“Avenge me KIMBA– I mean SIMBA.”
THE LION KING (1994)
Written by: Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts & Linda Woolverton
So with the Disney Renaissance still going strong, they released a risky little picture about lions that was only INSPIRED by other stories rather than basically taking the whole thing and Disney-fying it. However, it was THIS film that turned out to be the uber-smash of the decade, and was the #2 highest-grossing animated feature of all time, behind only Finding Nemo… until Disney landed the Frozen/Zootopia double-whammy a few years back. It arguably has the most enduring stamp on pop culture out of any cartoon of the past 30 years.
And this movie KICKS ASS- it’s all about pain, loss, regret, and basically sucking up all the pain you have, putting away childish things, and becoming a Man (or Lion)- very biblical and awesome. It has some of the best animation out there, the music (by Elton John) is BEYOND excellent, with some of the most iconic songs EVER (and a true contender to title of Greatest Villain Song of All-Time), and some of the funniest dialogue in toon history. It avoids some of the Cookie-Cutter Pratfalls by making EVERYONE animals, so having Animal Sidekicks doesn’t come across as cheesy.
The voice acting is INTENSE, with James Earl Jones providing his Deep Black Baritone to the greatest Lion EVER, and Jeremy Irons playing a perfect snide, sneaking villain in the effeminate Scar. Nathan Lane plays a perfect sarcastic sidekick, and Ernie Sabella is a funny & stupid Pumbaa. It’s no mistake that they chose mostly well-known VAs for everybody, as this provoked some EXCELLENT performances.
Some of the scenes here are just PERFECT- the opening theme song (with African-style music) at Simba’s introduction to the animals, the Adult Simba/Nala fight that immediately lets him realize just who he’s dealing with, when Scar blames Mufasa’s death on Simba and then tells him to flee the Pridelands, Rafiki going ninja on the Hyenas, Pumbaa going football-style on the Hyenas, and that ultimate legendary scene where Simba is confronted with the ghostly image of his father, who confronts him on shirking all responsibility and sends him running back to the Pridelands.
And the whole thing where the Circle comes all the way around at the end. Just perfect.
Simba’s character development was quite good, and a rarity for Disney, which tended to keep most characters the same during the film- he starts out a naiive, foolhardy young cub who wants to just have fun and be the center of attention (“I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”). When he’s confronted by an unimaginable horror, one he believes to be all his fault, he flees his guilt and responsibility and adopts the “Hakuna Matata” problem-free philosophy of his new friends.
And he’s happy with his new life, until Nala comes back into it, and he’s ready to just be all lovey-dovey and stay there with her forever, even avoiding going back to his home to set things right. THEN his father’s spirit shows up, Simba realizes that he’s letting everyone down and has a real responsibility to uphold, and returns to deal with Scar. Hell, he even gives Scar an ironic way out, until the old man ruins it by being a dirty cheater.
About the Performers: Jonathan Taylor Thomas was, like most Child Stars of his era, both a Teen Idol, a sitcom star, and someone with all three of his names constantly used. A big star from Home Improvement, he was easily the main kid, to the point where he got a solo push in a bunch of Kids Movies. Notoriously, he quit the show in its final season, pissing off Tim Allen by not going to school, like he promised, and instead making movies. His career flamed out pretty much the second he turned eighteen, but I haven’t heard of him using smack, so I guess he’s a successful Child Star.
Matthew Broderick is much more famous, largely as a modern-day musical man. He’s had a hell of a career doing them, starring in The Producers most notably, but having a film career… full of minor productions. But to most, he’ll always be Ferris Bueller, the manipulative shitbag friend who uses others for his own amusement.
Nala is Simba’s childhood friend and later Baby Mama, and was a pretty solid love interest. She was less of a Princess and more of a butt-kicker, trying to kill Pumbaa, and even as an adult she was a better grappler than Simba was- pinning him every time. Notably, despite his being the title character and more powerful one overall (few lionesses could ever really beat a full-grown male, though he’s still a young adult), she’s apparently got more skill. Hell, maybe SHE shoulda been fighting Scar in the end.
About the Performer: I’ve never heard of Moira Kelly, but she’s had a long enough career, largely playing minor roles. She was on One Tree Hill, I guess. And Chaplin, with two roles.
Mufasa… is… AWESOME. Acted with the most deep of all manly-deep voices by James Earl Jones himself, Mufasa is the King of the Pridelands, and is generally the most wise and strong dude around. He’s a hero of such grandeur that even the evil HYENAS have a deep-seated respect for him, and he’s so tough that even the scheming Scar wouldn’t dream of a direct threat- only by playing Mufasa’s protective fathering instincts is he able to do away with the Supreme Lion.
