Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. The Lion King

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Lion King

Year: 1994 1

Source materials : inspired by biblical characters and various works by William Shakespeare 2

Budget: $45 million

Box office: $968.5 million 3

Plot: In the Pride Lands of Africa, King Mufasa’s newborn son, Simba, is presented to the assembled animals by Rafiki.

Mufasa shows young Simba the Pride Lands and explains to him the responsibilities of kingship and the “circle of life” which connects all living things. Mufasa’s younger brother, Scar, covets the throne and plots to eliminate Mufasa and Simba so he may become king.

Scar tricks Simba and Nala into exploring a forbidden elephants’ graveyard, where they are attacked by hyenas who are in league with Scar. Mufasa rescues the cubs, and although angry with Simba, he forgives him and explains that the great kings of the past watch over them from the night sky.
Scar lures Simba into a gorge and has the hyenas drive a herd of wildebeest into a stampede. Mufasa saves Simba but ends up hanging perilously from the gorge’s edge. Scar lets him fall to his death.
Scar tells Simba to flee the kingdom. He orders the hyenas to kill him, but Simba escapes. Scar becomes the new king, allowing a large pack of hyenas to live in the Pride Lands.
Simba is rescued by Timon and Pumbaa, a meerkat and warthog who are fellow outcasts. Simba grows up in the jungle with his two new friends, living a carefree life under the motto “hakuna matata.”
Later, Simba rescues Timon and Pumbaa from a hungry lioness who turns out to be Nala. She and Simba reunite and fall in love, and she urges him to return home. Simba refuses and storms off. He encounters Rafiki, who tells him that Mufasa’ spirit lives on in Simba. Simba is visited by the ghost of Mufasa in the night sky, who tells him he must take his rightful place as king. Simba decides to return home.
Aided by his friends, Simba sneaks past the hyenas at Pride Rock and confronts Scar, who reveals to Simba that he murdered Mufasa. Simba forces him to reveal the truth to the rest of the pride. Scar begs for mercy and attempts to blame the hyenas for his actions. Scar attacks his nephew, but Simba manages to toss him from the top of the rock. Scar survives the fall but is killed by the hyenas.
Later, Rafiki presents Simba and Nala’s newborn cub to the assembled animals, continuing the circle of life.


Background: The idea for the film was conceived during a conversation between Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy E. Disney and Peter Schneider on a plane to Europe to promote Oliver & Company. Thomas Disch wrote a treatment and then Linda Woolverton spent a year writing drafts of the script.


Oliver & Company director George Scribner was the initial director of the film,being later joined by Roger Allers, who was the lead story man on Beauty and the Beast. After six months of story development work Scribner decided to leave the project, as he clashed with Allers and the producers on their decision to turn the film into a musical, as Scribner’s intention was of making a documentary-like film more focused on natural aspects. Producer Don Hahn established the main theme as “leaving childhood and facing up to the realities of the world”, and asked for a rewrite. The script also had its title changed from King of the Jungle to The Lion King, as the setting was not the jungle but the savannah

The filmmakers have said that the story of The Lion King was inspired by the lives of Joseph and Moses, from the Bible, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

“The Lion King was considered a little movie because we were going to take some risks. The pitch for the story was a lion cub gets framed for murder by his uncle set to the music of Elton John. People said, ‘What? Good luck with that.’ But for some reason, the people who ended up on the movie were highly passionate about it and motivated.” -Don Hahn

The development of The Lion King took place at the same time as Pocahontas, and most of the animators of wanted to work on instead, believing it would be the more prestigious and successful film.

The animation leads for the main characters included Mark Henn on young Simba, Ruben A. Aquino on adult Simba, Andreas Deja on Scar, Aaron Blaise on young Nala, Anthony DeRosa on adult Nala, and Tony Fucile on Mufasa.

Nearly twenty minutes of the film, including the “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” sequence, 4 were animated at the Disney-MGM Studios facility. Weeks before the film was to be released, the 1994 Northridge earthquake shut down the studio and required the animators to finish their work from home.

The animators studied animals for reference, as was done for Bambi. Wildlife expert Jim Fowler, visited the studios with an assortment of lions and other animals. They also studied animals at the Miami Metro Zoo under guidance from wildlife expert Ron Magill.

For the wildebeest stampede sequence, the animators created several distinct wildebeest in a 3D computer program, multiplied into hundreds, and then given random paths down the ravine. 5

Songs: Tim Rice was invited to write the songs. Rice originally suggested ABBA, 6 but as Benny Anderson was unavailable, the producers accepted Rice’s suggestion of Elton John expressed an interest in writing “ultra-pop songs that kids would like; then adults can go and see those movies and get just as much pleasure out of them.”

The score was composed by Hans Zimmer, and supplemented the score with traditional African music and choir elements arranged by Lebo M.

  • Circle of Life
  • I Just Can’t Wait to Be King
  • Be Prepared
  • Hakuna Matata
  • Can You Feel the Love Tonight*

*Reprised for the end credits

The use of the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” led to disputes between Disney and the family of Solomon Linda. Linda’s heirs reached a legal settlement with Abilene Music, who held the worldwide rights and had licensed the song to Disney.

Voice Cast:

Matthew Broderick as Simba. He began his career on Broadway in the role of Eugene Morris Jerome in the the plays, Brighton Beach Memoirs 7 and Biloxi Blues. His first big hit film was WarGames, followed by Ladyhawke. Other film role include The Cable Guy and Election. But he is probably known as the title character in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. He has returned to Broadway in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 8Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical The Philanthropist, Sylvia, and Nice Work If You Can Get It. Rock singer Joseph Williams provided adult Simba’s singing voice.
Jonathan Taylor Thomas voiced young Simba, while Jason Weaver provided the cub’s singing voice. Thomas is known for portraying Randy Taylor on Home Improvement.

