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When The Lion King came out in 1994 I was eleven years old, and starting to develop an interest in movies that extended beyond just watching them. I remember reading a lot of the newspaper articles that came out before, during and after its theatrical run (and there were a lot them, I think we sometimes forget that this movie was an almost Jurassic Park level cultural event). One of the things I remember reading about this movie was that it was the first animated Disney movie not to be based on an existing story. That may strike you as surprising, considering that it’s pretty much cemented in everyone’s mind now as “Disney’s adaptation of Hamlet”, and even Disney themselves have pretty much owned that assessment. But the origins of this movie are a lot hazier than that. From what I can gather, Lion King began in the eighties from a conversation between Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney and Peter Schneider (president of Walt Disney Feature Animation) that boiled down to “We should do a movie set in Africa.” “You know what, we should do a movie set in Africa.” From that conversation the movie took a long and often deeply weird journey to the big screen (in some alternate universe, there’s a version of this movie where Scar is a baboon, Rafiki is a cheetah and ABBA provided the music.) So many different theories and suggestions and accusations have been flung at this movie that its true creative origins may never really be known.
Just who is Simba? Hamlet? Moses? Joseph son of Jacob? Is he the young Jeffrey Katzenberg, overcoming his own insecurities and self doubt to become the king of the animation jungle? Is he Roy Disney, the heir trying desperately to escape the titanic shadows of his uncle and father? Is he Jesus?
But the “Lion King as Hamlet” story is the one that’s stuck, and for good reason. I don’t just mean the obvious similarities in plot. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and the one usually proclaimed as being his best. At well over five hours, you will almost never see the entire text performed fully, meaning that every production cuts and trims the play to create a new version that best reflects the artistic vision of the director and cast. In this way, every production of Hamlet is unique. Some will focus on the relationship between Hamlet and his father. Some focus on his love affair with Ophelia, turning the play into a romantic tragedy. Still others will excise almost every other character and focus on Hamlet’s inner turmoil, turning the play into a psychological study. There are as many potential Halmets as there are stars in the sky. This is because the play is about, well, everything.
Shakespeare took a relatively simply story, the Danish revenge tale Amlethus, and within this finite framework staged one man’s contemplation of the entirety of human existence boiled down to the one single, terrifying question embodied in the play’s most famous line. Those six little words that we’ve all heard so often that their true power is often overlooked.
To be. Or not to be.
Is it better to be alive, or dead? To exist or to not. To be something, or to be nothing. It’s the single most important question. It is, in fact, the question that must be answered before any of the others can even be considered.
If Hamlet seeks to ask the first question, Lion King can be said to ask the second. Obviously this is a Disney movie, so the answer to the first question will always be “To Be.” Disney is all about optimism. Hope. Good triumphing over evil, no matter how powerful or malevolent it is and notwithstanding its ability to turn into a gigantic monster at the end of the third act. So once you’ve answered “To be”, what’s the second question? Well it’s the question we all deal with every day; “How do I live my life?” The Lion King is about finding your place in the world, represented in the movie as The Circle of Life, a natural and harmonious order that is only kept in balance when everyone meets their responsibilities to themselves, to the world and to their fellow creatures.
Oh God, are we actually doing this?
Yes, this movie has long been accused of being a ripoff of Tezuka Ozamu’s manga and animé Kimba the White Lion. And frankly, I find the entire idea preposterous. Why would Disney, the greatest animation studio in the world, need to steal from a relatively obscure children’s cartoon from the sixties? But fine, let’s see the so called “evidence” for this supposed theft which I am sure is not at all compelling in any way.
Okay, so it’s pretty obvious that someone in Disney who was working on the Lion King was familiar with Kimba the White Lion and snuck that in as a visual reference. And you know what? That’s fine. It’s called “an homage” if you’re feeling arty, or “a shout out” if you’re keeping it real, man. You may call it theft, but film makers do it all the time. The Untouchables recreates the “pram on the steps” scene from Battleship Potemkin but no one’s suggesting that Brian De Palma should write Eisenstein a cheque. Which is good, because Eisenstein is dead and De Palma has been having a pretty bad run lately and probably doesn’t have a lot of cash to spare.
What else ya got? Well, the name surely? Kimba. Simba. I mean, what do they think we’re stupid or something? Disney obviously changed that one letter of the name so we wouldn’t realise that this is a remake of Kimba the White Lion!
BEEP! Wrong answer.
