Monday, October 27, 2014


RELEASE DATE: Wednesday 15th June 1994

Once Disney had made the commitment to release an animated movie every year (or thereabouts) there were constantly new stories being pitched. Two films began development around about the same time: one of them was Pocahontas, the story of a famous American Indian girl who saved the life of an English settler. The other was known as "King of the Jungle," or even "Bambi In Africa."

As the artists remember it, Jeffrey Katzenberg got teams from both movies to make pitches to all of the animators, and the animators then had to choose which project they wanted to work on. While many of the studio's best animators leaped towards Pocahontas, feeling that it was most logical next step in the Disney canon, only a few were interested in working on "Bambi In Africa." One such artist was Andreas Deja, who had recently created timeless villains in Gaston and Jafar. He had grown up adoring all of the animation in The Jungle Book and was jumping at the chance to animate animals.

Throughout production, The Lion King (as it would later become known) was considered the "B" picture; that weird animal thing they were doing over in the other studio. Little did they know that this movie would go on to become the highest grossing animated film of all time. (It has since been overtaken by the likes of Toy Story 3, Shrek 2 and most recently Frozen... However, if you adjust for inflation, The Lion King still trumps 'em all!)

This weird little experiment that nobody quite understood became a cultural phenomenon. EVERYBODY saw The Lion King. I was in my mid-teens when it was first released, an age group notoriously NOT into animated movies. And yet everyone had seen it. Everyone was talking about it. Everyone was quoting it. Something just clicked with the public and the box office numbers soared.
Early on, the directors on the picture were Roger Allers (who was head of story on Beauty and the Beast) and George Scribner, who had directed Oliver & Company. Unfortunately these two did not see eye-to-eye on the film's direction. Scribner wanted to see a real, raw Africa, like a kind of animated documentary. Meanwhile Allers wanted it to be a musical, with comedy and drama. Since they could not agree, Scribner left the director's seat, which was then taken up by Rob Minkoff. Thankfully, both Allers and Minkoff had the same vision for the film, and along with a dedicated team of writers, constructed the film we know today.

Since Alan Menken was working on Pocahontas, a new songwriting team would need to step in. Tim Rice was chosen as lyricist. His first choice of composers were the men of ABBA. After looking at the material though, Benny and Bjorn decided that they were too busy with other projects and passed. Rice's next choice was Elton John, but as soon as he suggested him to the producers, he added, "but you'll never get him." Amazingly, Elton said yes and the rest is history.

The Lion King did, of course, do the impossible when it became a record-breaking Broadway musical in 1997. With the success of the movie, Michael Eisner immediately told his best people to make a stage show happen. At first they thought he must surely be joking! That would be impossible to do with any kind of integrity! But by employing the expertise and craftsmanship of director Julie Taymor, The Lion King still sells out on Broadway to this day, as well as the many different productions playing all around the world. Not only was the movie a cultural phenomenon, the stage musical became one as well.

But let's get back to the movie.

The opening to The Lion King is very unconventional, but it was designed to make people sit up and take notice. In fact, the film's theatrical trailer was simply the first song and nothing else. And it worked! The audience saw the title crash on to the screen and immediately said, "I want to see THAT film!"

It all begins with an African call across the savannah as the sun rises.

All of the animals have been summoned to Pride Rock. A prince has been born to the lions. All of the animals celebrate the arrival of the future king.

Only, the new baby's uncle - Scar - was absent from the presentation. Zazu, the king's majordomo, demands answers. It is clear that Scar bears no love for the cub, as he has now been bumped down the line of succession. Mufasa, Scar's brother and the current king, doesn't know what to do with his unhappy brother.

Some time later, Mufasa shows his son Simba around the kingdom, starting with a view from the very top of Pride Rock. "Everything the light touches is our kingdom," he tells the cub.

When Simba tells his Uncle Scar about his day, Scar drops subtle hints about an elephant graveyard, a place no lion should venture. Simba, being ever the adventurer, decides to check it out, but calls on his friend Nala to accompany him. Their mothers give permission as long as Zazu goes as well.