Jeremy Irons as Scar, He made his Broadway debut in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing 9 Irons’s film roles include The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Dead Ringers, Reversal of Fortune, 10 Kafka, The House of the Spirits, M. Butterfly, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Lolita, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Merchant of Venice, Eragon, Assassin’s Creed, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. 2005, Irons appeared in the historical miniseries Elizabeth I, for which he received a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor. James Earl Jones as Mufasa. His first starring film role was boxer Jack Jefferson in The Great White Hope. 11 He appeared in the films Claudine, Conan the Barbarian, Field of Dreams, The Sandlot, Coming to America, Cry, the Beloved Country, and Vice Admiral James Greer in the Jack Ryan films: The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger. He is best known as the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films.

Moira Kelly as Nala. She is best known for portraying Kate Moseley in The Cutting Edge, Hetty Kelly and Oona O’Neill in Chaplin, and Donna Hayward in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. 12 On television she appeared in One Tree Hill and The West Wing. Sally Dworsky provided Nala’s singing voice. Niketa Calame provided the voice of young Nala

Nathan Lane as Timon. His film roles include The Birdcage, Mousehunt and Stuart Little. Broadway roles include The Producers, Guys and Dolls, 13 and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He recently appeared on The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story as F. Lee Bailey. He has two Tony Awards for Best Actor in a Musical. 14 Ernie Sabella as Pumbaa. Stage credits include The Robber Bridegroom, Little Johnny Jones, Guys and Dolls, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Chicago, Man of La Mancha, Curtains, and Sweet Charity.

Robert Guillaume as Rafiki. He is known for his role as Isaac Jaffe on Sports Night and as Benson on Soap and the spin-off Benson. 15 He also won a Grammy Award in 1995 for his spoken word performance of an audiobook version of The Lion King. 16 Rowan Atkinson as Zazu. His breakout role was on Not the Nine O’Clock News and he appeared in the films Never Say Never Again, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the BBC sitcom The Thin Blue Line. He also appeared in the West End revival of the musical Oliver!. He is best known for the sitcoms Blackadder and Mr. Bean.

Madge Sinclair as Sarabi. She was best known for her roles in Cornbread, Earl and Me, Coming to America, Trapper John, M.D., and the ABC TV miniseries Roots. She won the 1991 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress – Drama Series for her role as Empress Josephine in Gabriel’s Fire. 17 Whoopi Goldberg as Shenzi. She is one of the few entertainers to have won an Emmy Award, 18 a Grammy Award, 19 an Oscar, 20 and a Tony Award. 21 Other films include The Color Purple, Sister Act and its sequel, Made in America, Ghosts of Mississippi, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Girl, Interrupted, For Colored Girls, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. She is also known for her role as Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the film Star Trek: Generations.

Cheech Marin 22 returns as Banzai, and Jim Cummings returns as Ed, a mole from the underground, and as Scar in certain lines of “Be Prepared” after Irons blew his voice.

Critical Reception: Roger Ebert gave it 3 1/2 out of 4-stars and called the film “a superbly drawn animated feature” and, in his print review wrote, “The saga of Simba, which in its deeply buried origins owes something to Greek tragedy and certainly to Hamlet, is a learning experience as well as an entertainment.”

The film won two Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song: “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”23 “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” won the Grammy Award for Best Male Vocal Performance.

The film was accused of bearing a resemblance to a 1960s anime series, Jungle Emperor (Kimba the White Lion in the U.S.). Roger Allers, claimed he was unfamiliar with the show.24
Protests were raised against one scene where it appears as if the word “SEX” might have been embedded into the dust flying in the sky when Simba flops down. One of the animators, Tom Sito, has stated that the letters spell “SFX” (a common abbreviation for “special effects”). Hyena biologists protested against the animal’s portrayal: one hyena researcher sued Disney studios for defamation of character.

Disney released two direct-to-video films related to The Lion King. The first was sequel The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, and The Lion King 1½. There is TV series called The Lion Guard.

The musical adaptation opened on Broadway directed by Julie Taymor, along with three new compositions by John and Rice. It won six Tony Awards . 25 and is the third longest-running show and highest grossing Broadway production in history.
“The Legend of the Lion King”, featured a recreation of the film through life-size puppets of its characters, and ran from 1994 to 2002 at Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Another that is still running is the live-action 30-minute musical revue of the movie, “Festival of the Lion King”, which incorporates the musical numbers into gymnastic routines with live actors, along with animatronic puppets of Simba and Pumba and a costumed actor as Timon.
At Animal Kingdom, a section of the park on the opposite side of the safari is dedicated to conservation called Rafiki’s planet watch. It features a petting zoo called The Affection Section. 26


Rafiki is a character meet and greet, and a section of the Art of Animation Resort is dedicated to the film.

Walt Disney Pictures announced that they were developing a CGI remake of The Lion King directed by Jon Favreau. 27 The film will star Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Beyoncé, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, John Kani, Eric Andre, Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, J.D. McCrary, and Shahadi Wright Joseph.

b Lion King

My take:

I remember seeing the trailer for this before Aladdin. The trailer was simply the opening number. My jaw was on the floor. I knew we were in for something epic.

One of my professors used to say that what a playwright chooses as the opening line can be significant. The first line, spoken by Scar, is “Life just isn’t fair.”

The casting is impeccable. Can you imagine anyone else playing Mufasa, or Scar, or Timon? The songs are great, and the animation holds up. The stampede sequence is still thrilling and there’s some beautiful shots throughout the film. The Hula bit still makes me laugh.

There isn’t a single thing I would change about this film. It’s as close to perfect as you’re going to get.

Next Week: Disney plays a little fast and loose with history in Pocahontas