Monday, January 30, 2012

Disney's The Lion King

The Lion King is probably the most beloved Disney film of my generation. When I saw the movie in theaters again for the 3-D release, everyone was going nuts during the whole movie. There was laughter, crying, and all around awe of seeing a classic put back on the big screen. There's just something about this movie that makes it so appealing to everyone. The characters, the songs, the overall story; it's just perfect. It came out at the perfect time, too. I was just nine years old and distinctly remember going to school and seeing every kid with a Lion King backpack, a Lion King lunchbox, and even Lion King folders and pencils. We even watched it at school when it came out on video in early 1995. I remember begging my parents to buy the movie when it came out on VHS. This movie was the coolest. I even had the Sega Genesis game that came out a little while after. I still feel bad for kids these days. They don't have the luxury that my generation had, growing up with outstanding animated films from Disney. Sure, Tangled and The Princess and the Frog have gotten Disney back on track, but for awhile there, kids had Home on the Range, Chicken Little, and Brother Bear. Yuck.

Disney's biggest hit of all time was first thought up when Disney was on its way to promote Oliver & Company in Europe. Katzenberg, Roy Disney, and Peter Schneider were on a plane going over the pond when the idea of a movie set in Africa came up. Katzenberg loved the idea and they started coming up with ideas for this film. Thomas Schumacher, the producer of The Rescuers Down Under, immediately latched onto the project "because lions are cool." Katzenberg put his ideas into it, basically putting in parts of his own life story. He wanted the movie to be about coming of age and death and mirror some of the events of his own life, especially his life in politics. The earliest draft of the story was penned by The Brave Little Toaster author, Thomas Disch, with the story being called King of the Kalahari. Linda Woolverton spent a year writing up a script and the name changed from King of the Kalahari, to King of the Beasts and King of the Jungle. Woolverton's story was a little bit different from the one we know today. "The plot was centered in a battle being between lions and baboons with Scar being the leader of the baboons, Rafiki being a cheetah, and Timon and Pumbaa being Simba's childhood friends. Simba would also not leave the kingdom, but become a 'lazy, slovenly, horrible character' due to manipulations from Scar, so Simba could be overthrown after coming of age." Yep. That sounds like a winner.

Directors and producers came and went and tried to retool the story, and it wasn't til Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff became the directors and Don Hahn the producer that things really took off. In two weeks they came up with a new story which had a better central theme, something Hahn felt was missing from the first draft. Along the way they realized that they could not call the movie, King of the Jungle. Why? Because lions do not live in the jungle but the savannah. The title was then changed to The Lion King. The Lion King became the first Disney animated film that wasn't directly based off something (sort of). The filmmakers claimed that the story was inspired by the story of Jospeh and Moses in the Bible and William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Now, the Hamlet one I can see in the story, but the story of Joseph and Moses is a little harder to pick out. Rewrites continued to be made, namely making Timon, Pumbaa, and the hyenas more comic characters. Once the filmmakers teamed up with Tim Rice, who had done the songs for Aladdin along with Alan Menken, they had a real production coming together.

Part of what makes this movie so great is the voice actors. It's funny because for some reason I could recognize a bunch of the voices even at my young age. Mufasa was Darth Vader, young Simba was Randy from Home Improvement, grown up Simba was Ferris Bueller, Zazu was Mr. Bean, and Shenzi was Sister Mary Clarence. I didn't know their real names at the time, just their other character's names. Well, maybe Jonathan Taylor Thomas, because every kid knew who he was. James Earl Jones is Mufasa to me. Sure he was Darth Vader but when I hear his voice, I immediately go back to Mufasa. Other well known actors that did voice roles: Nathan Lane as Timon, Jeremy Irons as Scar, Cheech Marin as Banzai, and Jim Cummings as Ed. Nathan Lane had originally auditioned for Zazu while Ernie Sabella, who voiced Pumbaa, auditioned for one of the hyenas. They ended up meeting at the recording studio, and being current co-stars in a production of Guys and Dolls, wanted to audition together for parts as the hyenas. The did so well together that Disney instead decided to cast them as Timon and Pumbaa. Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong were meant to play the hyenas but Chong was unavailable so they made the second hyena a girl and gave the part to Whoopi Goldberg.