On the way to the elephant graveyard, Simba and Nala concoct a plan to get rid of Zazu that involves a lot of other animals and Simba's wild imagination about what life will be like when he becomes the king one day.

When they reach their destination they are set upon by a trio of hyenas named Shenzi, Bonzai and Ed. They chase the cubs with snapping jaws, and are only stopped at the last minute by Mufasa, who comes to the rescue after hearing of his son going to the elephant graveyard.

A very disappointed Mufasa decides that it's time to teach his son a lesson.

Mufasa tells Simba how scared he was when he thought he might lose him. He then goes on to explain that the great kings of the past watch down on the world from the stars, so when he dies, he will be able to keep an eye on Simba for the rest of his days.

Scar - who organised for the cubs to be "delivered" to the hyenas - begins to plot his next scheme. This time he plans to get rid of the prince AND the king! Scar leads Simba down into a gorge, but when a stampede of wildebeest put the cub in mortal danger, Mufasa races in to save him. Scar sees to it personally that the king is killed in the stampede.

"Simba... what have you done?" Scar asks the heartbroken cub standing over the body of his dead father. Weighing Simba down with guilt, Scar tells him to run away and never return.

Out in the wild, way beyond the pridelands, Simba is picked up by a couple of friendly bachelors, Timon and Pumbaa. They teach him their way of life: "Hakuna Matata," which means "no worries." As time passes the little cub turns into a strapping lion.

One day a lioness comes hunting. Simba viciously defends his new friends from their attacker until he realises it's his old pal Nala, and suddenly it's a friendly reunion.

Nala tells Simba how Scar has let hyenas take over the pridelands and there is almost nothing left. As the two lions take a romantic wander through the jungle, Timon and Pumbaa watch in horror as their pal is "twitterpated."

That night, Simba receives another visitor: Rafiki, who was the prideland's shaman under Mufasa's rule. He shows Simba a heavenly vision of his father and convinces him to return home to reclaim the throne.

Nala, Timon and Pumbaa accompany Simba back to Pride Rock, where things have gone from bad to worse. Hyenas are everywhere. The only way to sneak past them is to use live bait. "Heeey!" Timon says. "What do you want me to do? Dress in drag and do the hula?"

Simba confronts his uncle and demands that he step down. Scar tries to reignite Simba's guilt over his father's death, but in doing so, lets slip that it was actually HIM who killed the king. A great battle rages around Pride Rock with Simba and Scar going head to head and claw to claw among the burning embers. In the end Scar is consumed by the hyenas who had once believed that he would bring them to paradise.

As the rains come and wash the filth of Scar's reign away, Simba climbs to the summit of Pride Rock and takes his place as the rightful king. Some time later, a new child is born to Simba and Nala. And so, the circle of life continues.

IRVYNE: The Lion King is actually a fairly simple story, with roots to Shakespeare's Hamlet and the biblical stories of Joseph and Moses. In a nutshell, it is a tale of taking responsibility and following in the footsteps of your parents. But in true Disney fashion, it is brought to life with wonderful characters, moments of comedy, moments of drama and a magnificent sense of place. This isn't just an American tale set in Africa, it has the African flavour throughout the entire movie.

The casting is wonderful, particularly with James Earl Jones providing the booming voice of Mufasa, Jeremy Irons dripping with nastiness as Scar, and of course all of the supporting cast.
While the pacing is not as frantic as Aladdin, it still manages to tell its story well and develop its characters enough that audiences care about what happens to them.

As has been customary for directors and producers basing their Disney film in a foreign land, the crew took a trip to Africa in the early stages of development, so as to get an idea of what the landscapes are actually like. The artwork that they brought back from that trip is very directly felt in the finished picture.

The location is as much a part of the story as the characters. The Lion King is full of stunningly beautiful backgrounds depicting different seasons on the savannah, the barren desert, and the lush jungle where Simba spends his "teenage years" with Timon and Pumbaa.

