This is the tenth addition in an ongoing series that will form a comprehensive review of the ‘official’ Walt Disney Animation Studio’s canon – from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through 2016’s Moana, and beyond.
For reference, here is a complete list of the films in the Disney canon.
- Film: The Lion King
- Year: 1994
- Directors: Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
- Length: 88 Minutes
- Source Material: Inspired by Hamlet (British play, 1601) by William Shakespeare
- Official Budget: $45 Million
- Official Box Office: $968.5 Million
Conceived in the late 1980s while on promotion for Oliver & Company, Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg moved forward with initial production of The Lion King after drawing from personal life experiences and trial, making what he felt was a film that was especially personal. An early treatment was outlined by Thomas Disch (author of The Brave Little Toaster), with subsequent drafts coming from Linda Woolverton (screenwriter of Beauty and the Beast). While others were originally attached, after six months of contentious pre-work saw competing ideas come forward, a unified vision was greenlit with Rogers Allers and Rob Minkoff signed on as co-directors. While both Allers and Minkoff had previous experience in animation, this was a directorial debut for both filmmakers.
Screenwriters for The Lion King were inspired in part by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, along with elements from the biblical stories of Joseph and Moses. With production happening simultaneous to other Disney projects, Allers and Minkoff had to settle for newer and less established animators; most of the well-known animators chose to work on what they believed to be the more prestigious production – Disney’s Pocahontas.
Released in the summer of 1994, The Lion King was a commercial success unlike anything before by an animated film. After its initial run, The Lion King left theaters as the second highest-grossing film in history and would remain the highest grossing animated film until 2003’s Finding Nemo. The Lion King is currently the 29th highest-grossing film in history, and the third highest-grossing Walt Disney Animation Studios film; only usurped years later by Frozen and Zootopia. To this day, it remains the highest grossing hand-drawn animated film, and claims the largest estimated attendance of any animated film in the last 50 years. Re-releases in IMAX (2002) and 3D (2011) increased the total box office by an additional $187 Million.
The film was met with an equally strong critical response from the film community. Considered to be one of the all-time Disney greats, The Lion King won two Academy Awards; for Best Original Score (Hans Zimmer) and Best Original Song (‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ by Elton John and Tim Rice). In 2016, The Lion King was selected for preservation in the United State National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’.
Spawning a number of sequels, spin-offs, video games, television shows, and an upcoming CGI live-action remake (expected for release in 2019), the most famous legacy project is the musical stage adaptation. Premiering in 1997, and running continuously on Broadway since then; The Lion King on Broadway won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in addition to the Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. Annually touring worldwide, the Broadway show is the highest grossing and third longest-running show in stage history.
Being the only Disney feature to draw inspiration from ‘The Bard’ (William Shakespeare), it is without speculation why The Lion King‘s story is one of its greatest strengths. A provoking and cleanly developed narrative centered on family, loss, and responsibility; screenwriters Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton pulled no punches when it came to heavily dramatic overtones. With just enough comic relief for younger viewers to maintain composure, the message and its’ presentation in The Lion King is utterly sublime. Never before has an animated film death been so devastating.
Viewing of The Lion King reminds one why the characters have lasted the test of time; over 23 years later. One of the most well-rounded and developed casts of any Disney feature, each character is attributed with a personal backstory, concrete motivations, and fully realized arcs; whether it be antagonist/major player Scar or minor character Zazu. A balanced cast of animals, without any superfluous excess and off-tone inclusions; there are just enough roles to create a properly layered storyline, but not so much as to form any convoluted side-stories.
The star-studded voice cast included Nathan Lane, Cheech Marin, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jeremy Irons; but casting directors were smart to bring in less recognizable (and less distracting) voice actors for the leads (Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick as Simba and Niketa Calame and Moira Kelly as Nala). One would be remiss to not laud proper acclaim onto James Earl Jones for his performance as Mufasa; one of the most powerful and emotive displays of voice-work in Disney history.
With so much of Disney’s talent working on the production of Pocahontas, many lead animators on The Lion King were doing their first major work supervising character creation; yet the finished product would not suggest such. Similar to 1942’s Bambi, real-life animals were reference for design, and trips to Africa were completed to preserve authenticity. Without the use of anthropomorphized character designs, varied focal lengths and lenses manipulations were used to mirror telephoto lenses seen in nature documentaries, and longer shots were substituted to present characters in scenes. Brightly animated, with iconic backdrops; the animators in The Lion King were able to infuse character traits and quirks through subtle design. Each role, regardless of species, feels to have been given equal attention; creating a visually compelling look top to bottom.
Lyricist Tim Rice (Aladdin) teamed up with music icon Elton John on five original songs for the film, along with John’s personal performance of ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ played over the end credits. With multiple Academy Award wins on top of Grammy and Golden Globe statuettes; the soundtrack is the best selling in animated film history. A standout among the collection is hard to assess due to the strength of each entrant; but thoughts come to the iconic film opening set against the majestic ‘Circle of Life’ number creates a jaw-dropping film spectacle; foreshadowing things to come. Also, you cannot forget the song that brought the phrase ‘Hakuna Matata’ into the cultural lexicon.
Firmly on the ‘Mount Rushmore’ of modern Disney features, The Lion King boasts eye-popping animation and an equally stellar song selection against a detailed and thoughtful story. Receiving massive critical and commercial acclaim, there is no question as to why The Lion King is often listed as one of the best, if not the best, film that Disney has ever created.