Production on The Lion King started concurrently with Pocahontas and many of the animators wanted to work on Pocahontas because they felt that it was the more prestigious of the two. Even the story artists were hesitant to work on The Lion King because some felt that "the story wasn't very good." It's funny when people are proven wrong on a monumental scale. As it turns out, most of the animators for The Lion King were doing main characters for the first time. In the end, over 600 animators contributed to animating The Lion King. Disney harkened back to Bambi and many of their other realistic animal movies by bringing in live representations. Lions and other savannah animals were brought to the studios for inspiration with a trainer explaining each animals mannerisms. Part of the production team even went to Hell's Gate National Park to help give them a feel for what their backgrounds and environment should look like. The Pride Lands are modeled after the park. One of the most tedious parts of the animation process for the film was the wildebeest stampede. "Several distinct wildebeest characters were created in a 3D computer program, multiplied into hundreds cel shaded to look like drawn animation, and given randomized paths down a mountainside to simulate the real, unpredictable movement of a herd. Five specially trained animators and technicians spent more than two years creating the two-and-a-half minute stampede sequence." Yeah, its a good thing this film didn't bomb.

The Lion King was released on June 24th, 1994 to rave reviews. Most praised the story along with the superb animation. Then you had others who compared it to other Disney films and felt it didn't match up. Namely Siskel and Ebert, who felt that Beauty and the Beast was a better film, and that The Lion King was just a good film. What can I say, you can't make everyone happy, and it's hard when you release a string of extremely good movies. Someone's going to complain that one is weaker than the other. Critically, The Lion King is considered one of the best animated films of all time. It didn't do that bad in the box office either. With foreign grosses added in, the film made $772.6 million in its first run. With the re-releases, it's up to $951 million. It still stands as the highest grossing traditionally animated film of all time with The Simpsons Movie behind it. The Lion King also went on to win a Golden Globe for Best Picture for a Musical or Comedy and Best Original Score. It also won Best Original Score and Best Original Song (Can You Feel the Love Tonight by Elton John) at the Academy Awards. So, I guess The Lion King did pretty well for itself. Did I mention it's also a smash hit as a Broadway musical?

Like every Disney movie in the 90's, there seems to be a little bit of controversy connected to the movie. The Lion King actually has two, and they are both very entertaining. The first claim is that The Lion King is one big rip off of Kimba the White Lion, a 60's anime TV show from Japan. Similarities include: The name of the title character, certain scenes being the exact same, and similar characters and situations. Matthew Broderick thought he was auditioning for a remake of the Japanese TV show, as he was familiar with it beforehand. Disney has officially said that all similarities are coincidental. Yoshihiro Shimizu, of Tezuka Productions, who created Kimba the White Lion, has refuted claims that Disney paid him and Tezuka Productions to use their ideas for the movie. He also explains the reason why he and Tezuka Productions has not tried to sue Disney: "we're a small, weak company. It wouldn't be worth it anyway... Disney's lawyers are among the top twenty in the world!" I have not personally seen any episodes of Kimba so I can't weigh in on this one but I'm sure there are scenes on YouTube if you are curious. The second claim against the movie is a sexual one. Remember the scene where Simba doesn't know what to do and flops down on that cliff and a bunch of leaves fly up? Well, as it turns out, the leaves form the word SEX, or at least that's what it looks like to a lot of people. As it turns out, it spells out SFX, a common abbreviation for special effects. It was intended as a innocent signature from the effects team and nothing more.

The Lion King is still one of my all around favorite Disney films, ranking up there with Aladdin, Hercules, and many of the classic films of the 40's and 50's. It's got one of the best openings of any animated film, some of the best and most catchy songs, and even some of the best characters. Who doesn't love Timon and Pumbaa? And for that matter, Ed? Who hasn't found themselves singing "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" or "Hakuna Matata?" If you didn't get to see the film again in 3-D, pop it in your VCR/DVD/Blu-ray player and prepare to be taken back to Elementary School.


  1. I was working at the movie theater when this came out and they were the longest lines we ever had. You don't see that at all anymore.

  2. "The plot was centered in a battle being between lions and baboons with Scar being the leader of the baboons, Rafiki being a cheetah, and Timon and Pumbaa being Simba's childhood friends. Simba would also not leave the kingdom, but become a 'lazy, slovenly, horrible character' due to manipulations from Scar, so Simba could be overthrown after coming of age." Where does this come from? It seems important!