A powerful tale of grief, resolution, and Hamlet.
As a child, there were several moments from Walt Disney’s classic movies that stick with you as you matured from a small cub into a fully grown adult all your own. In Pinocchio, that was when Pinocchio sacrificed himself to save his father Gepetto, turning himself from a puppet into a real boy. In Dumbo, it was that somber moment when Mrs. Jumbo extended her trunk out from the cage and cradled her disturbed baby Dumbo to sleep out in the gloomy circus grounds. And in Bambi, it was when Bambi witnessed his mother tragically shot and killed by a hunter in the cold, snowy forest.
Time and time again, Disney has demonstrated an impeccable ability to deliver fun and colorful adventures, but not so detached from reality to where its cute and cuddly creatures didn’t have their own problems and issues of mortality to deal with. These images stay with us because in most cases, what their child-like characters go through could have been us.
This is one among many reasons why The Lion King is such a success, and arguably Disney’s greatest animated feature to date. When I was younger, I remembered all of the kid-friendly elements that appealed to me so much through my bright-eyed, adolescent mind. I remembered the memorable kingdom animals that bantered and bickered about amusingly, the brilliantly sweeping animation that captured the vibrant and luscious landscape of the African Savannah, and the wonderful musical numbers beautifully written by Hans Zimmer and Elton John. All of these captured my mind and imagination in my young age, but after re-watching it through older eyes, I had a greater appreciation on the maturity and the themes the movie was trying to explore, a beautiful homily on life not being about where you came from, but where you’re going: a “circle of life,” so to speak.
The Lion King tells the story of Simba (Matthew Broderick), a young lion cub who is the prince of the Pride Lands. His father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is the king of the Pride Lands and the ruler of all the animals who reside there. But he won’t be king forever. As he points out to the young Simba, there will be one day where the sun sets on his time and a new king will have to rise in his place. That king, Mufasa says, is none other than his own son Simba.
But it wasn’t always that way. Long before Simba was born, his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) was supposed to be next in line for the throne. Selfish, twisted, and devilishly conniving, Scar is jealous that he will one day be forced to give up the throne in place of his little twerpy lion cub nephew who hasn’t even grown out his full mane yet. As Simba grows older, he will have to struggle for the throne against his uncle Scar, and accept his destiny as the King of the Pride Lands.
We’re barely into talking about The Lion King, and already it feels like we’re referring to an epic dramatic blockbuster more than an animated kids’ movie. In a way, we are. The story was co-written by Linda Woolverton, who was most known for penning Disney’s 1991 release Beauty And The Beast prior to The Lion King. In many ways, they’re very similar stories with shared meanings and messages behind them. Both of these films deal with characters stricken with emotional grief, guilt, and anguish. Both of these films deal with masculine protagonists secluding themselves away from the rest of the world, resolved to their suffering and their need to be closed off from it. But they also deal with how those characters come to face their grief and sorrow, resolve it, and commit themselves to a better tomorrow despite their past tragedies.
How is this different from other Disney epics that follows this same plot line, such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi? It doesn’t, I guess. But The Lion King feels more immersed in its emotions: in the highs and lows of its characters, in the joys and the sorrows, in the fun and upbeat moments where animals are singing and dancing together in the jungle, and in the slower and darker moments where characters have to come to terms to who they are and who they are going to be going forward.
It makes sense that the film feels as thematic and operatic as it does. After all, directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff have stated several times in numerous interviews how they were inspired by several epic folklore stories while making The Lion King, including Williams Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the tale of Joseph from the Holy Bible. Does it sound a little heavy-handed to describe such historic works in comparison to an animated kids movie about jungle animals and lion cubs? Definitely, but it works beautifully in context here. It kind of falls in line with Disney’s earlier work: his movies weren’t just about puppets, giant-eared baby elephants, and bright-eyed fawns. They were about growing up and learning from their experiences in the past.
The brightly-colored and vivid animation is arguably the best Disney has ever helped produce. The first moment the sun rises in the east of the Savannah at the beginning of the film, it’s so warm and bright that it makes you feel like the sun is actually rising from the screen and shining its bright ray onto you. The cast is equally impeccable, with Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Cummings and several others offering their voice talents in this sprawling, fun, and visually dynamic family epic.
But arguably the greatest of all of the production elements here is the music, which is co-written by both Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer and Grammy Award-winning pop star Elton John. Normally you wouldn’t expect the composer behind Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy, and True Romance to be a match made in Heaven with “Rocket Man” himself. Yet, their collaboration together is absolutely breathtaking, with their several music numbers including “Hakuna Matata,” “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, and “Circle of Life” breathing vibrancy and heart into this already emotionally stirring animated epic. It is no less influential to Lion King’s success than John Williams is to Star Wars or Randy Newman is to Toy Story.
There will no doubt be much discussion over which of Disney’s several successes will go on to be revered as his best, among them including the recently released Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. I waste no breath in saying The Lion King is hands-down my favorite. It’s an emotionally mature animated epic that will leave the adults with several beats to reflect over, all while not short-changing on the fun moments and musical numbers that will delight the kiddos. Pity, that the Academy Awards wouldn’t introduce the Oscar for Best Animated Feature until several years later when Shrek would win the first inaugural award in 2002. The Lion King would have won for sure.