While Simba and many other rulers in fiction try to rule with an even hand, Mufasa shows them all how it’s done. His only real mistake is not knowing the sheer depths of his brother’s hatred.
About the Performer: James Earl Jones basically has the most recognizable voice on the planet, and has such a deep baritone he makes Christopher Lee sound like Lin-Manuel Miranda. He has the unique quality where he’s world-famous for one big role (Darth Vader), but has artistic credibility because he won Tonys and all kinds of other awards before that. He still works frequently, and is usually in artistically-credible stuff- his Star Wars and Lion King work are rare bouts of “popular work” for him.
Rafiki is the wise aide to Mufasa, and later Simba, acting as a sort of mystical advisor. He also knows how to kick ass, as evidenced by one of the funnier scenes, when he goes all kung-fu on a batch of Hyenas. He can communicate with Spirits and generally flip around and beat the hell out of Hyenas. The character appears in a different context in the Broadway Musical, where the role is always played by an adult woman, representing the sacred role female storytellers play in some African cultures.
She shares the trademark cry heard at the very beginning of both film & play, and tends to be played by the same actresses for years at a time- while Main Stars tend to fall away very rapidly in theatrical productions, many side roles end up being held by the same performer for years.
About the Performer: Robert Guillaume was fairly old when cast as Rafiki, and had a long career beforehand, appearing in numerous plays. He was Benson in Soap for a couple of years, before getting a spin-off series that lasted for seven. I mainly recognize him as the wise elder statesman Isaac on Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived, super-beloved Sports Night, in which he had only a handful of scenes, but maintained such gravitas that I remember him better than anything else on that show (even Felicity Huffman’s mean, MILFy producer, and Wade from Sliders as the office cute girl). He died in 2017, living to almost ninety years of age.
TIMON & PUMBAA
TIMON & PUMBAA is basically The Bear Necessities for the new generation, and both are oddly treated like idealized ways of life by Disney as a whole… while the movies point out how childish and irresponsible such lifestyles actually are).
Timon & Pumbaa were PERFECT for this movie- replacing the worry-wart sidekick types with a pair of sly, cynical dudes who just want to hang out and live like Baloo (Hakuna Matata is basically The Bear Necessities for the new generation, and both are oddly treated like idealized ways of life by Disney as a whole… while the movies point out how childish and irresponsible such lifestyles actually are).
Nathan Lane’s sarcastic acting style fits Timon perfectly, and Ernie Sabella plays a great “Dopey Sidekick” character. They preach their lackadaisical, “no worries” lifestyle to young cub Simba (who’s desperately in need of some therapy), and he grows up to be a fun-loving weisenheimer like the two of them. The funny thing is, they’re not actually in the movie THAT MUCH, and they straight-up “Montage” past all of Simba’s aging during the span, so you’re kind of left to assume they’re all best buds. To be fair, they have real chemistry, and you still pretty much buy it. And it’s funny how after all their preaching, they just end up risking their lives in the Pridelands.
The funny thing is, they’re not actually in the movie THAT MUCH, and they straight-up “Montage” past all of Simba’s aging during the span, so you’re kind of left to assume they’re all best buds. To be fair, they have real chemistry, and you still pretty much buy it. And it’s funny how after all their preaching, they just end up risking their lives in the Pridelands.
These guys led to a LOT of “Those Two Guys” partnerships of buddies, though they hardly invented the formula (they share more than a little in common with Rosencrantz and Gildenstern from Hamlet, for example)- The Road to El Dorado more or less got made because the creators wanted to see “The two guys everyone always likes” as the stars.
Timon ain’t much good in a fight (he can catch bugs- that’s about it), but if you cheese off Pumbaa enough, you’re history, as a group of dumb Hyenas discovered.
About the Performers: As a kid, this was Nathan Lane’s “Big Break” to me, but he’d been in stuff beforehand (largely musicals, like the revival of Guys and Dolls). He’s basically in all sorts of Broadway shows these days, doing that much more than film acting, largely because he’s so fabulously gay that he can’t really play anything other than gay men on the big screen… and also he’s an old chubster. But he’s been in EVERYTHING- the Drag Queen in The Birdcage is one of those “Hey, he really CAN act” things, and he did a big star turn in The Producers on Broadway, as well as countless other huge hits in the theater world (including big-name revivals of just about everything). He’s honestly one of the most well-known and recognized actors of this entire cast, which is REALLY saying something.
