The Lion King
One of the top grossing animated films of all time, it won Best Original Score and Best Original Song for Can You Feel the Love Tonight at the Academy Awards; and was scored by legend Hans Zimmer (he’d later score Pirates of the Caribbean) and lyrics were by Tim Rice (who has worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber) and songs by Elton John [I most strongly connect Elton John to this movie, even though I’m sure I listened to his music growing up.] It ranks pretty high on my list of Disney favorites. The artistry is beautiful, the songs are fun, it’s a complex story (inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet [I am a bad English major and not terribly familiar with Hamlet; I saw one updated version performed by David Tenannt]) and a wonderful cast of voice actors. Highlights include James Earl Jones (most iconic as Darth Vader) as Mufasa, Jeremy Irons (a marvelous thespian who plays Henry IV in BBC’s Hollow Crown productions) appropriate for the Shakespearean role of Scar. Jonathan Taylor Thomas (from Home Improvement) is young Simba; adult Simba is voiced by Matthew Broderick. Whoopi Goldberg (I mainly know her from this film and Sister Act and didn’t realize she was a stand-up comedian until I was a teenager) is one of the hyenas, and Broadway star Nathan Lane (he would later team up with Matthew Broderick for The Producers film) is Timon.
The opening of The Lion King is iconic; I think most people know the movie from that scene alone. Young Simba is presented to the animal kingdom (Emma Swan jokes about the scene in Season 3 of Once Upon a Time) as we learn “there’s more to see/than ever be seen/more to do/than ever be done” and are all connected to the great Circle of Life. All of the animals bow to the little prince, a sunbeam highlighting the scene. We next meet Scar, the king’s younger brother who was next in line for the throne, until Simba was born. He doesn’t hide his disdain and refusal to show for the presentation. Unfortunately, Mufasa doesn’t know what to do with his troublesome kinsman and Scar is free to plot. An image that come back a few times in the movie is Rafiki’s drawing of Simba in his tree.
A few years pass and Simba wakes his father early (with a typical argument between the parents on whose son he is at that time of morning) so Mufasa can show him the kingdom. “Everything the light touches,” Mufasa explains, is their kingdom. The Outlands are beyond their borders and young Simba must never go there. Mufasa further prepares his son that the time will come when Mufasa will no longer be king, it will be Simba’s turn, and cautions that there is more to being a king than doing whatever one wants. There is a balance to life that the king must watch over. Of course, this lesson is interrupted by a brief pouncing practice, much to Zazu’s chagrin (another song, The Morning Report, was added in the Special Edition and appears on the corresponding soundtrack).
Mufasa must attend to royal duties so Simba visits his “weird” uncle and the meddling Scar puts the idea purposefully in young Simba’s head to explore the forbidden Elephant Graveyard. Of course, who should accompany Simba on his adventure is his best friend, Nala. Zazu lets slip that the two are betrothed (a human custom) and will one day be married (they protest now…just wait). As children are wont to do, Simba focuses on the fun of being “free to do it all my way” and merrily describes his rule and why I Just Can’t Wait to Be King. “Everywhere you look/I’m standing spotlight!”
The Elephant Graveyard is not as fun as Simba planned; after his claim to “laugh in the face of danger!”they run into three hyenas, Shanzi, Banzai, and Ed. Luckily, Mufasa arrives and scares off the three hyenas before they really hurt Simba or Nala. Mufasa is understandably very disappointed in his son and reiterates his earlier lesson that one day he will die, though he’ll look on from the stars above. A king is brave when he has to be and despite Simba’s thought that his dad isn’t scared of anything, Mufasa admits he was scared of losing Simba. There is a lovely wrestling match, putting worries aside.
That evening, Scar visits the hyenas, and confesses that he sent Simba and Nala to the Graveyard for the hyenas to “take care of.” He’s “surrounded by idiots” who can’t even do their job. What needs to happen is that Mufasa needs to die; without daddy dearest around, Simba will be simple prey. And then “in justice deliciously squared,” without those two in the way, Scar can assume the throne “I’ll be king undisputed/respected, saluted/and seen for the wonder I am!” and promises the hyenas a new life. A lot of the imagery from Be Prepared is influenced by Nazi propaganda: most explicitly, their march. Be Prepared is a fantastic villain song as well and Jeremy Irons is deliciously hammy [Jim Cummings (voice of Ed) had to finish the song for Jeremy Irons when the latter threw out his voice].
