Confession: I have this movie memorized. Not “I think I could say the words along with them” memorized, but literally memorized. I’ve sat down and recited the whole thing before with nothing but silence in the background (this was to a friend who didn’t believe me – and pretty much my husband when we watched it this time). I know random trivia about this movie that no one would want to know, like how many times you see Mufasa’s or Simba’s claws. I knew Nala’s mother’s name and Scar’s real name before it was common knowledge because of the internet. I own two full sets of Lion King trading cards, one of which I collected myself by buying pack after pack at Albertsons.
To put it short, I was obsessed with this movie. OBSESSED. The funniest part is that I remember seeing the trailer for this movie before Aladdin and thinking “wow, that looks stupid.” That’s why I never trust trailers anymore. What the hell do I know, right? Obviously nothing.
I’m going to tackle this movie much like I tackled Beauty and the Beast. No, this movie wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, nor do I think it should have been. It isn’t as perfect as that movie, but it is arguably more popular. This movie was everywhere. There were toys at Burger King and at every single store that everyone just had to have. There were hand held games and video games (this was before video games with movies were really a “thing.” It won awards for music. The songs were on the radio. Elton John was actually cool again (and this movie is probably one of the few reasons 90s kids even know he exists). I had many friends obsessed, like me, with the songs and the characters. We would argue about who the best character was and share random stupid trivia with each other. We brought stuffed animals to school read ins. We got tv spin-offs. EVERYONE saw this movie at least once. It’s still the highest grossing 2D animated movie of all time, and 19th highest grossing movie ever. I imagine 1994 was a lot like what’s been occurring here this past winter due to Frozen. So here’s what I want to know: Is this movie deserving of all this attention? Is it worthy of being such a high grossing/well known “classic”? Or is it all just a bunch of hooey?
My short answer is that yes, it is deserving of everything. But let’s go into detail, shall we?
Let’s start with the plot. Everyone knows the plot so I’m not even going to bother. If you are one of the probably 100 people in this country who doesn’t know The Lion King, I’ll wait here while you read the wikipedia article….
Good? Ok. Now before I start discussing the plot I want to get a few things out of the way: We’ve heard all the controversies by now people. YES, there was a Japanese anime series called Kimba the White Lion that has a lot in common with this movie artistically and character wise. Personally, I don’t care. Disney has said it was all coincidental. Do I believe them? meh… I dunno. But does it matter? Not really. The Lion King is the movie I care about. If anything, this controversy has made it so that Kimba the White Lion is more recognized. Disney did you all a favor! (btw, the anime series is great – I encourage everyone to check it out).
This is Disney’s first “original” story since The Rescuers Down Under. I put that in quotes because producers have said they based The Lion King of many different sources, from the Bible and the story of Moses to Shakespeare. The latter is what everyone seems to remember. This story is basically Hamlet with animals. (Fun fact: it’s also only Disney’s 3rd movie to feature ONLY animals and no humans – The other two being Bambi and Robin Hood)
Here’s one of the reasons I think this movie was and is so popular: This movie and this plot has the ability to appeal to literally everyone. We follow our protagonist Simba from a cub through childhood and adolescence into adulthood. It’s a story that everyone knows because we’ve all had to grow up or are currently growing up. Everyone can relate to Simba and this story in one way or another. Yes, maybe we haven’t all had our father die by wildebeest stampedes, but we’ve all had to deal with our own hardships, and we’ve all reacted to them and we’ve all fallen and had to get back up. We’ve all lost ourselves and forgotten who we are. We’ve all needed help, and we’ve all risen to the challenge. That’s what living is. That’s what this movie is really about; it’s about growing up, figuring out who you really are, and fighting for what’s important.
The characters in this movie, like the plot, also have wide appeal. Let’s take our protagonist, Simba. I hate to say it, but he’s more believable than a lot of other Disney characters. He’s not a boring, perfect character. He has flaws; a LOT of them. Other Disney characters have flaws to, but Simba’s seem real. They change as he goes through his life, but they make him who he is and they make him interesting. He’s a cheeky kid who likes to break rules (and let’s face it, we all had a side to us as a kid that was pretty much like Simba). He’s a young adult who feels he has lost his way. He feels he has to hide everything (including who he is), and has no idea what to do to be happy. He has this huge secret that eats away at him for years simply because he’s ashamed, and it affects his life. This is all incredibly realistic. Again, I feel that almost everyone can relate to Simba about one thing or another. We’ve all had secrets. We’ve all lost our way. We’ve all wanted to just forget about responsibility and scream “Hakuna Matata,” but then we realize that that’s not living, and that’s not who we are.
Along with Simba, what this movie really does well is it shows us all types of relationships. We have father/son, friendships, romance, etc. This movie treats its characters and their relationships with the utmost importance. Sure we still have our comedic duo, our token bad sidekicks, and our love interest, but this movie makes you understand how much these characters mean to each other. Let’s take the most important one: Mufasa and Simba. Mufasa is a huge, strong, brave ruler; his subjects see him as this, the hyenas see him as this, and Simba does as well. But then we also get to see a softer side of this lion when Simba is nearly killed by the hyenas. As he’s talking to Simba and admitting his weaknesses, we can see the bond strengthening. We can see it strengthening anytime the two are together. Mufasa is an amazing father, because he’s everything that goes with it: he’s also a confidant, teacher, role model, and friend. That’s why it hurts so much when he dies – we understood the bond they had.