Added to that these backdrops are the incredibly expressive characters. All of the characters have a lot of shading to help make them appear as three-dimensional as possible. The animators also did a huge amount of research and study on the movement of real-life animals, so that the movements would be completely authentic. The animals in this movie, while obviously telling a very human story (I can't imagine all of those creatures bowing down for a lion cub's birth in real life!) were created to give the impression of being real African animals, and had to move as such.

There are two distinct aspects to The Lion King's music, both equally important. The first is Tim Rice and Elton John's wonderful catchy songs. "Can You Feel The Love Tonight" won the Academy Award for Best Song in 1995, but the soul-lifting "Circle of Life," the fun and bubbly "I Just Can't Wait To Be King," the big bold baddie song "Be Prepared" and the classic "Hakuna Matata" all became instantly singable classics with Rice's clever wording and John's incredible talent for melody. (Three more Rice/John songs would be added for the stage musical: "The Morning Report," "Chow Down" and "The Madness of King Scar." "The Morning Report" was inserted into the film for its Extended Edition, although in my opinion, not as successfully as "Human Again" was put back into "Beauty and the Beast." Simba and Zazu's voice actors sound like a completely different people...)

The other huge musical accolade must go to the score, which is a sublime piece of work by Hans Zimmer, assisted by South African vocal arranger and singer Lebo M. Together they brought a legitimate, genuine and moving sound of Africa to the picture. The instrumentation and the haunting melodies have brought audiences to tears. Something about the soundtrack just makes people FEEL. It is a master work from one of the greatest living composers.

I don't think anyone would doubt The Lion King's lasting appeal. This odd little animal movie that seemed doomed to be a blemish on the Disney record became a juggernaut. Children today are still discovering the movie's magic, and its legacy through the Broadway musical is as strong as ever. Even though it was very different to the films preceding it, The Lion King was, and still is, a masterpiece.


MALEFICENT: I also love this movie.

WENDY: The Lion King. Making Africa cool since 1994. And there’s so many famous people doing voices!

MALEFICENT: I love Rowan Atkinson. He was perfectly cast as Zazu.

IRVYNE: But of course, the standout character in this movie… Is Shenzi.

SHENZI: Of course!

IRVYNE: On ya, Whoopi!
IRVYNE: I really do love The Lion King… I mean, who doesn’t? But I have to admit, the first time I saw it… I didn’t.


IRVYNE: I don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure that out. I think that because I’d seen The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast a gazillion times, I was disappointed that this wasn’t the same as them. I walked out of the cinema liking it, but not loving it as much as Aladdin. It has grown on me. In 2014 I can appreciate it on its own merits, and it’s a masterpiece. But on its initial release I thought it was good, but not of the same standard as the others.

MALEFICENT: Every single element of this film is amazing. The moods created by nature, the whole way through the movie. It’s brilliance.

SHENZI: Yeah, it’s incredible the way they use colour to tell the story.

HAKU: It’s a technically brilliant movie. All the production elements are really good.

IRVYNE: You can see, just over the past four or five movies, how far the company had come!
PASCAL: Yeah, even comparing it to Beauty and the Beast!

IRVYNE: Go back a couple more years and compare it to Oliver and Company! There was only 5 or 6 years between them!

MALEFICENT: You can’t even compare.

SHENZI: The animal movements are so realistic. You can tell they studied real animals.

HAKU: But even though it looks great, for me, the story isn’t as engaging as Aladdin.

IRVYNE: It’s a slower burn. Aladdin's pacing is very economical.

MALEFICENT: Did they ever actually credit “Hamlet?”

IRVYNE: Not officially, but the creators have mentioned it a number of times as their basic story inspiration. That and Bambi.

SHENZI: Every time I watch this, I think the stampede scene is amazingly awesome.

WENDY: Oh yes, the epic stampede!

IRVYNE: That entire sequence is superb. The pacing, the music, it’s just perfect.

MALEFICENT: It doesn’t matter how many times I watch this movie, I always shed a tear when Mufasa dies.

IRVYNE: Same. It gets me every time.

SHENZI: I think it’s unexpected, the first time you see it. To kill off a main character like that halfway through the movie…

IRVYNE: It’s very un-Disney. The only other time I can think that they did that was in Bambi, but then it all happened off-camera. You never saw the corpse of Bambi’s mother. I do wonder if there were any of the high-ups at Disney who were really worried, saying “We can’t do that. We can’t show the dead body, kids will be crying and running out of the cinemas!”