Scar promises Simba a surprise for he and his father the next day and leaves the cub in a gorge. The “surprise” is a wildebeest stampede (a scene equal to any action scene today and full of drama and tension). Scar acts suitably worried and runs alongside Mufasa as Zazu flies ahead to find Simba. But once Mufasa enters the gorge, Scar prowls around the top, knocking Zazu out to prevent the royal majordomo from getting further help. Mufasa finds his son and tosses him to safety, but is carried away by the pressing wildebeests. He jumps to the cliff a moment later and begs his brother for help. Scar sinks his claws into his brother’s legs and murmurs “Long live the king!” before flinging him into the mass. Simba witnesses his father’s fall and in the dusty aftermath, searches for him. He finds Mufasa’s still body (I cry every time, even as an adult) and pleads that “we’ve got to go.” The young cub realizes his dad is dead and tears streak his fur and he curls next to his protector one last time. Scar emerges and reinforces Simba’s thoughts that if it hadn’t been for him, his father would still be alive. He then directs his grief-shocked nephew to “run away and never return.” A moment later, he commands the hyena trio to “kill him.” Simba willingly falls into a bramble bush at the bottom of a cliff and gets away. After Banzai falls in, neither Shenzi nor Ed want to come out looking like “cactus butt,” and they determine if Simba was ever to return, they’d kill him then, shouting the warning to the departing cub. Scar, “with heavy heart” assumes the throne and “ushers in a new era” of living alongside hyenas. Rafiki wipes away the drawing of Simba in sorrow.
Buzzards float about a stretched out Simba; he’s providentially rescued by a warthog and meerkat, Pumba and Timon. At first, Timon suggests leaving him since he’s a lion, but Pumba ponders that he could grow up to be on their side. Timon’s advice to the depressed cub once he awakens is to put his past behind him; “when the world turns it back on you, you turn your back on da world.” They’re outcasts too and they teach him about Hakuna Matata, their “no worry” lifestyle, and how to eat bugs [that grossed me out as a kid. And yeah, Disney, we knew you meant “farted” even as kids. That was actually our favorite part of the song to sing-along to.]
There’s a fun montage showing the progression of time as the new trio crosses a bridge, repeating “Hakuna Matata.” All grown-up now, Timon, Pumba, and Simba discuss what “stars” truly are. Timon claims they’re “fireflies that got stuck up in that big bluish-black thing.” Pumba is scientifically correct stating they are balls of gas burning billions of miles away. And Simba shares what his father told him about the kings of the past looking down on them. He’s laughed at by Timon and Pumba and leaves to ponder the tragedy of his life. His scent drifts in the breeze to old Rafiki, who recognizes it and joyfully realizes Simba is alive. “It is time,” the monkey declares, now drawing a mane on Simba.
The following morning, Timon and Pumba are out searching for grubs, singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight [this is how I know that song, despite it being older than the movie]. Pumba wanders off, to be chased by a grown lioness. Simba to the rescue! Until he’s pinned in a very familiar manner and recognizes a grown up Nala. Nala is understandably surprised to discover that Simba is alive and urges him to return with her to the Pride Lands and claim his throne. Simba decides that he and Nala need to have a talk, alone. Timon bemoans the two old friends’ romantic Can You Feel the Love Tonight [probably my second favorite Disney love song. Elton John’s solo version is the only “pop” version of Disney songs that I liked growing up]. As an adult, some of their actions take on more meaning, like the looks between them while Nala is lying down. But I still think it’s sweet; they’re simple gestures between two beings that care about each other. And Simba looks a lot like his dad at times. Yet, at the end, the couple continues to argue over Simba’s return. He refuses; he can’t face his past. Nala wonders “why won’t he be the king I know he is/the king I see inside?” She tells him she’s disappointed that he’s not the same Simba she remembers. Simba in turns accuses her of sounding like his father. “Good, at least one of us does.” They fight further; Simba refuses to tell her the truth of why he ran away, deeming that to tell her now and return to the Pride Lands won’t change anything, and stalks off. He shouts his despair to the stars, reproving his father, “You said you’d always be there for me!” Quieter, “but you’re not. And it’s all my fault.”
A little chant echoes on the wind. Rafiki is dancing in a tree and comes down to impart wisdom on Simba. Simba can’t answer his question, “who are you?” Rafiki knows; he’s Mufasa’s boy. When Simba says that Mufasa has been dead for a while, Rafiki states “wrong again! He’s alive! And I’ll show him to you!” The crazy monkey leads Simba through vines and trees and roots [How to Train Your Dragon 2 has a scene that echoes this one] to a pool. Rafiki urges Simba to “look harder” at his reflection. The lion sees Mufasa, as Rafiki states, “he lives in you” (becomes a song title in the sequel). Mufasa’s bass voice rumbles and the clouds part, forming his silhouette. Mufasa chides his son that he has forgotten him; by forgetting who Simba truly is, he has forgotten Mufasa. Simba must take his place in the circle of life; he is Mufasa’s son and the one true king. He fades away, urging Simba to “remember.” Simba begs his father, “please, don’t leave me,” still the scared lion cub. Rafiki picks up the lesson and a whack from his stick knocks some sense into Simba, that while change is not easy, it is good. One can either run from their past, or learn from it. Hans Zimmer’s theme plays over a wonderful superimposed shot of Simba running back to the Pride Lands. Nala, Timon, and Pumba soon catch up and agree to help Simba reclaim his home. When he cautions that it will be dangerous, Nala echoes his childish claim “I laugh in the face of danger!” Timon and Pumba act as live bait, dressing in drag and doing the hula, a little bit of comedic relief before we delve into the drama.
