As the promotional material of the time wasted no breath stating, “The Lion King” was the first animated film from Disney based on original material rather than a pre-existing fable or children’s story. Compare that to the marketing surrounding “Tangled” 16 years later as the first classic Disney film to use a fairy tale again, or “The Princess and the Frog” as the first classically-animated film in a similar amount of time and it’s obvious what a big change the industry has gone through in a short time.
Our hero here is young Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), princely son of Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the king of beasts, and heir to Pride Rock. Unfortunately he’s also the nephew of the simpering, ambitious Scar (Jeremy Irons) who lusts after Mufasa’s throne and will do whatever it takes to get it. Even, and especially, using his young nephew as bait in a plan to kill the king.
In this case, ‘Original Material’ depends very much on how far you’re willing to stretch the notion. “The Lion King” is not based on a specific story, but it does owe quite a bit to the various ‘Hamlet’ legends and–depending on who you ask–the old anime series “The White Lion.”
Whether you think it does or doesn’t, “The Lion King” shakes free of its influences and carves out its own identity as a cleverly done tale of learning personal responsibility both to others and to the land we live on.
Or at least it carves out as much of an identity as it can. After several years of Pixar efforts to compare it to, some of the cracks in the Disney style of the ’90s are much more evident in hindsight and while “The Lion King” hasn’t aged badly, it hasn’t outgrown it’s weaknesses either. The final film put into production during Jeffrey Katzenberg’s tenure with the company before he left to start DreamWorks, a lot of the clever, charming and original elements Katzenberg had spearheaded when he rejuvenated the animation division had begun by this point to turn into the clichés they eventually became and it is even more evident in hindsight.
But what it lacks in real originality it makes up for in genuine charm and craft. The vistas of the Serengeti make great hay for the Disney animators and “The Lion King” is one of the most spectacular and epic of all the Disney animated films. That is even more evident in the 3D post conversion that adds the level of depth to the film 3D is supposed to add but which is often lacking. Animated films, even hand animated ones, have an easier time of this than live action to begin with of, course, because of they are created out of different layers of visual information. The outcome is beautiful and well worth the extra money to see in 3D.
Particularly the still spectacular wildebeest stampede set up by Scar to try and claim the throne with by disposing of father and son in one stroke. The naturalism and dynamism of the set piece made it frightening for children at the time and it still is. Himself scarred by the experience, Simba leaves the pride and heads into exile where he runs into a strange meerkat (Nathan Lane)/warthog (Ernie Sabella) duo and tries to leave his past behind.
It’s helped along by some of the finest songs from that era of Disney filmmaking, despite being the first animated production of the time made without the input of lyricist Howard Ashman, who died during the production of “Aladdin” some years earlier. Ashman had been a pivotal part of the ‘Disney Renaissance’ and while “The Lion King” doesn’t quite reach the levels of charm the Ashman-Menken team did, it proved that even without Ashman quality work could still be expected. The score from Hans Zimmer, then an up and coming composer with fewer big films under his belt, also laid a lot of the groundwork Zimmer would follow for the rest of his career.
And it is extremely well voice-acted with pitch perfect casting for most of the parts. While Lane’s Timon got much of the notice during the initial release, to the point where it propelled him from Broadway to film and television star, it’s Iron’s Scar who’s really the best part of the film. He switches so quickly and easily from campy to deadly its like a showcase for how to do an over-the-top villain right. Most of the other bit parts are almost as good, from Rowan Atkinson as an overly officious bird to Robert Guillaume as a mystic baboon. Some of the comedy hasn’t aged well, particularly Scar’s idiotic hyena henchmen (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin), but more of it works than doesn’t.
In fact, typically for Disney animated fare, it’s the hero who is the weak link being both blandly designed and blandly performed be it the kid (Thomas) or adult (Matthew Broderick) version.
Still, as the Ur-Example of 1990s Disney filmmaking, it’s hard to find a better example than “The Lion King.” It wasn’t the originator of the trend. It wasn’t even the best or the most fun to watch. But it is the biggest and in its own way the brightest. It took everything about that style of filmmaking and cranked it up to 11; the effect was sometimes discordant and sometimes beautiful but always memorable. And isn’t that the hallmark of a classic?