It was twenty years ago, on June 24, 1994, when the “The Lion King” came out in theaters nationwide; it had a limited release in only two theaters one week earlier on June 14, 1994. It was the fifth film of the Disney Renaissance, and was instantly proclaimed one of Disney’s best and finest films. And I must say that “The Lion King” is, not only my favorite animated Disney movie, but my favorite animated movie, and my favorite Disney film. It became not only one of the most critically-acclaimed films of all time, but it also became a Broadway musical, was followed by two sequels, and made the phrase “Hakuna Matata!” something common in everyday language.
What was it about this film that made it so great? It’s hard to say, really. The music is fantastic that’s for sure, the voice cast is one of remarkable actors, and the movie is touching, sad, funny, and inspiring, all at once.
Speaking of the music and voice actors, let me take a moment here to acknowledge both.
“Circle of Life” begins the story, and really this is one of the best, if not the best, opening sequence of an animated film. I think the animation of “The Lion King” is the best opening animation, but “The Bells of Notre Dame”, from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, is possibly the best opening song. And the only one that is better than “Circle of Life”. The song begins with the infamous chanting now associated with the film, as we see the sunrise, and the various animals that begin to make their journey toward Pride Rock to view the new prince.
“I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” is sung by the young cub Simba, about his ambition to become the king. It’s a fun, upbeat, and colorful song, that also acts as a diversion so that Simba and Nala can sneak away from Zazu and go to the elephant graveyard.
“Be Prepared” My personal favorite, sung by my favorite character, and the film’s main villain, Scar, brother to the current king, and uncle to young Simba. We already know from the first scene of the film, that Scar is jealous of Simba, because that means that Simba is now next in line to be king, whereas before Simba’s birth, Scar was next. But this song shows us that Scar is not only envious and upset about being thwarted from his chance to become king, but that he will do whatever it takes to get the throne, and we learn that he plans to murder Mufasa and Simba. Another point made here is that he is working with the hyenas. We met three hyenas earlier, but we did not know that they were working with Scar. “Be Prepared” brings this to light, and also shows that Scar actually has hundreds of hyenas at his command. Note: This song was originally going to be called “Thanks To Me” and come after Mufasa’s death.
“Hakuna Matata” It means “no worries”, and is the motto of the film’s comic duo Timon and Pumbaa. They find young Simba nearly dead in the desert. Scar has convinced Simba that he is responsible for the death of his own father, so distraught, frightened, and feeling guilty, Simba has fled the Pride Lands. He meets Timon and Pumbaa who cheer him up and teach him about “Hakuna Matata”. He ends up living with them into adulthood.
“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is begun comically by Timon and Pumbaa, but then blossoms into a beautiful melody, that is then ended comically by Timon and Pumbaa. Once Nala finds Simba alive, the two fall in love, and this of course is threatening to Timon and Pumbaa, and their friendship with Simba. Nonetheless, Nala, Timon, and Pumbaa follow Simba back to the Pride Lands to take his rightful place as king. And the two do end up together and at the end of the film have their own baby cub.
And I have to say, that my favorite musical score in “The Lion KIng” is the piece called “To Die For”. Yes, it is the saddest part ot the movie, but I just love the music that is played during the wildebeest stampede.
Young Simba–Jonathan Taylor Thomas
Young Simba (singing)–Jason Weaver
Adult Simba–Matthew Broderick
Young Nala, Simba’s best friend, later they fall in love–Niketa Calame
Adult Nala–Moira Kelly
Mufasa-Simba’s father and current king–James Earl Jones
Sarabi–Simba’s mother–Madge Sinclair
Zazu–A hornbill and advisor to the king–Rowan Atkinson
Scar–Mufasa’s younger brother and uncle to Simba–Jeremy Irons
Shenzi–One of Scar’s three main hyena henchmen–Whoopi Goldberg
Banzai–One of Scar’s three main hyena henchmen–Cheech Marin
Ed–One of Scar’s three main hyena henchmen–Jim Cummings
Rafiki–The wise mandrill monkey, sort of a shaman, ultimately convinces Simba to go home–Robert Guillaume
Timon–The meerkat, half of the comic duo that saves young Simba–Nathan Lane
Pumbaa–The warthog, other half of the comic duo that saves young Simba–Ernie Sabella
Simba as Hamlet
I love Disney movies, and I love Shakespeare, so if there seems to be a correlation between the two, I’m likely to notice it. And this link between Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Disney’s “The Lion King” was confirmed by the producer of “The Lion King” in the audio commentary from the DVD. “The Lion King” does follow the path of Hamlet, though with a much happier ending, and only two deaths.
