“The past can hurt, but the way I see it, you either run from it, or learn from it.”
If there were any lingering questions about Disney’s animated comeback in the 90s, The Lion King answered them all. Released in 1994, after a string of hits that included The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, the story of a young cub and his ascent to become ruler of Pride Rock surpassed them all. Bolstered by an all-star voice cast (James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg and too many others to mention) and by a multi-platinum album’s worth of hit songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, Simba and company went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of all time.
The movie opens with a swirling chorus number, “Circle of Life,” as baboon wise man Rafiki presents the lion cub Simba to the assembled animals of the Pridelands. The cub’s parents, King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi, watch on proudly, but not everyone is happy with the way the circle of life is turning. Mufasa’s brother, the evil Scar, has his own designs on the throne, and he’s ready to do away with his brother and nephew to achieve his goals.
Scar tempts Simba and his young betrothed, Nala, into making a forbidden jaunt to the elephant graveyard, where a pack of menacing hyenas attack. Mufasa saves the cubs and gives his young heir a stern lecture. Scar’s next plot sends a herd of wildebeests stampeding toward young Simba in a narrow ravine. Again, Mufasa rushes in to save his child, but this time the Lion King sacrifices his own life in the process. Scar blames Simba, who runs away in shame.
Exhausted and starving, Simba comes across the comic duo of Timon and Pumbaa, a wisecracking meerkat and a flatulent warthog. The two sell the young cub on their “no worries” philosophy, “Hakuna Matata,” and Simba grows to maturity in carefree idyll. The grown lion’s worry-free days end with the arrival of an also-grown Nala, who urges Simba to return to Pride Rock and reclaim the land from Scar. The wicked new king has left the Pridelands a barren waste, and only a true heir can restore the natural order. After some painful soul searching and self-doubt, Simba recognizes his destiny and heritage and returns for a frightening battle with Scar and the hyenas.
The success of The Lion King was staggering. Aside from the aforementioned box office bonanza and album sales, the film spawned an animated Saturday morning series (The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa), a pair of direct-to-video sequels and a hit Broadway musical. The John/Rice song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” won the film an Oscar, as did Hans Zimmer’s exquisite score, the fourth time in six years Disney achieved this double coup (the studio would do it again the following year with Pocahontas).
Winning praise from critics and audiences alike, The Lion King cemented Disney’s remarkable 90′s renaissance and left millions of filmgoers with indelible memories of the animated African savanna.
Were you one of them? We’d love to hear your thoughts and recollections of The Lion King in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this extraordinary animated offering from the folks at Disney.