The Lion King (1994)
The Lion King (1994)

Genre: Fairy Tale Running Time: 1 hr. 29 min.

Release Date: June 24th, 1994 MPAA Rating: G

Director: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff Actors: Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg

 


 

“T

he Lion King” begins with a visually spectacular, strikingly memorable opening sequence that demonstrates an exceptional quality for traditional animation methods – augmented by the thundering tune of “Circle of Life,” which competed against both “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” for the Best Original Song Oscar. All three boast lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Elton John, and each is surprisingly catchy (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was the eventual winner). This 1994 production still clearly marked an era for Disney animated features in which well-crafted musical numbers by nearly every main character narrated the progression of the plot – something that a metamorphosing maturation and seriousness from the studio soon phased out.

Young Simba the lion cub (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is born to the king of the pride lands, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and is celebrated as the new heir to the throne of Africa. This greatly disappoints his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons), who is bumped to second place. Scar, who also gets a thrilling musical sequence (despite a shocking Hitler reference with high-step marching canines), plots to off Mufasa and steal the seat of royalty.

Again, in line with the series of immense hits that Disney created in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, “The Lion King” features intense thrills and horrifying tragedy that strengthen the emotional impact of what could have been a simple cartoon (and for some children, constituted a traumatic experience). Here, Mufasa is killed in a wildebeest stampede (making use of new computer technology) orchestrated by Scar, leaving Simba to assume the blame. In his youthfulness and naiveté, the cub runs away, ordered to be executed by Scar’s band of murderous hyenas (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings).

Thankfully, Simba escapes to be raised by the famous warthog/meerkat duo Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), respectively, thinking that, like a Tarzan of their own, they can shape a natural enemy into a powerful ally. Instructed on his mentors’ worry-free philosophy of life, Simba grows into an adult (voiced by Matthew Broderick), far away from his family. In time, he’ll be reunited with his childhood best friend and soon-to-be love interest Nala (Moira Kelly), learn the truth behind his father’s demise, and confront Scar (in epic slow-motion) and his army of strand wolf minions to take back his rightful place as king.

Simba is guided by his own version of Yoda – the eccentric, old, babbling (martial artist) baboon Rafiki – and a whimsy hornbill bird advisor (Zazu, voiced by Rowan Atkinson). As they chaperone the youngsters, they demonstrate that even minor supporting characters can be strongly developed and unforgettable – a distinct trend for Disney’s strongest lineup of animated features. Additionally, the use of famous voices is a continuation of an increasingly popular gimmick, previously employed by “Aladdin” (with Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried). A cleansing fire, death, and a familiarly Hamlet-esque storyline compose the darker themes of this severer venture, which is nevertheless amazingly well balanced – with kid-friendly humor, jubilant songs, and harrowing adventure. Winner of the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical) and frequently ranked among the greatest of all movies (animated or otherwise), “The Lion King” is a stunning artistic achievement that helped create serious critical awareness for feature-length animation (commercially, it’s the highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time), as well as paving the way for category specific accolades (most notably, the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, which debuted for the 2001 slate of qualifiers).

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10