#111 The Lion King
(1994, Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff)
“We are all connected in the great circle of life”
Naturally, Disney had to make an appearance on this blog. Love them or hate them, Disney have a key place in film-making history. Their Animated Canon is now 50+ films strong, and their enduring popularity means that the characters, stories and songs are all embedded in public consciousness.
Not that Disney films are all good, mind. Disney like to use the term “Disney Classics” to describe the Canon, but this is incorrect since many of them are not, in fact, “classic”. Particularly some of the more recent efforts to come from the studio. An over-reliance on utilising many of the same tropes and frequently attempting to tie the movies into some kind of toy marketing deal, along with a persistent, almost by-the-numbers desire to be as inoffensive as possible tends to put a little creative dampener on things.
And yet, despite all this, The Lion King is certainly one of the better movies that Disney have produced. Indeed, the late 80s and early 90s saw a slight revival of the studio’s fortunes (spurred on no doubt by the success of the fantastic Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and producing some of their most memorable work. Films like Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Beauty & The Beast won over critics and viewers alike. The Lion King stood firmly as the crowning achievement of them all (rather appropriately, it does have “king” in the title, after all).
Now, The Lion King does feature many of the typical Disney staples of the time. There’s a brooding, largely bland prince as the main male lead. There’s a generic sweet-hearted “princess”. There’s a flamboyant bad guy. There are comic sidekicks. There are celebrity voices (just look at those credits!), and musical numbers composed by someone relatively famous. Also, there’s no blood despite the villain usually dying horribly, and everyone lives happily ever after in the end. And yet despite the clichés all being present and correct, the movie is still enjoyable
The movie was initially advertised as being the first “Disney Classic” (seriously, Disney, Treasure Planet is not a classic, stop using that blanket term) to not be based on a piece of classic literature. This is false, since it is clearly Hamlet, but I’ll let that slide. We have a prince (Simba, played by Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a child and Matthew Broderick when he grows up) who Just Can’t Wait To Be King. He lives a peaceful life in the Pride Lands under the rule of his benevolent father Mufasa (James Earl Jones). But the peace is threatened when Mufasa’s brother Scar (Jeremy Irons) decides to stage a coup, and tells the hyenas (Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin) to Be Prepared to overthrow Mufasa and become king himself.
After Mufasa’s death at the hands of Scar, Simba flees, meeting up with Timon and Pumbaa (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella respectively), a meerkat and warthog who help him run away from his problems. However, the return of childhood friend Nala results in Simba Feeling The Love Tonight, and ultimately making the decision to return home and face Scar for the right to the throne, thus completing the Circle Of Life.
OK, since that was probably the longest intro to a review I’ve ever done, let’s look at the good things about The Lion King.
First of all, the animation, being Disney, is stunning. The characters all move believably and the few bits of CGI that were utilised (e.g. the wildebeest stampede) blend well with the traditional animation. It’s also surprisingly dark at times, including the surprising use of Nazi imagery during Be Prepared. So much for family-friendly, I guess.
There are also some strong vocal performances here. James Earl Jones as Mufasa is powerful, while Jeremy Irons is suitably Shakespearian (because, you know, Hamlet). Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella play well off each other and sound appropriately cartoony. And while Matthew Broderick’s performance won’t set the world alight, he works well with the limited personality his character is given.
Less impressive, however, are Jonathan Taylor Thomas as baby Simba and Rowan Atkinson as Mufasa’s feathered PR bird Zazu. Thomas’ voice is too grating and too sugary for anyone over the age of 12 to find acceptable, and Atkinson sadly sounds like he’s trying too hard. And coming from Blackadder, that’s a disappointment.
The songs are generally of a high standard, although it is pretty hard to tell that Elton John wrote the music. However, “Just Can’t Wait To Be King” comes across like a bad Jackson 5 song and for “Circle Of Life” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”, I much prefer Elton’s own versions. Combine the African chanting from the movie version of “Circle” with the Elton vocal version, and I’d be happy.
Plot-wise, however, is where The Lion King suffers. For a start, it contains all the usual Disney clichés mentioned above, including the tendency for Disney to take a dark story (Hamlet, in case you weren’t paying attention) and butcher several aspects of it to make it suitable for a PG rating. The ending has a tendency to get a little silly in its use of weather-related imagery. And generally the plot feels a little rushed. It’s not terrible, and it’s certainly a damn sight more interesting than a lot of films aimed at a younger audience (including some other Disney movies…) but it is noticeable that some characters are a little flat and sometimes things just happen for the sake of leading to that happy ending.
The Lion King is certainly one of the better Disney movies out there though, and one of the few that can legitimately hold the “classic” title Disney bestows on all its animated movies. Good performances, some impressive animation, and a rare darker edge to proceedings make this worthwhile family viewing.
Starring the voices of Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Rowan Atkinson, Robert Guillaume, Madge Sinclair, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin & Jim Cummings
Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts & Linda Woolverton
Produced by Don Hahn
Music by Hans Zimmer, songs by Elton John & Tim Rice
Edited by Ivan Bilancio
Favourite Scene: I rather like the Be Prepared section. Jeremy Irons is gloriously over the top and the animation reflects this perfectly.
Scene That Bugged Me: The final battle. The use of storms to show off the battle is a little over the top, Disney.
Watch it if: You just can’t wait to be king
Avoid it if: You find it odd that Darth Vader is the good king