Up next in the Disney Canon Countdown, comes, arguably, the greatest film of the Disney Renaissance, and perhaps, even the entire Disney lineup. May I present, the sixth highest-grossing animated film, winner of two Golden Globes, and a pair of Academy Awards, The Lion King.
These accolades are high, and while the case for greatness can be made for any Disney film, this one always seems to have a degree of prestige that holds it high among the rest of these fantastic films. But what is it that makes The Lion King so great? How is it, that twelve years after the initial release of the film in 1994, it is still held in such high regard?
For those that are not aware, The Lion King is based on Hamlet by Shakespeare (albeit, it is a much less disturbing counterpart with a lot less murder, but I digress). This is a story that embarks the main character on a saga of death, vengeance, and power struggles. The initial inspiration is palpable, and drawing from the Bard’s work certainly give the film a strong foundation that can only be built upon from there.
A sense of power begins from the opening of the film. There is no time to settle or relax, the music just sweeps you into the Pridelands, and the journey begins. This music, a combination of the talented trio, Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer, is different than most other Disney movies, with a strong African motif throughout the entire score, setting it apart and creating an aura of uniqueness and wonder as you begin in this new world with baby Simba.
The scope of this world is so great and powerful. Inspired by Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya, there is a full appreciation of the environment in every shot. Originally, there was little faith in the project, and most of the animators went to work on Pocahontas, which was developed concurrently with The Lion King and was predicted to be more successful upon release. Real animals were used for reference, and a variety of animals, including lions, were brought into the studio to give an authentic feel to the work. Despite the lack of faith many had in this film, there was much attention to detail to realize the full scope, and that only served to make the movie greater.
The emotional resonance plays into the film’s greatness. A major theme throughout the whole film is the cycle of life and death, a subject that was risky to undertake in a child-friendly film. However, The Lion King took a mature and careful stance with these difficult subjects. The death of Simba’s father resonated heavily with the audience (several of my friends can be found that are unable to return to the film because it makes them too depressed). So powerful are the lessons of love, loss, and not running from your issues but taking the appropriate measures. Few films can teach this in a way that isn’t cheesy or patronizing, and the mature stance this film has is strong and impressive.
But it isn’t all power struggles and Shakespeare motifs. This is a genuinely fun film with lovable characters, funny moments, and gorgeously animated songs filled with a colorful vibrancy.
Not until I was older did I see all of Simba’s flaws. His inability to listen to his elders and his desire to be king (without realizing the implication that his father would have to die) is simply childlike and understandable. However, we see Simba in this stunted form for a majority of the film as he ran away at such a young age. But this doesn’t make him any less lovable. Indeed, Simba is a beloved character for his flaws, his curiosity, and adventurousness, making him relatable and adorable.
The immature duo of Timon and Pumbaa were a nice, fun foil to the serious Zazu and Mufasa who were the main caregivers at the beginning of Simba’s tale. These characters, while opposite from one another in many ways, each served an important purpose and developed nicely. Mufasa was strong and tragic, and the serious and concerned Zazu I only find more relatable with age. Nala was so cool and a serious fighter, and my only complaint is that she was unable to be in the movie more. Rafiki, the wildcard, was so insane, but you cannot help but love him for that.
And let us not forget, the formidable foes undermining Simba and who get a pretty rocking villain song as well. Scar was a sleek, intimidating murderer who had indeed defeated Simba for a number of years until his return. Few villains are allowed to be the “winner” for so long within Disney movies, and his cunning cannot go unmentioned.
This film has only endured. Two direct-to-DVD sequels have been released, along with the recent TV-show, The Lion Guard, and a musical that has won the Tony Award for Best Musical among several others.
The Lion King has become deeply ingrained into the subconscious of our culture. While this may not be the favorite of every animation fan, there is no denying there is a greatness to be found and respect that certainly marks its own uniqueness in the renaissance of Disney films.
What do you enjoy about The Lion King? Or do you find it overrated?
Edited by: Kelly Conley