It’s not just with these two that we feel it, though. We feel it to a lesser degree with Simba and Nala, Timon & Pumbaa (acceptance & unconditional love), and even Simba and Zazu. We see it in the Hyenas and Scar. This movie does relationships and characters so well I almost want to cry. They’re all unique, they’re all well rounded and deep. Even if they only have a supporting part, Disney spared no time in making them the best they could be. (Sarabi is still one of the best Disney moms out there – she won’t take no crap from nobody!)
Good characters and good plot make for a good movie, but it takes something more for a movie to be truly special. What this movie did was it didn’t just give us a story with these characters, but it built a world around these characters. We have an entire culture in this movie, and I really think that this is part of the movie’s appeal. It starts at the very beginning with the very first words sung, and ends with the last roar. There is a whole belief system in this movie, and it is extremely cool. We have ceremonies for baby lions. We have the belief that kings are in the stars. We have “Hakuna Matata.” We have the Roaring at the end to signify who’s ruling. It’s done in such a respectful and serious way that as an audience we go along with it, like that’s just the way it is. Not once do people go “wow, uh… that’s weird,” because we’re all just “oh this is so cool! How unique!”
At the middle of this whole culture is Rafiki. A weird animated cross between a mandrill and a baboon (fun fact: he was actually supposed to be a baboon at the beginning and a villainous character and not the rafiki we know and love by a long shot!). This monkey acts as a shaman, confidant and spiritual leader for our royal line of lions. He’s there to help push Simba in the right direction and talk some sense into him. He somehow connects the spiritual world to the real one. It’s amazing. People love Rafiki, and with good reason. He’s the wise old guy we all wish we had in our lives. He tells it like it is in a way no one can understand. His scene with Simba is the most quoted scene out of the entire movie, and with good reason. It has some extremely good advice in it. I think people connected not only to Rafiki, but the idea that this movie has it’s own culture, and that’s just unique in a Disney movie. It was well done and incredibly believable and magical.
Reason number…. 5? that I think this movie did as well as it did (and why it deserves it) is, of course, the music. I’ve talked about Disney music before and I praised it like crazy in Beauty and the Beast because of how “musical” it is. The Lion King is not like that. It’s songs aren’t “Broadway ready” in the same way, but they do convey emotion/wants/storyline well. We also get one of our first “song montages” in this movie in “Hakuna Matata” when Simba grows up during the instrumental part (Disney will come to love this idea later…). Honestly, it works. All the songs work. They’re all classic and we all know them. I will be honest though – I have never liked “Can you feel the love tonight.” It’s always kinda bugged me. I dunno. Just a personal issue.
I am going to take a quick break from my list and mention a random thing (well it’s not that random): A lot of people have been giving Disney crap in the past few months about how Frozen is going to Broadway. They wonder why would people want to see a Disney movie (or any movie for that matter) redone on broadway (Broadway’s in a bit of a slump creativity wise right now… most of their “new” musicals are movie adaptations). While I understand to a point (for example – do we really need a Rocky musical?) I think you have to take it on a case to case basis
Case in point: This show. I love this movie, but I love the broadway show even more. Sure I know the plot, but you don’t go for that. You go for the atmosphere. You go to be awed. You go to hear the music pound in your head and cry when the Circle of Life is sung. You go to lose yourself. You go to learn more about these characters that you thought you knew everything about. You go to hear the new (amazing) songs. There is a reason this show has been on Broadway for as long as it has. IT. IS. AMAZING. Who cares it if twas a movie first. If you love this movie, go see the show, even if you think you hate broadway. You won’t be disappointed. I’ve seen it 4 times and each time I get chills and I cry from how beautiful it is.
Ok. My break is over. This movie has a ton going for it, but I have one more reason that I think this movie did so well: Scar. Seriously. I think this movie wouldn’t have done so well had there been a villain any different than the one they got, voiced by someone other than Jeremy Irons. This villain is incredible. Not deep incredible like Gaston (no one can beat that), but just… evil incredible. Disney’s had some evil villains before, but none quite like this. This one actually committed murder on screen. He had a score to settle with his brother. He was angry he wasn’t first born and the one who ruled. He was angry, and he acted on it. But man oh man did he act on it. The most amazing part? He doesn’t care he just killed his brother and his nephew. He’s that evil. Jeremy Irons apparently didn’t want this part, and the producers had to talk him into it. Thank GOD they did. His voice is slippery and slimy just like his character. Scar is one for the record books, and is definitely one of the most evil villains Disney’s ever created. He’s also a blast to watch.
So there you have it. My reasons for why The Lion King did so well, and me rationalizing my obsession with it when I was in 4th grade. After this movie came to theaters, I really didn’t think Disney would have another hit like it for a long time. I turned out to be right, for the most part. It’s a movie that makes you laugh and cry (pretty sure this is the first movie I ever cried during…). It’s a movie that makes you sing along and quote. It’s an experience, not just a movie.
I give The Lion King (1994) a 4.8 out of 5. Little Simba can get on my nerves a bit, believe it or not…. and this movie is not as perfect as Beauty and the Beast, even if I do like it more.
Next up: The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride (1998)