Despite my deep and profound appreciation for most all things Disney, I have to admit there are some things about it I’m not wild about. And I don’t mean hate, I mean generally dispassionate. Being a hipster at heart, I tend to gravitate more toward the lesser known movies, shows, and rides. Overexposure is a very real thing to me (Unless it’s Frozen or Marvel). And the same goes with all the immensely successful, widely acclaimed, critically-praised movies: Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, and of course, The Lion King.
Please don’t misunderstand. I have nothing against The Lion King. The point I’m making is precisely that: it’s good. Great, even. Do I love it? I guess. If someone were to put it on, would I leave the room? Of course not. Would I still quote every line and sing every lyric? Damn skippy! But would I go out of my way to watch it, maybe more than twice a year, even though I own the Platinum Edition DVD from 2003? Not really. And it’s funny considering I did, indeed, love it when I was younger.
It’s no surprise, really. Much in the same way Roger Rabbit was everything in 1989, Frozen was life in 2014, and Star Wars was downright biblical in 1997, 1999, and 2015, The Lion King was similar in scope back in 1994. The songs, especially, were on every radio station. And to think: when the studio pitched The Lion King and Pocahontas to the studio artists, it was dismissed it as a sort of experiment they had little faith in, but Pocahontas was gonna be THE next big thing! And while people lost their minds Frozen replaced two Walt Disney World attractions, The Lion King replaced three in its heyday (Legend of the Lion King, Circle of Life: an Environmental Fable, and Festival of the Lion King). And now, with Jon Favreau directing his second Disney remake after 2016’s The Jungle Book, I say it’s time we look back at the movie that shaped many a millennial’s childhoods-for better or for worse. So let’s look lovingly at this leonine lore of legendary lasting!
The plot: After the birth of prince Simba (Jonathon Taylor Thomas/Matthew Broderick), his wicked uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) plots to kill him and his own brother, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) so he may usurp the throne. He employs the aid of a trio of giddy hyenas (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings), to orchestrate a wildebeest stampede, which kills the king, and leads to Simba getting exiled. Simba stumbles upon two hedonistic characters, Timon and Pumbaa (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella), who encourage Simba to continue running away from responsibility. When Mufasa appears as a ghost, he urges Simba to reclaim his divine right as the one true king of the Pride Lands.
How’s the writing?: There’s only one word that can accurately describe The Lion King’s script: Shakespearean.
For the past 25 years, critics and scholars have praised this aspect of the movie. It’s a mature story with some strong thematic ideas tied to it. Plus, its general plot is not dissimilar from not just Hamlet, but also The History of Henry the Fourth, parts one and two. This was more or less accidental, though. From what I could tell, the movie just kind of evolved into its Bard-esque tale kind of by accident, but once the story artists noticed it, they commented on how it was not unlike their other hyper-real animal movie, Bambi. Thus, the movie got the nickname, “Bamblet”. However, I fret the praise went to Disney’s head, because its sequel, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, was a transparent adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that lacked all subtlety. It even carried over in The Lion King 1 1/2, where the DVD pamphlet even acknowledged it owed some debt to Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
On its own, though, it is well-written and well-executed. Its lesson on taking on maturity and responsibility is a great one, and how Rafiki demonstrates it is beyond clever. The dialogue is beautiful, from Mufasa’s inherit poetry to Scar’s snarls.
Does it give the feels?: Seriously, is this a question? Anyone who’s ever seen this movie can agree this movie is powerful. First, let’s take into account Mufasa’s death, which was not only well paced and intense, but it was also the first time we ever saw a dead body in a Disney cartoon. Sure, Bambi’s mom’s death was similarly brutal, but it became that much more profound to see Simba’s reality crumble from his eyes when his dad doesn’t move.
Oddly enough, this didn’t make me cry back then. What I will say, however, is I personally prefer the ghost scene. I’ve never been much of a religious person, but there is something incredibly moving about how they showed his father distantly, yet calmly, talking to his son. The animation is breathtaking. The dialogue is direct, yet vague. Jones’ vocals are beyond pitch perfect. And above all, it looks every bit the Christian symbolism without being on the nose, and subsequently, turning me off to it.
Who makes it worth it?: As a kid, I was a die-hard fan of Timon and Pumbaa, more the former than the latter. I loved the show they had, Timon & Pumbaa, and I drew them everywhere. Nowadays, I don’t find them as funny as I did, and the show made Timon look like a greedy jerk, plus Pumbaa’s idiot savant gag from the movie was made a running gimmick of the character. I lost interest.
Nowadays, I take a greater shine to Rafiki. He’s nutty, yes, but not without purpose. His playful nature belies a deep understanding of the Circle of Life and the responsibilities of the monarchy. Robert Guillaume gave an incredible performance for such deeply insightful character who had such great joie de vivre.
Best quality provided: The Lion King is many, many things. But arguably its greatest asset is its sense of scale. It is a HUGE movie. Africa seems to have that quality of just being so massive and expansive that it just takes your breath away (I’m assuming, anyway. I’m a millennial who has not left this continent.). And there are multiple scenes that capture this: from Mufasa’s “Circle of Life” speech atop Pride Rock at dawn to the raw, thunderous mass of the panicked wildebeest stampede. The animation, thank goodness, keeps pace with such gorgeous visuals, as does the Hans Zimmer score that just emphasizes just how grand everything is. Really, the biggest issue this causes is when you watch The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, you are so let down by the colossal downgrade in scale and quality. Not like it’s the original’s fault, but still.
What could have been improved: My only real complaint about the franchise in general is how the maturity declined as each new product came out. The original set such an incredibly high standard, there were few to no ways it could have bettered itself (The Avengers certainly did, but that’s neither here nor there). In the sequel, all nuance was dropped as the story was a Romeo and Juliet narrative, a template that’s become as transparent as it is trite. I like Lion King 1 1/2 on its own merit, but it’s a straight-up comedy that tries to subvert the grandiose scale of the original. I wish each subsequent film could have tackled other Shakespearean works, from The Tempest to Much Ado About Nothing.
Oh wait…you want me to say something that could have improved the original? Oh yeah, no. I got nothing.
Verdict: What is there to say about The Lion King that hasn’t been said in the past quarter century by every critic and fan? It’s everything everyone has ever said and more, and it’s all deserved. It’s just that good. Sure, I’m not its biggest fan, but that’s hardly saying anything. I give these guys an amazing nine squashed bananas out of ten.
And before anyone asks, I have no opinion on the Kimba: the White Lion controversy. I’ve not seen Osamu Tezuka’s work, so I have no frame of reference.