After the sudden success of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Disney was determined to tap into that still seemingly elusive part of the animation demographic – the boy. You see, movies revolving around princesses, fairy godmothers, and female protagonists tend to turn males off, and the House of Mouse wanted to make sure that they left no amount of unspent allowance (or parentally provided disposable income) unaccounted for. So they looked over their catalog of in development ideas for inspiration and came across a couple of ideas. One was an comic uptake on Aladdin. The other was the Hamlet-inspired King of the Jungle. Commissioned back in 1988, then head Jeffrey Katzenberg had seen a lot of potential in the tale of a young beast and the battles between his father and his conniving uncle.
As the boy and his genie were joking up Cineplexes with their hyperactive charms, the newly labeled Lion King started to take shape. With the death of his writing partner Howard Ashman, standard studio songwriter Alan Menken took a break. In his place came Sir Elton John and Jesus Christ Superstar/Evita lyricists Tim Rice. They concocted a collection of tunes that would eventually become some of the biggest Disney ear worms of all time. Amplifying the parenting angle and exaggerating the villain, the studio struck a perfect combination that would end up setting the stage for one of the biggest commercial successes of their entire corporate existence. Indeed, The Lion King (now finally out on Blu-ray) holds the record for the highest grossing animated film ever.
It’s no overstatement to think Disney hit all the right notes with this one. It has heart, humor, hummable music, and a huge untapped audience – fathers and sons – to sift through. It eventually became a benchmark, an unrepeatable realization of the various goals of the reenergized company. It would also become an albatross, a constant reminder of ideas that didn’t fly and revenues that didn’t match (Brother Bear, Treasure Planet). Taking on a life of its own, King became a Broadway show, a Disney Channel series, and now, an unnecessary 3D experience which reminds audiences of how viable the artform is even inside a dopey desperate gimmick. While a bit dated when it comes to both approach and technique, The Lion King is definitely one of Uncle Walt’s wildest rides.
The story begins with the birth of Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, then Matthew Broderick), the heir to the crown of jungle leader Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and his wife Sarabi. Destined for greatness, he is placed in the charge of bird adviser Zazu (Rowan Atkinson). As he grows, Simba become curious about the lands outside of his fertile veldt, a feeling he shares with young female cub Nala (Niketa Calame, then Moire Kelly). One day, they decide to escape their watchful eyes and explore the Elephant’s Graveyard.
Simba eventually gets caught up in a wildebeest stampede which has some fatal consequences for his family. Convincing by his conniving Uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) that the death was his fault, Simba leaves his home and heads out into the world. There, he is befriended by Timon the merekat (Nathan Lane) and his warthog buddy Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and grows to be a magnificent male lion. When he learns what his evil relative has done, he vows to return and fight for his throne.
For many, The Lion King represents the very best of Disney. You can have your Snow Whites and your Fantasias, your Peter Pans and your Bambis. For the post-modern mother and father who feel that nothing does their wee ones better than endless hours in front of the television, a collection of cartoon features in hand, this excellent example of an electronic babysitter is motion picture priority one. Gone are the aesthetic appreciations or overall entertainment factor. There are little critters singing “Hakuna Matata,” and that’s all that matters. Granted, Disney outdoes itself here, fashioning the kind of feel good dramedy that teaches youngsters a valuable lesson without completely traumatizing them in the process. Like the story of a baby deer and his (eventually) dead mother, The Lion King offers up a tragic experience jerryrigged to an otherwise sunny revenge storyline.
This is classic filmmaking, from the wholly hissable villains (Irons’ Scar is one of the greatest in the company’s history) to the ethnically questionable toadies. Indeed, along with accusations of plagiarism (just ask those who know about the Japanese film Kimba The Lion King from the 1960s), some were taken aback by the depiction of the hyenas, the ancillary henchmen to the film’s chief heavy. Voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings, they are condemned for being everything from zoologically incorrect to racially offensive. While such complaints remains highly questionable, they do illustrate the impact those who challenged the movie thought it would have on hapless viewers.
Indeed, Disney is often strong mojo, but oddly enough, the most intriguing thing about this film is not its wistful pleasures or sense of entertainment value. No, the most amazing thing about this film is how easily it taps into a boy’s often overlooked concept of wish fulfillment. Little men don’t necessarily want to be Captains or Kings. They don’t automatically long to crowned as royalty or re-imagined as celebrated fashion plates. No, in our lingering paternalism, in a social system which sees all males as made to conquer, children want acknowledgement of said possibility. They want to see a character fail, to find himself among a collection of close friends, and overcome his fears in order to regain his rightful place in the pride. The reason The Lion King resonates is because it is the ultimate coming of age saga. It’s a literal visualization of the core cinematic idea.
So no matter the format – Blu-ray, 3D, a rotting videotape in your basement or attic – The Lion King will always be House of Mouse hallmark. It will be the reference point for a hundred Best-of debates and the one film among the company’s many that all the members of family can agree on. Sure, it may push the girls aside for a bit more boy joy and hammer home its message with the subtlety of a skyrocket, but buried beneath the typical Walt wonders is a strong storyline that seems to get deeper and more determined with age. A long time ago, Disney wanted to make sure that no demographic, no matter how minor, went un-served. The Lion King was the answer, and it was a great response to such a realization.