“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“, “Tarzan”, “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 bring Mufasa back or undo the years of suffering he dealt upon everyone in the Pridelands, Simba especially. The Pridelanders can only tend to their wounds and try to move on with their lives. 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.
Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is a spunky, carefree young lion prince. When he’s not romping around the Pridelands, playing with his best friend Nala, he 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 one, he’s really only a small boy who doesn’t know any better for the most part; two, 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 is meant to contrast with his evil, manchild uncle, who never does the same; and three, 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. Despite being a chronic troublemaker, the one thing Simba hates is disappointing his dad, because Mufasa isn’t just his father, he’s also the boy’s hero. 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 also extremely dark. Scar arranges for Mufasa to be brutally killed in a stampede and afterwards he blames it all on Simba, because he hates him with a passion. 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 (Matthew Broderick takes on the role of Simba for the second half of the film).
After meeting some drifters, Timon and Pumbaa, Simba takes their well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful advice of burying his guilt, his doubts and 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. What’s more, Timon and Pumbaa’s advice still doesn’t fully work, he’s still haunted by his memory of his father even into adulthood. 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 – as well as finally getting some justice when he learns his uncle set him up. Having conquered his demons for the time being, put his mind mostly at ease and been accepted again by his family, Simba brings his friends with him to his new life and brings peace and virility back to the Pridelands. Later installments of “The Lion King” franchise reveal that Simba would still have some leftover PTSD and some major trust issues, which is to be expected. Trauma like Simba’s doesn’t heal overnight, but it doesn’t have to consume your entire life either. It’s not uncommon for Disney coming-of-age stories to end with the protagonist 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).
Prince Scar is a villain that you seriously love to hate. Scar, at first glance, seems pretty similar to Jafar from “Aladdin”. Jeremy Irons chews plenty of scenery as Scar. His dry, sarcastic performance as the immature, compulsively lying royal feline – who spends his days lazing around the den, antagonizing his big brother and the help – 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 – driven by envy, hatred and an ungratefully privileged mindset. 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, he’s entitled to it, that it’s his birthright, and the latter is a much more personal and vindictive feeling. Scar has spent years stewing in quiet, passive-aggressive jealousy and resentment towards his older brother, Mufasa, and his family, and now that he has nothing left to lose (he’s never going to rule now that Mufasa has sired an heir) he’s decided he’s just going to try to get rid of them all. 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 people who are mentally unstable bottle up their feelings in an unhealthy fashion for years or even decades until they just snap, and that’s one of many ways that you can get murderers. Underneath a seemingly calm, droll and apathetic exterior, Scar has a festering vindictive and sadistic streak, aimed at the people around him, 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 full well he’s betraying him before he throws his brother to his death. He pins Mufasa’s murder on Simba and sends the cub 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 ‘secretly’ 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 and immature idea of what to do with power once he gets it. Since he only ever wanted to be a king for the title, he never bothered learning what it actually entails and the responsibilities that come with the position, causing the tribe as a whole to suffer, but 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) and his already tenuous sanity takes a large hit as he’s subsequently haunted by the memory of his brother. Lastly, I like how much of a complete and utter bastard this lion is, with no redeeming qualities to him besides his trademark wit. He does everything he possibly can to make you hate him, and when his two biggest flaws (his vindictive streak and two-faced nature) finally catch up to him, he gets one of the most satisfying Disney villain deaths ever. He couldn’t resist doing some premature gloating to Simba or throwing his hyena henchmen under the bus, which leads to him getting ripped apart and eaten alive. 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.
King Mufasa, head lion in charge of the Pridelands, is one of the most iconic and loving paternal figures in the Disney canon. Sporting the rich, deep voice of James Earl Jones, Mufasa commands respect without ever being overly serious or an aloof ruler. 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. He’s easygoing and approachable, but he can easily be stern and imposing to anyone when he needs to be. We don’t dive too deeply into Mufasa’s personality, since he’s basically in this movie to be a good, likable dad and then die, but we do know he would give up 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 bitter 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 would at least make Scar reliable (he was so 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.
