The Lion King (1994)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in Song & Dance | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Some violence and an ultra-scary villain.

The original plan and storyboards for the opening of this Disney sensation called for a dialogue-heavy introduction. That is, until Hans Zimmer unveiled his musical interpretation of The Circle of Life – a theme that repeats throughout the film. As the sun rises and the screen scrolls through vast and beautiful landscapes, hordes of animals journey to a great peak, where the heir to the throne will appear. The score builds slowly as a powerful African chant (written and performed by South African Lebo M.) blasts forth. Something special happened at the beginning of The Lion King, one of the greatest sequences in a Disney film and easily their best opening. It still has the power to make my hair stand on end. And, fortunately, that feeling doesn’t go away until the closing credits roll.

Some have said The Lion King is the first (and only) Disney film not stripped from previous material. While that’s partially true, The Bard (a.k.a. William Shakespeare) may take objection to that observation as the plot bears striking resemblance to Hamlet. After the Bambi-esque first act, we follow lion cub Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), the heir to the throne of the Pride Lands. The current king is Mufasa (James Earl Jones), a brave leader respected by all those beneath him. That is, except his brother Scar (Jeremy Irons), an intelligent brute with a sharp sarcastic sense of humor making him all the more sinister. The only things darker than his always-apparent claws are his intentions as he befriends the sneaky hyenas (led by Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings) and devises a plan to assume the throne.


After Scar completes the deed, he convinces the young cub to flee and never return. While on the lam, Simba encounters a meerkat named Timon (Nathan Lane) and boar named Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). Through this friendly duo, Simba hopes to throw the past behind him permanently; and he does for several years (now voiced by Matthew Broderick), until lioness Nala (Niketa Calame and Moira Kelly) begs him to return and save the now-desolate Pride Lands from Scar’s treacherous dictatorship.

As dramatic and emotional as the material is (mostly for parents, who will have to fight away tears), the story thankfully introduces comic relief in the form of Timon and Pumbaa (mostly for kids, who will have to fight away tears). There are also some precious moments from a bird named Zazu (Rowan Atkinson) and a wise baboon named Rafiki (Robert Guillame). The wonderful hand-drawn animation – most noteworthy for the landscapes and crowds of animals – is enhanced by crafty computer techniques that allow for some unbelievable camera perspectives (especially the wildebeest stampede). The animators, of course, took lessons away from a masterpiece they created a mere three years earlier with Beauty and the Beast.

The story is great and the animation Lion3is superb, but the music steals the show. The film’s songs don’t call unnecessary attention to themselves, meaning they don’t break away from the action for something completely unrelated to the movie, but drive the character arcs and exposition. The film’s best song, The Circle of Life sets the tempo. I Just Can’t Wait to Be King introduces Simba’s desire to be more like his father, while Scar’s Be Prepared keeps us terrified as hyenas march like Nazis from Triumph of the Will. Hakuna Matata, while a fun and popular sing-a-long, is among The Macarena and Mmm Bop for most annoying song ever. While Zimmer did the score (and won an Oscar for it), Tim Rice and Elton John worked out the lyrics (and won an Oscar for it). Their most celebrated song is the love ballad Can You Feel the Love Tonight, which wasn’t a part of the movie until Elton asked them to put it back after a special screening.

The music proved so popular (the Academy nominated it four times in two categories, after all) that Broadway borrowed it and created a highly successful stage show. Though it has its own special touches, the Broadway musical took the best parts of the film (like its music) and created the most visually captivating stage show I’ve ever seen. Rice and John contributed three new songs, too.

Rarely does music dictate what appears on screen, as The Circle of Life did for the opening. The aural element is typically used to enhance the emotional reactions to the visuals presented on screen. But the music overpowers The Lion King from the very beginning to the very end. It does so by conveniently starting and ending with the same song and images to, quite simply, come full circle.

The Circle of Life on Disney Video

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