May 2022

The Lion King (1994)

DIRECTOR: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff


(voices)  James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Matthew Broderick, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Robert Guillaume, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings, Madge Sinclair


It’s no surprise that The Lion King is widely-regarded as the “king” of Disney animated films. While the staples of Disney classics are in place- lighthearted and elaborately animated song-and-dance numbers and comic relief sidekicks- there is a surprisingly somber, at times even tragic underpinning and an epic feel that sets it apart from the likes of Aladdin or 101 Dalmations. In fact, the story was (very loosely) inspired by the Shakespearean tragedy Hamlet, and while rewatching it in 2011 with my previous viewing many years in the past, while there are plenty of typical “kids’ movie” segments, there are other aspects, including the Hamlet references (which are more noticeable to adult eyes) that speak more to older viewers.

While most Disney animated films, including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid, center on their “love conquers all” fairy tale romances, The Lion King centers on the more adult themes of guilt and redemption. There is a romantic subplot, but it’s exactly that, a subplot, not the central plotline. Our hero is not predominantly concerned with romantic love, but with coming-of-age and accepting the responsibilities that come with it.

Our hero is Simba (voiced as a cub by Jonathan Taylor Thomas), the offsping of the lion king Mufasa (James Earl Jones), who teaches him about his place in the circle of life. Meanwhile, Simba’s jealous uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons), backed up by hyena enforcers, lurks on the sidelines. When Scar’s treachery leads to Mufasa’s death and Simba’s exile from the kingdom, the young would-be king hooks up with two other outcasts, a meerkat named Timon (Nathan Lane) and a warthog named Pumba (Ernie Sabella), who teach him about “Hukuna Matata”- “No Worries”, and he grows up in carefree isolation far from the land he was meant to rule, forgetting his problems and responsibilities, until one day a chance encounter with Nala (Moira Kelly), a childhood friend, leads Simba (now voiced by Matthew Broderick) to a reminder of who he is and what he must do.

Having read the play of Hamlet and watched several film versions in the interim between my childhood viewings of The Lion King and my recent rewatching, the parallels are plain to see, most obviously with the treacherous uncle murdering the father to seize the throne and the ghost of the father urging his son to “remember” (needless to say, The Lion King has a lot lower body count and a lot happier ending than Hamlet, but that’s to be expected). Much of The Lion King serves up what we expect from a Disney animated classic. There’s a lavish, colorful, lighthearted musical number (“I Just Can’t Wait to be King”) early on, and plenty of humor, primarily courtesy of Timon and Pumba, the sarcastic Tucan Zazu (Rowan Atkinson), and Scar’s bumbling hyena lackeys Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg) Banzi (Cheech Marin) and Ed (Jim Cummings). But there’s also genuine excitement and suspense in a wildebeast stampede through a narrow gorge, and tears may prick at the eyes of both children and adults in the aftermath when the cub Simba tries in vain to wake his father’s lifeless body. The way Scar throws his brother under the hooves of the wildebeast and then coldly manipulates the traumatized Simba into fleeing in guilt and shame also shows a touch of genuine nastiness on a level above what we got from many previous Disney villains like the buffoonish Gaston and Jafar. And there’s a feel of genuine weight and drama when Simba returns as an adult to confront Scar and claim what’s his. In fact, a couple sequences, most notably Mufasa’s death, may be a bit intense for very small children.

As is to be expected, the animation shows time, effort, and attention to detail, with the African backgrounds rendered in splendor and the characters conveying clear (if unsubtle) emotions. Several sequences are strikingly visually rendered, including the opening assembly of animals in front of Pride Rock, the wildebeast stampede, and the climactic slow-motion one-on-one fight between Simba and Scar.

The Lion King features some notable names among its voice cast, and the voices are well-suited to the characters. It’s hard to think of anyone better-suited to the kingly Mufasa than the booming, commanding tones of James Earl Jones, and the dry, sly Jeremy Irons is likewise perfect for the sardonically moustache-twirling Scar. Scar is among the top tier of animated Disney villains, mostly because while the likes of Gaston and Jafar seem far too bumbling to really get away with anything, Scar plots to murder his brother and then actually does it. Likewise sparing no expense, the songs are written by Tim Rice and composed by Elton John, and the score is written by veteran composer Hans Zimmer, who brings a vibrant African flavor to the music. Like everything else in Disney, the songs themselves are less-than-subtle, as is the story (the kingdom is colorful and flourishing during Mufasa’s reign, and dreary and dismal during Scar’s), but even if painted with broad enough strokes for young children to follow, the story makes a conscious effort to speak to adults as well as their children, and even more to them in a couple instances (the Hamlet references, and the Nazi symbolism of goose-stepping hyenas marching in formation past Scar).

Overall, The Lion King is worthy of its place at the top of Disney animated fare; it has some impressively animated sequences, a good story, enough songs and humor to entertain the kids, and enough legitimately exciting sequences and grown-up themes to keep the parents engaged. Even those of us who make a rule of shying away from “cartoons” needn’t be embarrassed to admit to enjoying The Lion King.