A King of a Film
Originally Released: 1994
Looking back, I think the three most-watched movies for me growing up were Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. These are three movies that I basically had memorized back then, and today, they are three films that I can go back to at any time and still really enjoy.
Thinking about it, I was really lucky to be a child during the time of this Disney renaissance, and with this trio of films in particular. Each of the three is a masterpiece and can claim to be the best Disney has to offer in some way. While Beauty and the Beast is the most spellbinding, heart-warming and inspiring film, and Aladdin is the funniest escape to a far away place, I find The Lion King to be the most powerful and moving animated film in the entire Disney canon.
I said in my post for Beauty and the Beast that it was my favorite of all the Disney films. I stand by that statement, but to me, The Lion King comes in a close second. A VERY close second. From the very first seconds of the film with the rising sun and the African chant, it becomes clear that The Lion King is something special. As incredible as the opening scene and song are, the film amazingly doesn’t let up after that. We meet a superb cast of characters who tell a deeply moving and emotional tale, all the while being accompanied by a marvelous score, beautiful and bold art, and brilliant animation.
The Lion King is loaded with fun, smart, and memorable characters. This collection of characters is every bit as memorable and strong as the cast I praised in Aladdin. The Lion King is a great example of how to make each character important to the story and to the film, regardless of whether they are the protagonist, evil henchman, or comic relief sidekick. It helps that the characters are voiced by what was the most star-studded cast of any Disney feature up to that point. Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Cheech Marin, Whoopi Goldberg, and all the others do a fantastic job. Particular mention needs to be given to Jeremy Irons, though. After the string of villains in Ursula, Gaston, and Jafar, Irons had a lot to live up to in his voicing of Scar. But he really delivered and continued the streak of making the villain stand out.
Speaking of standing out, where do I begin with the music? At the time, the score for The Lion King was unlike anything ever heard in a Disney film. The now-legendary Hans Zimmer, who composed the score, turned in what I believe to be the very best work of his career with his blending of African instruments and choruses with a sweeping cinema style. It is no surprise that it won the Oscar for Best Score in 1995 (that had to be the easiest decision ever for the academy). To me this is easily the best score of any Disney film. It is one of my favorite movie scores of all time, and if Disney ever released the complete score, I would snatch it up in a second. Beyond the score, the songs are also great. The combination of Zimmer, Lebo M., Tim Rice, and Elton John proved to be a winning combination.
Another great aspect of the film is the art and color used throughout. The Lion King is beautiful to look at. It has lush green in the plants, brilliant blues in the day and nighttime skies, and many other bright and bold colors (just look at the collection of screenshots to see what I mean). It has some incredible backdrops of fields, cliffs, trees, and other landscapes that are artistically enhanced in a wonderful way. Pride Rock and the jungle home of Timon and Pumbaa are full of life and color, while the Elephant graveyard and Post-Scar Pride Rock serve as effective contrasts and capture the bleakness and dire situation the characters are in at those times and places.
In addition to the art, the animation is also a high mark of the film. Interestingly, when Aladdin was completed, the Animation department broke into two groups: one team would work on Pocahontas and the other would do The Lion King. Pocahontas was pitched as the superior film, as an automatic home run. And so everybody wanted to work on it and most of the top talent ended up moving to that project (Andreas Deja was the exception because his dream was to work on an animal picture like The Jungle Book). This left The Lion King to the “B-team,” and it was considered more of the “B-movie” project, with no one really having high expectations for it. The directors practically had to beg to get people to come work on the project. But this so-called “B-team” rose up to the challenge, and in the process really advanced the craft of animating animals to a whole new level. The movements of the characters on the screen had the most believable mixture of human and real animal ever seen in animation at the time of its release in 1994. And in addition to character animation, the team continued the trend of giving scenes an extra “wow factor” with the help of 3d computer animation.
But perhaps the strongest part of The Lion King to me is its emotional story of family and its powerful message of personal responsibility. Somehow, The Lion King manages to go beyond most films that merely entertain, and it penetrates deep down to the soul, both emotionally and spiritually. Despite being about wild animals, this movie addresses some of the most basic and important human issues. Things like loving and honoring family (from both a child and parent perspective), respecting all other life, the importance of embracing responsibilities and doing the right thing, and the possibility of redemption all ring true and loud and clear in this film.
My favorite scene is when Mufasa’s spirit comes back to remind Simba of himself. It was said that during production, the filmmakers looked to stories like Joseph in Egypt and Moses at the burning bush for inspiration in the movie. No doubt this part of the movie benefits from the stories. The result of this is a scene that is not only key to the film, but a scene with spiritual parallels that really resonate with me. Mufasa tells Simba, “You have forgotten who you are, and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become.” In real life, perhaps we can feel at times that we forget who we are and we lose sight of who we can become. We just need to but remember who we are as a son or daughter of our Father. And like Simba, we may be tempted to say “How can I go back? I’m not who I used to be.” We all make mistakes, but we can walk that path back and make things right – no matter how difficult the path may be – if we remember who we really are and who we come from. It is a strong, strong message, and a brilliantly done scene.
So with all these things, it is no wonder that The Lion King took the world by storm. To date, it is the highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time, and if you include 3D animation, the 2nd highest, right behind Toy Story 3. The Lion King firmly cemented animation as a legitimate mainstream form of entertainment, art, and money-making power. Most importantly, though, it completed the triple play of Disney’s amazing renaissance which took kids to an enchanted castle, an Arabian cave of wonders, and a lush African safari. Long live The Lion King.