Ernie Sabella is much less well-known, but has done a LOT of theatre work. Him being cast alongside Lane in The Lion King was actually a bit of a casting gag, as they’d paired up in Guys and Dolls– this made them so linked that they also performed together in Mouse Hunt and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Generally less busy than Lane, he was able to perform Pumbaa for all 85 episodes of their TV series (Lane only voiced Timon in the first handful). Saved By The Bell fans might remember him as Leah Remini’s character’s father; an uptight resort manager who employed the main cast.
SHENZI, BANZAI & ED
The Hyenas were fantastic villains in The Lion King, played by great character actors with distinct voices. They were so effective that Hyena Enthusiasts are known to HATE the film, because it was the ultimate portrayal of a generally nasty animal with gross habits as ULTIMATE VILLAINS (when you think about it, real-life Lions are just as bad), which has added to the already-large amount of anti-Hyena attitudes out there. But really, THEY DIG UP HUMAN CORPSES AND EAT THEM. Up yours, Hyenas.
About the Performers: Whoopi Goldberg is of course iconic, with her distinctive (weird) appearance making her recognizable even today. Back in the ’80s, she was a HUGE star, owing to her inventive comedy, her bluntness, and her willingnes to say exactly what she believed. Taking perhaps some of the most ill-advised screen roles in human history (I’ve seen some good actors take shit work, but THEODORE REX? Though to her credit, she tried to back out, and ended up pocketing like $7 million for it- not a bad way to kill a career, I guess) pretty much sank her movie career, but her voice is still respected.
Cheech Marin’s distinctive high-pitched Latino accent made him a big star in the Cheech and Chong movies, which he parlayed into a lot of Voice Acting, and even some Regular Acting (as Don Johnson’s partner on Nash Bridges for years). He was the chihuahua in Oliver and Company, and played Banzai here.
Ed was portrayed by Disney Legend Jim Cummings, whose raspy voice was used in pretty much everything they’ve done since 1989. Primarily he’s known for being the current voice of Pooh, Tigger, and others, but also lent his voice to Don Karnage in TaleSpin, among other shows.
It’s hard to find a more epic villain than Scar, especially since he’s not as good a fighter as Simba or Mufasa. Scar is basically the same type of guy as Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius was- a fratricidal, regicidal monster who wants the Kingship, doesn’t want to fight Mufasa directly for it, and instead connives his way into power through sneakiness and planning. And MAN did they make a hell of a villain with this guy.
Scar is the “Effeminate Villain” type, often slinking around and acting mildly seductive when he slithers his way up to somebody- Disney loves this type of villain, as men aren’t “supposed” to act in such a way, and thus it’s funny and somewhat menacing when they do, especially if they’re bad guys. This is called “Gay Coding” and somewhat frowned upon these days, as you might imagine.
Scar of course gets the most awesome song of the whole movie, a wicked, boisterous cry of Be Prepared!, convincing an army of Hyenas to goose-step before him and take over the Pridelands. Jeremy Irons actually damaged his voice screaming out the “You won’t get a SNIFF without me!” portion of the song, and Jim Cummings had to cover the later bits with his distinctive gravelly voice (the same one in In The Dark Of The Night from Anastasia, because Christopher Lloyd wouldn’t sing), but this song is EPIC. Scar acts his snide best, intimidates everyone around him, and forges a huge, conquering army, all while some weird green volcano is exploding all around him, demolishing the scenery (while he’s oddly not panicking).
Scar is tough for a Disney villain, but less powerful than Simba- in their fight, Simba clearly has the advantage, and Scar only does well thanks to trickery, Minions charging to his defense, and Simba’s inexperience. Of course, Scar also makes the CLASSIC villain mistake, of having Simba dead to rights, then deciding that THAT is the preferred time to reveal that he’s responsible for Mufasa’s death. Simba therefore limit breaks, leaps out of the Grapple, and kicks Scar’s ass in front of everyone, then does it again later. He’s quite snivelling, but he’s still really fast and fairly powerful (note that his bite and claws do a lot of damage to Simba).
Despite being smart for a Lion, Scar has less of an idea about survival in the wilderness- his reign leads to the Pridelands becoming nigh-uninhabitable, as overhunting destroys the animal population, which wrecks everything else. Very “Fisher King”.
Scar has gone on to become one of Disney’s most famous villains, though typically only the human-looking ones are all seen together. He just kinda stands out from the rest, being a skinny lion.
About the Performer: Jeremy Irons is famous for playing villains and doing stuff in well-respected art films, Shakespearean adaptations, and historical dramas, so to see him chewing the scenery as one of the most glorious Disney Villains ever is awesome. He’s one of very few living actors to have won the “Triple-Crown” of acting (having an Oscar, Emmy and Tony- only singers ever get the full EGOT), and has done all kinds of things I’ve never seen… but he was in Die Hard With A Vengeance! And that god-awful Dungeons & Dragons movie. Being super-old, he’s now playing Alfred in the DC Film Universe.
