‘The Lion King’ at 30 – Review

The Lion King (1994)
Directors: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff
Screenwriters: Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton 
Starring: Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly, Niketa Calame, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Robert Guillaume, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings, Madge Sinclair, Frank Welker

Along with the Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King is justifiably seen as the crown jewel of the Disney Renaissance. Regarded particularly fondly by millennials who grew up watching it on repeat in the 1990s –  making it the biggest-selling VHS release of all time in the process – its iconic status in pop culture only grew with the smash-hit success of the Broadway musical adaptation that debuted in 1997 and still enchants sold-out theatre audiences across the world today. The film was as close to a flawless example of visual storytelling in its purest form that you could hope for even before it was supercharged by its soundtrack. You only need look at John Favreau’s ridiculously profitable but artistically misguided CG animated remake to see just how right they got this and how wrong it could have gone. Now 30 years old, this classic continues to move us all.

The delicate natural balance of the African savanna is upset when King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is overthrown by his jealous brother Scar (Jeremy Irons), sending the young prince Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas/Matthew Broderick) into exile. After growing to maturity in the wilderness with two unlikely friends, Simba must confront his destiny and return to face his treacherous uncle and reclaim his rightful place as ruler of the Pride Lands.

The opening “Circle of Life” sequence effortlessly draws us into this recognisable yet heightened natural world entirely through hand-drawn artistry and music. However photorealistic the more recent film version was, it lost its beating heart in its push for verisimilitude. Incredibly, The Lion King began as a second-run project for Disney, with many of their more experienced animators being assigned to the more prestigious project of Pocahontas, yet it ended up eclipsing the latter on almost every level. Even though real animals were used as references, these animated characters are not compelling because they are realistic, but because they capture the essences of living creatures and can still convey a range of human emotions. By focusing on a key character each, Disney’s lead animators were able to impart their personalities onto them, becoming very much a part of the performance just as makeup artists and movement or dance choreographers are in live-action. Just look at the almost imperceptible moment where Mufasa changes from a proud and implacable monarch surveying his subjects gathering for the presentation of his son into a warm and approachable friend as his loyal advisors Zazu and Rafiki arrive, or any number of points where the animation allows for human emotional nuance or animalistic behaviours to come to the fore as required (as is seen in some of the film’s fights).

Scar, originally conceived as a baboon but re-tooled as a big cat early in production, is one of the great charismatic movie baddies; a resentful opportunist who uses brains over brawn and whose jealous younger brother dynamic with Mufasa (James Earl Jones, never more powerful and dignified) is crucially and elegantly established in the film’s first dialogue scene where the lion siblings have a family argument full of veiled threats. Jeremy Irons has the time of his life giving the treacherous maned usurper his gravelly-purring delivery (his flamboyance inspiring the animators to incorporate his physical mannerisms into the character), and to modern eyes comes across as the worst kind of populist, making empty promises to his feral hyena followers. This voice cast is stacked, but of particular note are: Irons and Jones doing what they do best in adding gravitas to any material, Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Taylor Thomas providing just the right level of sincerity as Simba, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella and Rowan Atkinson bringing much-needed comic relief as Timon, Pumbaa and Zazu, and the unsung hero that is Frank Welker providing an uncanny array of animal noises including every lion roar.

Ask someone what they remember most clearly and fondly about The Lion King, and most viewers would say the opening sequence announced by an orange sunrise and Lebo M’s ecstatic Swahili vocal (“Nants ingonyama bagithi baba!”), or the heart-in-your-mouth stampede that ends with one of the most upsetting deaths in Disney, or even one of the vividly colourful and stylised musical numbers, from the carnivalesque party track “Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the ostentatious bad guy plotting of “Be Prepared” or the visual gag-laden catchy classic “Hakuna Matata”. Every film in Disney’s Renaissance has colour and memorable imagery and action, but only one film has the dream team of Tim Rice and Elton John on songwriting duties and Hans Zimmer composing, their combined efforts crafting an all-time great musical soundtrack that takes equal influence from pop music, Broadway shows and African cultures.

Every Renaissance movie had at least one major technical innovation, and here the centrepiece is the wildebeest stampede that helped to pioneer digital cloning of characters programmed to avoid colliding with each other (a similar technology would be used for crowds in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and developed further with the massed armies of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy over the next few years) and computer-driven simulated camera movements. It’s such a tense action sequence achieved through a mix of traditional and modern techniques elevated to operatic levels by atmospheric lighting and Hans Zimmer’s particularly imposing, choir-heavy scoring of the scene.

Is it an original story? Not really. It’s not a direct adaptation of a specific story or fable like most of the earlier Disney classics, but it shares notable similarities with Anime ‘Kimba the White Lion’ and draws on well-worn archetypes from various national folk tales, and seems particularly influenced by Shakespeare, especially “Hamlet”. But, while it may feel familiar, the level of artistry and the emotions it provokes in viewers of all ages ensure that it still hits hard. 

Three decades on and The Lion King remains a classic, an untouchable icon of pop culture with an impact that has stayed with children as they have grown up and passed it on to children of their own. The latest generation of Disney fans deserve stories like this, creative risks without a guarantee of success rather than re-treads designed to print money. The sheer majesty of the imagery, the memorability of every character, and the timelessness of the songs, has earned The Lion King’s place in the pantheon of animation and won it a loyal audience for life.

Score: 23/24

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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