THE CIRCLE OF LIFE.
In the early 1990s, during the production of the songs for Disney’s upcoming animated adventure The Lion King, West End legend Tim Rice had been hired to write the lyrics. When his attempts to get Benny Andersson as a composing partner fell through, he turned to Elton John. The pop star was enthusiastic, but that turned to rage when he discovered how Disney planned to treat one of the duo’s songs, ”Can You Feel the Love Tonight”. The studio wanted to use it as a jokey tune, but Elton John would have none of it. This was his chance to create a song that would be a classic along the lines of ”When You Wish Upon a Star”.
He was right, the song now has a powerful place in the movie, and the Oscar for John and Rice was guaranteed.
Ruled by a lion dynasty
Somewhere in Africa, the Pride Lands and its animal kingdom is ruled by a lion dynasty. Simba, the newborn son of King Mufasa, is presented to all the animals, but someone is noticeably absent – the King’s brother, Scar, who feels that he should be monarch. As Simba grows up, no one in the family really takes Scar and the threat he poses seriously; he’s seen as a quirky uncle. The conflict comes to a head one day when Simba and his best friend Nala sneak off to an elephant graveyard, a place they’re not allowed to visit. They’re immediately targeted by three ravenous hyenas… but there’s more behind their presence.
The Disney success story that began with The Little Mermaid (1989) was to reach climax with this film. After The Lion King there would be more box-office hits, but critics became decidedly less enthusiastic in the late 1990s. Everyone bowed before the King though. It was still hand-drawn, but this was the year before Toy Story (1995) and many elements of the film are computer-animated, contributing to its magnificent, smooth look.
One of the biggest box-office hits ever has a dark story, which is not all that unusual for a Disney movie. Clearly inspired by ”Hamlet”, the set-up has been cleverly transferred to Africa and animals, presenting an engaging power struggle among big cats and many colorful supporting characters. This is a phenomenal cast, with Jeremy Irons in one of his most memorable turns as the sophisticated and thoroughly evil Scar. Rowan Atkinson and Nathan Lane provide hilarious support as two comical sidekicks, a straight-laced hornbill (with a British touch) serving as assistant to the King, and a wise-cracking meerkat (with a New York touch). The latter forms a popular duo with the warthog Pumbaa; Lane and Ernie Sabella’s performance of ”Hakuna Matata” is one of several musical highlights.
The songs have a Broadway feel to them, but also work in perfect tandem with Hans Zimmer’s beautiful score that relies heavily on African influences. The opening scene, with ”Circle of Life” arranged by Zimmer, shows how well the collaboration works; it’s a moment that makes the hairs on your arms stand on end, and the music is frequently a major reason why your emotions become so heavily invested in this movie.
The monarchistic story has few surprises if you choose to ignore the songs, animation and performances that make it such a funny, intense and romantic experience. But why would you do that? The Lion King impressed audiences to the degree that one of the most highly-anticipated films of 2019 is a remake due to be released in six months. A film that looks like it might copy the original almost scene for scene. That’s how much we miss the sensation of watching the original in theaters back in 1994.
The Lion King 1994-U.S. Animated. 88 min. Color. Produced by Don Hahn. Directed by Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff. Screenplay: Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton. Music: Hans Zimmer. Songs: Elton John, Tim Rice (”Circle of Life”, ”Be Prepared”, ”Hakuna Matata”, ”Can You Feel the Love Tonight”). Voices of Jonathan Taylor Thomas (Young Simba), Matthew Broderick (Adult Simba), James Earl Jones (Mufasa), Jeremy Irons (Scar), Moira Kelly, Niketa Calame… Nathan Lane, Robert Guillaume, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin.
Trivia: Later a Broadway musical. Followed by two direct-to-video sequels, starting with The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (1998), and two animated TV series, Timon & Pumbaa (1995-1999) and The Lion Guard (2016-2019). Rereleased in theaters in 3D in 2011. Remade as The Lion King (2019).
Oscars: Best Original Score, Original Song (”Can You Feel the Love Tonight”). Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Original Score, Original Song (”Can You Feel the Love Tonight”).
Last word: “Jeffrey Katzenberg very famously talked about ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Lion King’ were in production at the same time. He said, ‘Pocahontas is ‘West Side Story’ meets ‘Dances With Wolves.’ He said, ‘Lion King’, on the other hand, is an experiment. So we don’t really know.’ But the fact that he allowed us to make a movie with no real precedent, with no real formula… Because in Hollywood particularly, people love a formula, right? It’s a guidepost. If you understand the rules, it’s like, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Suddenly, if you don’t have a formula – everybody wants a formula, but if you don’t have it, you really are forced to do something different.” (Minkoff, Collider)