Reception & Cultural Impact:
To call this movie a smash would be a drastic understatement- it changed EVERYTHING, and even made a successful Broadway musical, helping to revive THAT art form as well. There was also a great set of video games that REALLY pushed the Super NES’ music card to it’s limits- even my mom walked in and was like “that’s GOOD SOUND” because they actually got reasonably close to the musical parts of the soundtrack.
It perfectly caps off the Renaissance- any movie that came later couldn’t HELP but disappoint. On a more personal level, I have a friend who was a depression-ridden teen who associates this movie with saving his life, as it was something that brought him great happiness (he must’ve seen it a billion times- he’s also a Furry and I saw him draw a naked Nala-Person hybrid once, so he’s also a bizarre weirdo, which of course make the most interesting friends ).
Of course, you can’t get away from some of the inspirations for the movie- it’s so similar to Kimba The White Lion that people STILL make fun of it (Matthew Broderick even thought he was making a Kimba film at first). Said friend made himself look like a tool all through High School for wearing a T-shirt with Simba looking in a mirror and seeing Kimba. Though it has links just as strong to Hamlet, especially with the whole “Douchey Uncle” thing. And some people cried “racism” at how certain characters had more ethnic accents if they were villains, but really, the worst of the lot was Scar, and he had BY FAR the most elitist white-guy accent ever.
But yeah, this was a game-changer. With the death of Howard Ashman shortly before Beauty and the Beast came out, this was the first film to feature none of his work- Elton John’s successful songwriting ended up leading to a string of “Get a famous songwriter to do all the music” features in an attempt to recapture that magic- Michael Bolton & Phil Collins were not QUITE up to the challenge. The famous “Rafiki Lifts Simba To The Pridelands” scene would be parodied and remade literally hundreds of times, becoming one of film’s most-copied scenes. Timon & Pumbaa became the most iconic “Those Two Guys” pairing in history.
TV shows & sequels? They got plenty. Timon & Pumbaa became one of the final Disney Afternoon shows (I remember thinking it was pretty lame- it was largely “ten-minute shorts”). The Lion Guard started only a couple of years ago, and features Simba’s Suddenly-Introduced Son as the leader of a team of… animal super-heroes. The Lion King 2 went straight to video, and featured Simba as an overprotective parent to his daughter, who found a boyfriend in another pride of lions- one that was loyal to Scar!
The Lion King 1 1/2 was a comedy film that basically took the first movie and made a bunch of cutesy references that put Timon & Pumbaa retroactively in the scenes (such as them accidentally tripping Simba & Nala into their lovers’ embrace). I never saw it, but my Lion King-loving friend and others consider it both sacrilege and absolutely non-continuity.
The Broadway Musical is world-famous, and is a true testament to the art form, using specialized PUPPETS to tell much of the story. The main cast largely have “frozen animal heads” as stylistic helmets, but the rest of the show features a combination of “guy holding a puppet” stuff (Zazu & Timon), people in costumes, and INSANE background puppets that consist of people running around as impalas, cheetahs, rhinos and even some notable elephants. It was a complete smash, and still one of Broadway’s biggest hits ever- expect this to never close.
While it basically copies the movie almost EXACTLY (to the point where my friend and I were kind of a bit “well… we’ve SEEN THIS” at the dialogue), it’s such a different event, and one you basically have to be there for. He Lives In You is one of the best Disney songs ever, to the point where it’s kind of a shame it was stuck in this and the first movie sequel, as it has far less of a reach than comparable hits.
Much like other Animal Features, the impact of the movie on the Parks wasn’t quite as great, but you’ll still see Meet & Greets with some of the characters. Much of Disney’s Animal Kingdom is named for the cast, and there’s a musical there as well. The soundtrack has a life of its own, with 4-5 solid smash hits, including one of the better romantic songs (Can You Feel The Love Tonight?), a funny, catchy song that still gets quoted in Disney stores (Cast Members are trained to say “Hakuna Matata” if a guest ever breaks something by accident), one of the all-time greatest Villain Songs (Be Prepared, complete with Nazi Goose-Stepping Hyenas), and of course, the famous opening.
Hilariously, some Disney staff felt that this was a throwaway production, and Pocahontas was the more important, more artistically-worthy vision. Yes, POCAHONTAS, the movie roundly considered the worst of the Renaissance, and the one that basically put a bullet in it’s head. You just can’t make this stuff up.