We witness the devastation that Scar’s rule had wrought. The land is barren and we find out from Sarabi, Mufasa’s widow that the herds have moved on. She advises that they leave Pride Rock. Scar refuses. “Then you have sentenced us to death!” “I am the king,” he replies, “I can do whatever I want!” He swipes at the lioness, but Simba leaps to her defense. Both she and Scar first assume he’s Mufasa. Sarabi is pleased to see her grown son; Scar is annoyed to discover that the hyena trio failed at their mission. Simba growls at his uncle, “give me one good reason why I shouldn’t rip you apart.” Scar states that the hyenas think he’s king, but then sinisterly turns the conversation back on Simba, dragging up how Mufasa died, pressuring Simba to admit that he killed his father. “Murderer!” he instantly declares and further pushes, all the while circling his nephew, stating that it was Simba’s fault, even if it was an accident. A very confused Simba slips on the edge of Pride Rock, lightning from the gathering storm lighting a fire beneath. Scar recalls a similar scene, and digs his claws into Simba’s paws the same way he had Mufasa’s. He whispers his little secret: “I killed Mufasa!” Simba leaps onto Scar, now declaring him the murderer. A paw on Scar’s throat compels Scar to admit the truth out loud. The hyenas are on Simba and lionesses attack the hyenas.
War breaks out (with a brief comedic interlude with monkey kung-fu and a bit about “Mr. Pig.” I still don’t get that reference, but I thought it was hilarious as a kid). Scar attempts to slink away, but Simba is on him, growling that Scar doesn’t deserve to live. Scar pleads that the hyenas are the real enemy (Ed, Banazi, and Shenzi can hear this) and Simba decides he won’t be like Scar; he won’t kill him. Instead, he instructs him to “run away and never return.” Scar plays dirty and swipes ash into Simba’s eyes. There is a violent showdown between the two before Simba flips Scar over and down to a ledge below. Scar thinks he’s in the clear when the hyenas come to him, but they turn on him since he claimed they were the enemy. Shadows play on the rock behind, not giving us a direct view at what happens. It rains harder, putting out the fire and washing away the stain of Scar. To music that gives me goosebumps, Simba at first hesitates to approach the edge of Pride Rock; he had run and hidden from this responsibility, scared he was unsuited, but one last echo of “Remember” from Mufasa and Simba proudly takes his place at the edge of Pride Rock and releases a mighty roar. It’s echoed by the lionesses and greenry springs into the Pride Lands.
The movie ends with a triumphant reprise of Circle of Life, which continues with the presentation of Simba and Nala’s cub.
There was a direct-to-video sequel, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (a play on both a lion belonging to a “pride,” and his daughter being his pride, and maybe even Simba’s own pride and how it affects his own decisions…though that’s a little deep for the movie and not as evident) that came out four years after the original. A tale about Simba and Nala’s daughter, Kiara. Her story mimics her father’s at time, having to go out and experience life on her own before she understands what her father taught her. There are elements of Romeo and Juliet in the plot; two warring families, their children falling in love. Except, the couple does not die at the end! Some of the songs are good and overall a good story; I consider it one of Disney’s better sequels (especially compared to most of their other animated sequels). In addition to a cartoon series in the 90s, Timon and Pumba’s story, Lion King 11/2 came out in 2004; there are funny parts, but it definitely doesn’t live up to the original. Now on Disney Junior, there is a new cartoon series about Simba’s son (I see plot hole regarding the sequel), called Lion Guard.
The original film was transformed into a Broadway production in 1997, and is still running (meaning it recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary…wow). It was nominated for Best Musical and Best Original Score at the Tony’s and did win in several other categories. Next summer, a live-action/CGI adaptation is due out, with an all-star cast; most notably, James Earl Jones will reprise his role as Mufasa (no teaser out yet, but I am excited to see it).
Overall, this is a great family film. It’s about family, responsibility; the characters are deliciously complex and I feel it has stood the test of time. Even though I have seen the movie several times, I still get apprehensive during the stampede and Scar and Simba’s showdown, and sad at Mufasa’s death. Timon and Pumba were my favorite characters as a kid, because they were funny. Now, I enjoy Scar as a villain, and I wish we could have seen more of Mufasa since he is a very wise king and very loving of his son. I can feel a connection to Simba as a young adult facing responsibilities. The artwork is phenomenal; the emotions they are able to put into the faces and still have them look like lion’s; just look at Simba’s face right before he roars at the end. Re-watching the movie has awakened my love of the film; it ranks towards the top of my list.
As always, I welcome questions or comments. Do you like any of the pop versions of Disney songs?
Next Time: Pocahontas