MALEFICENT: And I’m sure kids were crying! But that’s not a bad thing. It’s learning a life lesson.

IRVYNE: I think for this story, we needed to see the body. It wouldn’t have worked if Simba just THOUGHT his dad might be dead but couldn’t find him. We needed to see that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Mufasa was dead.

PASCAL: The music is so good! Throughout the whole movie it sets the scene and the location so perfectly.

HAKU: I don’t find “Be Prepared” to be a very interesting song.

PASCAL: What? I love that song!

HAKU: Every time I watch this film and this song comes on I say to myself, “This is boring. Get on with it, we know you’re evil.”

PASCAL: *gasp* No!

MALEFICENT: It’s a plot explanation song though. It’s not just saying “I’m evil,” it’s setting his plan into motion.

IRVYNE: I don’t think the movie would work without it. It’s the song of his intentions. It hadn’t been clear up until that point exactly what he wanted, or how he was going to go about it.

WENDY: But it’s not the standout song.

MALEFICENT: No. I don’t think anyone wandered out of the cinema singing “Be Prepared.”

PASCAL: I dunno… I might have done!

IRVYNE: I can just see you walking down the street yelling out, “PREPARE FOR THE COUP OF THE CENTURY!” I’m surprised you didn’t get arrested!

PASCAL: Also, I had never noticed how Nazi-like his rallying of the hyenas is!

SHENZI: Oh yeah, absolutely.

IRVYNE: Yes. Scar is Hitler.

PASCAL: Scar is such a fantastic baddy!

MALEFICENT: He really is.

IRVYNE: It’s an interesting dynamic having the bad guy be such a wuss. He wants everyone else to do the work for him. He doesn’t want to get his hands dirty… At least he doesn’t want to be SEEN getting his hands dirty.

MALEFICENT: A character like Maleficent, for example, is evil for the sake of being evil. She loves it. Scar is different. He’s just power-hungry and bitter.

PASCAL: Lots of villains are like that though. Jafar just wanted power.

WENDY: Ursula as well. She wanted to overthrow the king so she could be in power. Then there’s Gaston… He just wanted a wife.

SHENZI: Timon and Pumbaa make a brilliant team. They're so funny.

ANNA: “Hakuna Matata!”


SHENZI: They’re great comic relief.

IRVYNE: And the audience needs that after the stampede scene. They bring a bit of light back into the movie.

HAKU: Hakuna Matata is a journey song. I like those kinds of songs in shows, where things change throughout the song.

IRVYNE: It’s good that even though those two characters are blatant comic relief, they serve a genuine plot purpose as well. They’re not just there to be funny, they’re there for a reason.

HAKU: They represent the avoidance of responsibility.

IRVYNE: The “bach-pad” mentality.

MALEFICENT: You’re right, there are no superfluous characters in this movie.

PASCAL: Okay, I have to ask… Are Nala and Simba brother and sister?


WENDY: There’s only one male lion in the pride.

IRVYNE: No there’s not. Scar’s part of the pride as well.

PASCAL: They can’t be Scar’s kids. Neither of them have dark hair.

IRVYNE: Who’s to say that Nala’s mother didn’t just come from another pride? I don’t like thinking of them as siblings. That’s a thousand degrees of wrong. Anyway, sometimes lion prides have multiple males.

PASCAL: That one didn’t!

IRVYNE: Think about it. When Zazu says they're going to be married, Simba doesn't say "she's my sister." He says he can't marry her because "she's my FRIEND."

MALEFICENT: Totally siblings.

ANNA: Anyway! Out of the movie or the stage musical, which do you like better?

MALEFICENT: I haven’t seen the stage musical yet.

PASCAL: Ooh, the musical is very good. But they’re different, it’s hard to compare the experiences of them with each other.

IRVYNE: Yeah, the experience of seeing it on stage is so amazing. I think I like them both equally, but they're not the same.

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