First a comparison of the characters:
Sarabi–Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and current queen
Scar–Claudius, younger brother to Hamlet ‘s father, and also Hamlet’s uncle.
Simba–Hamlet, the young prince.
Nala–Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest.
Zazu–Polonius, meddling advisor to the king.
Timon and Pumbaa–Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s friends
Now there are some differences, obviously. Claudius doesn’t try to make Hamlet think that he killed his own father, and really, that wouldn’t have worked anyway. And while Gertrude married Claudius, Sarabi is not in any way interested in Scar, and Scar, (as proven through deleted scenes from the movie), actually preferred Nala, who also did not have any interest in him. The “love story” between Hamlet and Ophelia is not nearly as sweet as the one between Simba and Nala. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have known Hamlet since they were all children together, and ultimately, if not somewhat unwillingly, nearly lead him to his doom; Simba doesn’t meet Timon and Pumbaa until halfway through the movie, and they do not attempt to lead him into harm’s way. And Zazu is advisor to the king, but not nearly as meddalsome as Polonius, nor as long-winded. Oh yeah, and not all of the major characters in “The Lion King” meet a brutal end.
That said, here are the similarities:
Simba’s uncle, Scar, kills his father, Mufasa. Scar takes over the Pride Lands as the new king, ultimately driving it into despair. Presumably, Sarabi is still the queen, though as I mentioned before, she and Scar are not interested in each other. Simba speaks to the ghost of his father, just as Hamlet does, and Mufasa, just as the spirit of Hamlet’s father, ends by saying, “Remember.” Simba returns to Pride Rock and avenges his father, just as Hamlet avenges his. Hamlet ends up killing his uncle, and Scar dies too, only not at the hands of Simba, but rather he is killed by his own hyena “friends”.
“The Lion King” spawned two sequels. The first one was “The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride” and this was released direct-to-video in 1998. Disney sequels are not always the best, but with the sequels to “The Lion King”, they fared pretty well. “The Lion King 2” is also a great story, with memorable songs, and well-known actors in the voice roles. Those from “The Lion King” are the same actors as in the first film, the new characters are Kiara (Michelle Horn as Young Kiara; Neve Cambell as Adult Kiara), Zira (Suzanne Pleshette), Kovu (Jason Marsden), and Nuka (Andy Dick) .
This is the story of a pride of Outsiders led by Zira who was Scar’s mate. Her son Kovu, who looks like a young version of Scar, is supposed to kill Simba, and Simba’s daughter, Kiara, to reclaim the Pridelands that Zira thinks belonged to Scar. Kovu has an older brother named Nuka, and a younger sister named Vitani. The plan is for Kovu to get close to Kiara and gain her trust as well as Simba’s. However, Kovu ends up falling in love with Kiara instead. Simba meanwhile, takes a longer time to trust Kovu. Just when he starts to however, Zira sets up an ambush on Simba and makes it sound like Kovu was a part of it. The Outsiders nearly kill Simba, and Simba later banishes Kovu. Kiara flees from Pride Rock to find him. They find each other and return to the Pride Lands, just as Simba’s pride and Zira’s pride are in the middle of a major brawl. They jump in to break it up, and make each of their prides see that there is not any difference between them. When the lions in Zira’s pride join Simba, Zira refuses to give up; she attacks Simba, but Kiara jumps in to defend him, and Zira eventually falls to her death; Nuka also died as well, earlier in the film. The Outsiders join the Pride Landers and Kovu and Kiara also end up happily together. And following the theme of Shakespeare and Disney, “The Lion King 2” is sort of like Romeo and Juliet, but with a happier ending.
Songs from “The Lion King 2”
“He Lives In You” Sort of the “Circle of Life” of the second Lion King movie.
