Remember who you are.
The sun rises at the screen’s bottom as Lebo M. is heard singing in Zulu. We take a look at the wide-open expanse of an African savannah before slowly honing in on herds of animals moving towards a single spot: Pride Rock. There we find Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Sarabi (Madge Sinclair) resting with new lion cub Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) as trusted allies Zazu the hornbill (Rowan Atkinson) and Rafiki the baboon (Robert Guillaume) arrive to offer their services for what’s to be a grand coronation. And none of them speak, their expressive actions providing everything we need to know while Carmen Twillie belts out Elton John and Tim Rice‘s “Circle of Life”, the music crescendoing to an abrupt title cut in deafening silence.
If you haven’t seen The Lion King in two decades like me, re-watching that opening is nothing short of breathtaking. It’s no wonder Julie Taymor kept it intact for her Tony-winning stage show, her animals lining the aisles to immerse the audience in the majestic splendor of awe-inspiring wonderment. Despite not knowing who these characters are yet, we understand the hierarchy and respect on display. Mufasa is obviously a just and benevolent king to the numerous species living amongst the lions (and inevitably eaten by them too). To therefore present his son to hundreds of bowed heads ruled by love goes a long way towards realizing the symbiotic relationship that keeps them all alive. Everyone ultimately plays his/her part until the next generation rises to do the same.
Utopias don’t last forever, though, as someone will always be jealous of what he/she cannot have. In this case it’s the king’s brother Scar (Jeremy Irons)—second in line to the throne until Simba’s birth. He believes he got the brains and Mufasa the brawn. Languish too many years in self-pitying resentment, however, and no amount of brains will save you from selling your soul for the opportunity to take what you believe was stolen away. Scar could have been an integral piece of Mufasa’s court had he accepted that role, but he decided to actively work against it instead. With the help of hyenas (long-since exiled from Pride Rock to scavenge outside its borders) and a well-placed stampede, he’s but two deaths removed from controlling everything anyway.
The allusions to Shakespeare’s Hamlet are obvious as the king’s brother orchestrates his demise to supplant him while the true heir is gone. Simba, believing he caused his father’s death, willingly leaves to avoid the shame of admitting fault. Off he runs to the jungle, befriending the kindly yet opportunistic Timon the meerkat (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa the warthog (Ernie Sabella) who in turn teach him the concept of “Hakuna Matata” or “No Worries.” If Simba (now voiced by Matthew Broderick as an adult) brushes off his responsibilities and forgets about his home, he can simply move forward and enjoy an unencumbered life. When a blast from the past (Moira Kelly‘s Nala) arrives to tell him that Scar ruined everything, however, ignorance can no longer remain an option.
With the infectious “Hakuna Matata” and heartfelt “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” leading the way, we travel through the years with a series of effective montages bridging the beauty of what Pride Rock was under Mufasa’s rule and the nightmarish wasteland it became under Scar. Add the menacing if inept villainy of hyenas Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg), Banzai (Cheech Marin), and Ed (Jim Cummings) and you can see why a young boy would abandon his purpose to stay alive when his strong and brave father couldn’t. Simba will need to rediscover the identity Mufasa instilled within him to return his home to its former glory and force Scar to confront his own part in letting his yearning for power destroy it. The truth must be revealed.
It’s wild that nobody working on Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff‘s film believed it would be a winner. After three rewrites (Linda Woolverton, Jonathan Roberts, and Irene Mecchi share credit alongside seventeen others attributed with story assistance while Brenda Chapman served as story supervisor), its intent shifted from a dramatic, true-to-life glimpse of an Africa at war that pitted lions against baboons into its romantic adventure of good overcoming evil. Osamu Tezuka‘s Kimba and the White Lion probably inspired this transition from National Geographic authenticity to family-friendly cuteness, but that controversy was never settled in a meaningful way to admit as much. And despite many experienced Disney animators ignoring The Lion King to work on Pocahontas instead, it’s the one that would become an international sensation.
That underdog atmosphere surely helped things because the team had more room to create something wholly different from the Disney canon. The opening scene alone shows the latitude they were given to introduce audiences to this world via a dialogue-free sequence more interested in emotion and aesthetic than plot. Using talking animals that aren’t anthropomorphized is in itself a risk because it forced the animators to rethink how their characters needed to move in order to be true to their real-life counterparts and the story at-hand. Having John and Rice’s catchy tunes as a backdrop (with Hans Zimmer composing the score) goes a long way towards investing, but nothing envelops an audience better than a streamlined trajectory from start to finish devoid of any distracting instances of excess.
“Circle of Life” presents the world. Simba’s curiosity reveals Mufasa and Scar’s rivalry. And the devastating death at its center lets its unforgettable gut-punch and sorrowful aftermath arrive via character interactions rather than expository history. In the same vein comes Simba’s embracement of Timon and Pumbaa’s laissez faire attitude through their endearing comedy instead of any prolonged exposure to their friendship’s evolution. Wield Rafiki as a physical bridge between past and present, ensure the African environment remains vibrant throughout to create an obvious contrast with Scar’s Pride Rock, and construct an elaborate climactic fight that uses what we know about its players to expedite the drama and reject repetitive reinforcement. Even the credits utilize two columns to roll by quicker—the gas refusing to ease off even then.
It therefore looks and sounds amazing with jokes that actually land (Scar’s embellished sarcasm, Timon and Pumbaa’s puns, and Rafiki’s sage wisdom delivered with playful abuse) to counteract the inevitable darkness born from Scar revealing his malicious intent and the hyenas rising as a bloodthirsty horde. And much like the beginning and end mirror one another to provide visual import to the cyclical nature of this savannah’s prosperity, the filmmakers make it a point to also sprinkle in callbacks as a circuitous short-hand in lieu of extra words slowing things down. Having twenty-one writers is hardly a vote of confidence when it comes to Hollywood productions, but perhaps every one of them was needed to distill their plot to its most efficacious form. The result speaks for itself.