Films don’t often generate the kind of unequivocal, universal appreciation the way The Lion King has. Much more than a simple animated feature the movie defines a generation, through nostalgic songs, gorgeous backdrop and an epic coming of age story.
Once the top grossing animated feature of all time for eleven years, The Lion King truly is one of a kind. Set in the remote savanna, with no human in sight, the movie still portrayed a society in its best and worst ways. From the very first frame, with the rising sun and Zulu lyrics, the movie sets an affable vibe that withstands time and repeat viewing. Very few films are set in the beautiful landscape of untouched Africa, likewise,Disney produced very few features that were this loosely adapted and thus, twenty years after audiences first saw The Lion King, it remains fresh and vibrant.
The story of Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is eventful and compelling, yet simple in its approach. We witness his innocence as he learns about right and wrong from his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), in his entitlement to the throne. At the movie’s turning point, when the plan of Simba’s uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) is executed, Simba is stripped from everything he knew. Through the traumatic events, Simba requires a different approach to learning, a stand in for the college experience. This comes in the form of the enjoyable duo of Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), who live without worries. By the time Simba’s (now voiced by Matthew Broderick) youth friend Nala (Moira Kelly) accidentally stumbles back into his life, Simba is iconoclastic. The internal struggle of this character, as he processes privilege, despair and ambivalence, is a reward on itself. Having his life be intrinsically tied to the state of a kingdom creates a bigger scale. In turn, making this story secondary to the great story of life itself and the never ending circle, is just epic.
The Lion King emulates Hamlet and yet it firmly stands on its own two feet. The screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton features well-rounded characters, who even with the slightest of backstories, such as Scar, offer a memorable presence. There’s the cartoonish take of having one’s personality be tied to a single emotion or trait, yet in a story about revenge among kings, there’s enough development for all characters to grow. The direction of Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff perfectly balances the stillness of natural beauty with the tumultuous journey of Simba to himself. Even the songs never stultify, as composed by Tim Rice and written by Elton John, each in turn both encapsulate the nineties as well as the distinct mood of the movie. Circle of Life is a downright musical classic, Be Prepared is deliciously expositional and there’s nothing frivolous or egregious about Hakuna Matata or Can You Feel the Love Tonight. The movie also boosts a majestic and beautifully cinematic score by Hans Zimmer. It marvels in animation as well. A groundbreaking computer generated scene highlights the movie. The explosion of colors in landscape and animals are a constant thrill. It’s a bonus that the anthropomorphic concept couldn’t work anywhere else outside animation.
The Lion King excels in every aspect, offering important themes in a timeless story with unforgettable characters, music and imagery. It truly is one of the best features ever made, because it does so little wrong. This landmark accomplishment in film entertains, enriches and resonates with millions of viewers across time and continents. Movies come and go, and some have taken over as the top reigning animated feature of all time, as life is wont to do with all its circles. However, after two decades, with a movie that has proven its importance and endurance, the lion remains king.
This review was written in celebration of the 20th anniversary of The Lion King’s wide release and being my personal favorite movie ever since.
Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
Produced by Don Hahn
Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton
with Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons
Released June 15, 1994