Scar’s accomplices in usurping Mufasa are a trio of hyenas, Shenzi, Banzai 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 implacable and 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. In addition to the brief Nazi imagery in “Be Prepared”, the subplot with Scar and the hyenas can be interpreted as a cautionary tale about communist revolutions and how they usually tend to pan out. While the lions have the whole lush and bountiful Pridelands territory to hunt in, the hyenas live in the significantly dryer Outlands area and they mostly feast on scraps in comparison. Scar reaches out to Shenzi and her clan and promises them a perfect world where everyone is equal and no one will ever go hungry again, so long as they help him commit all the necessary atrocities to acquire it, of course (when he really only cares about grabbing power for himself). The hyenas foolishly take Scar up on his deal, Scar becomes king, and the hyenas are allowed to run wild in the Pridelands. Except, Scar turns out to be a terrible, incompetent leader who couldn’t care less about them, the Pridelands’ resources are rapidly burned through, leaving it barren and inhabitable, and the hyenas’ living conditions wind up being even worse than they were before. By the end, Scar throws the hyenas under the bus; the main trio, sick of his abuse, hunts him down and kills him out of retribution; while the remaining members of the pack flee into the Outlands, having been knocked all the way back to square one.
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) who can be selfish at times, while his buddy Pumbaa is the relatively grounded, obtuse, sentimental one of the duo who’s more openly affectionate and something of a drama queen. 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.
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, the typical tomboy, 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’ve been apart for years and only recently discovered each other was still alive. But they do have some good chemistry, as friends and mates, with their early history contributing to it. 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 and enigmatic character, in fact it’s almost an hour into the movie before 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 by offering some of the wisdom he’s gained from years of helping the Pridelands. 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.
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. What makes the massive amount of effort the studio put into this film even more remarkable is the fact that Disney didn’t even expect “The Lion King” to be a huge success at the time; they were banking on “Pocahontas” to bring home the bacon (oh, the irony). 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 powerful percussion used throughout the songs is absolutely beautiful and unique to the canon before now. The film’s signature song, “The Circle Of Life”, is a powerful opening statement for the film, an affectionate homage to the opening of one Disney’s first coming-of-age stories, “Bambi”, and a tender and bittersweet moment shared between the Prideland animals as they celebrate the miracle of new life, before all their lives 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, bouncy 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, harmonic, relaxing love song, but I find the tranquil Elton John cover to be even better than the film version. Hans Zimmer pens a complex and majestic score for the film, one where the film’s African’s culture again shines. Zimmer assigns a childlike and eventually noble prince theme to Simba, along with a secondary, solemn and forlorn theme for his strained relationship with Mufasa, both of which reach their inspiring, regal zenith when Simba finally takes his rightful place as king of Pride Rock.
“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 always turning). “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.
* I’m not gonna lie, “The Circle Of Life” usually gets me to shed a few tears, especially when Rafiki blesses Simba. It’s not even a sad song; it’s the fact that it’s all so beautiful and it strikes just the right balance of grandiose and tender.
* 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 divine rulers, and how that set-up probably happened over the years.
* “Don’t turn your back on me, Scar!” “Oh, no, Mufasa. Perhaps you shouldn’t turn your back on me“.
* Young Simba was voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas from “Home Improvement”, but when we first meet young Simba he sounds a lot 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”.
* 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 bastard, 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” It sounds like Scar just finished surfing Tumblr.
* “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?!”
* 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?!”
* So I just watched a meerkat and a warthog fearfully dress in drag and do the hula to distract some hyenas, when neither of them should know what those things are, and their little plan actually worked. I love Disney movies.
* Simba had never killed a lion with his bare paws before, but when he walked in on Scar slapping around his mom, he decided there was a first time for everything.
* 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 only a few 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!!!”
* Nostalgia Critc; Animatedkid; The Animation Commendation I & II; Katejohns619; Silver Petticoat; The Disney Odyssey; A Year Of A Million Disney Dreams; Tor; Author Quest; Roger Erbert; Jaysen Headley Writes; Disney In Your Day; All The Disney Movies; A Year With Walt; Cut The Crap Movie Reviews; Healed1337; The M0vie Blog; 2014: A Film Odyssey; The Best Picture Project; Coco Hits New York; Dan Hairfield; Manju Reijmer; A Separate State Of Mind; Highlander News; Grantland; Through The Silver Screen; B Plus Movie Blog; Karen Jilyord; Journeys In Classic Film; Thoughts Of A Steel Monster; LivLilly; World Wild Blog Of Movies; Silver Screen Mania; Lion King 2013; The Guardian.
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