It is the first movie I remember seeing in theatres. We were there for a birthday party. I don’t recall much from the party, or even who it was for, but I do vividly remember the red title card suddenly appearing on screen to a loud, percussive boom: The Lion King. We revelers were in for a real treat.
It’s a story of pride and identity, betrayal and jealousy, destiny and responsibility. Simba will be king one day, but when his jealous uncle tricks Simba into thinking he killed his own father, the young cub runs away, abandoning his royal destiny and everything he knew about himself. The Lion King was nicknamed “Bambi in Africa,” and, if you can recall all the way back to our February post about that film, it’s not hard to figure out why. Animators travelled to Kenya to study animal interaction and behaviour in the wild to help with accuracy. Lions were brought into the studio as live subjects for the animators. Performances by African choirs were infused into Elton John and Tim Rice’s original songs and Hans Zimmer’s score — most notably in opening number “The Circle of Life.” This film succeeded in bringing some of the most magical elements of Africa and its wildlife to the big screen.
While the idea for the film partially came from studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg, there wasn’t much enthusiasm among animators for it. Many of the top level talent quickly jumped on board with another project: the animated telling of the story of Pocahontas, for which Katzenberg in particular had very high hopes. In a scene in the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, co-director Rob Minkoff recalls a breakfast meeting where Katzenberg declared Pocahontas to be a home run, while calling The Lion King an experiment that he wasn’t sure people would want to see. It would seem as if studio executives didn’t realize they had a hit on their hands, initially, but as the film progressed the excitement that was building was undeniable.
The film boasts an incredible cast of Hollywood and Broadway talent: Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane, Rowan Atkinson and the list goes on. Jeremy Irons, in particular, gives a sinister, if not downright creepy, performance as the villain Scar. Scar presents an intriguing departure from traditional Disney villains. From vanity (Snow White), jealousy (Sleeping Beauty) and power (The Little Mermaid), Scar is as complicated as he is tortured giving little thought to the responsibility that comes with his villainous ambition. He has goals, but his scheming is incomplete. He’s so preoccupied with becoming king that he doesn’t take the time to make sure the guilt-ridden Simba is gone for good — a misstep that later becomes his downfall. At Simba’s reappearance, his whole house of cards comes tumbling down.
With Mufasa’s tragic death, Disney pulls at the heartstrings again. The stampede sequence (the film’s most complex) and Scar’s betrayal are seen mostly through Simba’s eyes. After spending the first third of the movie watching how much Simba loves and admires his father, seeing that taken away from him still brings tears to my eyes. The moment symbolizes a loss of childhood for the protagonist; a line in the sand between impressionable innocence and hardened maturity.
The Lion King opened to wide critical and commercial success, raking in over $40-million in its opening weekend, almost recouping it’s $45 million production budget in just a few days. And with a lifetime gross of almost half a billion, it held the record for highest grossing animated film in history for 10 years. At the box office in the U.S. in 1994, it only came second to eventual Academy Award winner Forrest Gump.
While the studio was enjoying arguably its biggest commercial success, tensions were running high at Disney. Just a few months before the release of The Lion King, Disney president Frank Wells was killed in a helicopter crash. The event proved to be the catalyst for one of Hollywood’s nastiest business breakups, chronicled extensively in James B. Stewart’s DisneyWar. It ultimately resulted in Katzenberg’s resignation and a bitter lawsuit in which Katzenberg accused Disney of denying him bonuses outlined in his contract.
Wells’s death is another significant marker in Disney history. He was described as selfless, the peacemaker and a mediator, and without him, all of the egos at the top of the company began clashing in ways that spelled the end of the great Disney Renaissance and left the company forever changed. It hasn’t been on top since.