“We Are One” Sung by Simba and Kiara about how they are all (all lions) are part of one family.
“My Lullaby” Zira’s villain song, and again my favorite song in this movie, telling how Kovu will kill Simba and rise to power.
“In Upendi” Upendi means love, and in this song Rafiki shows Kovu and Kiara that they are meant to be together.
“Not One of Us” The circumstances that lead up to this song are sad, but the music is just so great. This is when Simba exiles Kovu, and all of the animals turn against him and drive him away, saying that he is “not one of us”.
“Love Will Find A Way” The love song between Kovu and Kiara.
Then in 2004, came the direct-to-video “The Lion King 1 1/2”. This is the story of “The Lion King” told from the perspective of Timon and Pumbaa. It begins with Timon’s story and how he doesn’t fit in with the rest of the meerkats. He lives in the meerkat colony along with his mother (Julie Kavner), Uncle Max (Jerry Stiller), and the hundreds of other meerkats. He leaves the colony, eventually meeting Pumbaa, and then it goes through the story of “The Lion King” but from their viewpoint. For instance in “Circle of Life” when the other animals bow to baby Simba, it’s actually that the animals get knocked out because of Pumbaa’s gas, but the other animals think they’re bowing, so they bow too. Also, later on when Nala find Simba, we see how Timon and Pumbaa tried to break things up. And while Simba was still young, Timon and Pumbaa raised him like a son. Eventually Timon ends up saving his colony and thus gaining their respect; he also relocates them to the beautiful place in the jungle, where he and Pumbaa have lived.
Hmm…an original story told from the viewpoint of two characters from that story…sounds a bit like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Songs from “The Lion King 1 1/2”
“Diggah Tunnah” Sung by the meerkat colony about digging tunnels.
“All I Need” Timon’s song about living away from the meerkat colony.
“Hakuna Matata” Need I explain?
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” Sang by Lebo M. Same words as the original song, different style.
“Jungle Boogie” Timon and Pumbaa learn about the trials of parenting.
“Diggah Tunnah reprise”
“Grazing In the Grass” Sung by Raven. Again, same words, different style.
The TV Series
Timon and Pumbaa also had their own cartoon called “Timon and Pumbaa’s Wild Adventures” it ran on television from 1995-1998. And their theme song of course, was…Hakuna Matata.
“The Lion King” in other Disney films
Disney oftentimes likes to sneak in references to past or future films into other movies, and “The Lion King” makes an appearance in two other animated Disney films.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996)
During Quasimodo’s song “Out There”, there’s a scene of the town below. If you take a really good look at the left-hand side of the screen, you will see two men carrying Pumbaa who is tied upside-down to the rack that they are carrrying him on. This scene also features Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” and the Magic Carpet from “Aladdin”.
During one of Hercules’s tasks, he is wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion to give him strength. The lion skin that he is wearing, is Scar.
This film not only evolved into two sequels, a television series, and a Broadway production, (which by the way is fantastic!), but there were video games, plush animals, clothes, etc, inspired by “The Lion KIng”, not to mention that it came out in theaters two more times; once in 2004 for the tenth anniversary, “The Lion King” was released in IMAX Theaters, and then once again in 2010, they released it in 3D. I will never pass up on a chance to see “The Lion King”, and especially not if it’s in theaters again. I saw it twice in the theaters when the movie first came out in 1994, and I also saw the IMAX version and the 3D Version. I bought the VHS, and then the DVD, and then Diamond Edition DVD, and then the Diamond Edition Blu-ray, and each were, and have been, watched more times than I could count; which is why I know the entire movie, line for line, by heart. And for the twentieth anniversary, they are releasing a new soundtrack for “The Lion King” it’s part of a new collection that Disney is releasing for certain films, and the first one, coming out today, is “The Legacy Collection: The Lion King” with over thirty minutes of new music, plus of course, the great original songs.
This movie, twenty years later, still continues to entertain, and hopefully will do so for another twenty years, and beyond.
So in closing, I just want to say to always “Be Prepared”, remember “Hakuna Matata”, and never forget that we are all part of the great “Circle of Life”.