Reading:

* Nostalgia Critc; Animatedkid; The Animation Commendation; The Animation Commendation (2)Katejohns619; Silver PetticoatThe Disney Odyssey; Taestful Reviews; Taestful Reviews (2)A Year Of A Million Disney Dreams; Tor; Author Quest; Roger ErbertJaysen Headley Writes; Disney In Your Day; A113 Animation; All The Disney Movies; A Year With Walt; Cut The Crap Movie ReviewsHealed1337; The M0vie Blog2014: A Film Odyssey; The Best Picture Project; Coco Hits New York; Dan Hairfield; Manju Reijmer; A Separate State Of MindHighlander News; Grantland; Through The Silver Screen; B Plus Movie Blog; Karen Jilyord; Journeys In Classic FilmThoughts Of A Steel MonsterLivLilly; World Wild Blog Of Movies; Silver Screen ManiaLion King 2013The Guardian.

Fanfiction:

The Lion King I Just Can't Wait To Be King

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15 Responses to The Lion King (1994) Review

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  7. healed1337 says:

    Still remains the most profitable traditionally animated movie of all time, and holds the record for the most ticket sales for an animated movie that was released in the last 50 years.

    And I would say that while Frozen isn’t a bad movie, it didn’t deserve its hype. The Lion King does.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I will never understand the people who think this is an overrated film, lol! Yes, it’s not my favorite, but it’s definitely NOT overrated!

    Liked by 1 person

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