As I’m sure quite a few Disney fans and Swahilis are screaming at the screen right now, “Simba” is Swahili for “lion”. The Disney animators learned quite a few Swahili phrases when they went on a field trip to Africa to research the film, and they ended up working these phrases into the movie. Well…then where the hell did Ozamu get “Kimba” from? Not a clue. TV Tropes offers the theory that Ozamu was going to name the main character Simba but changed it because there was a popular soft drink of the same name, and then goes on to say that that theory has been disproved and that the real reason is “complicated and doesn’t make much sense” and leaves it at that.
The ripoff story actually began (as so many problems in this life do) with Matthew Broderick. When originally offered the part, he misheard and thought that they’d said “Kimba”. Being familiar with the old cartoon he then proceeded to run his mouth off saying that he was doing a remake of Kimba the White Lion . He later said: “I kept telling everybody I was going to play Kimba. I didn’t really know anything about it, but I didn’t really care. I’m kind of an asshole like that. Also, I have the genitalia of a mosquito. I don’t mean that they’re small (although they are). I mean that I actually literally have the reproductive organs of an insect.”
The case for ripoff gets steadily weaker after that, ranging from the somewhat plausible (okay, both father lions have a wise baboon friend) to the pretty lame (of course the hyenas are comedy relief villains in both, THEY’RE FUCKING HYENAS) to the just kind of pathetic (Here’s Kimba running! Here is Simba also running!). The only other compelling piece of evidence is a very early piece of concept art depicting a white lion cub playing with a butterfly.
Okay. I am willing to entertain the theory that at some point, very early on in its production they considered making this movie a Kimba remake. But here’s the thing. That’s not the movie they made. If Disney released this movie in its current form as Kimba the White Lion they would have been in contravention of the Trade Descriptions Act. Because, a few similarities here and there notwithstanding they are nothing alike. In the areas where it really matters, characters, plot, dialogue, animation The Lion King is completely its own movie. Its art style is totally different from Kimba (I’d get into Ozamu’s shameless aping of Bambi but he’s not on trial here). And as I said in my Aladdin review, what’s in it for Disney? Why would they hide the fact that the movie they made was a Kimba remake if that was actually what they intended? To stiff Ozamu out of the money for the rights? Please. After Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin Disney had more money than your average sultanate. Jeffrey Katzenberg could have gathered up a few million from the back of the couch and paid for the rights. He certainly would have if there was any reasonable chance that Ozamu could have taken Disney to court for IP theft. No. What we have here is one possible visual homage, the coincidences that will inevitably arise between two pieces in the same genre using the same setting and Matthew Broderick running his big stupid mouth off. I find the accused…
Now let’s take a look at the film.
We begin with magic.
At first there is only darkness and the sound of chirping of insects and birds. Then, that first electrifying note-naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! as the sun rises over the horizon. It’s one of the most iconic moments in cinema and it’s just perfect. As the sun brings the earth to life, the animals come together to Pride Rock as Lebohang Morake and his African choir repeat the chorus “Ingonyama nengw’ enamabala”; A lion and a leopard come to this open place.
Carmen Twillie sings the English lyrics, The Circle of Life written by Elton John and Tim Rice. It’s a great song, but let’s not kid ourselves, this is Morake’s show. This movie has, no lie, some of the best music of any film in the canon. And it’s not surprising, I mean look at the talent Disney got for this: Elton John, Morake, Tim Rice and the FUCKING ZIM!!!!
My God Hans Zimmer, how do I love thee?
As for the animation, it’s…very good.
But I honestly remembered it being better. I had this idea that there was a massive leap in animation quality from Aladdin to Lion King and now I don’t think that’s the case. It maintains the standard, but apart from the stampede scene it’s not really any great leap forward. It’s more impressive though when you remember that most of the really top-tier Disney animators were working on Pocahontas and that the Lion King was largely animated by B-listers (I’ll get into that more in the Pocahontas review).
We get out first look at Mufasa (James Earl Jones), standing on Pride Rock and surveying the gathered animals. Rafiki, the old baboon cleric, arrives and after embracing Mufasa he’s taken to where Sarabi, Mufasa’s queen, is nursing their son, Simba. Rafiki takes the cub and, in one of several Biblical references, anoints him with earth and fruit pulp. He raises him up and presents the new prince to his subjects. And all the zebras and elephants and wildebeest and monkeys…
…go nuts. Title card.
We now meet our villain, Scar, doing something that immediately and irrevocably establishes him as an evil bastard of the lowest degree; being mean to a mouse. Scar, of course, is voiced by Jeremy Irons at his oiliest and he torments the mouse before eating him (I went to school with that guy. He was an ass. Never shut up about the time he got to work with Jeremy Irons. It was all, “As I once said to Jeremy…”. Yeah. Sure. Like he even remembers your name, Stan.)
Anyway, Scar gives the name-dropping prick some exposition: He’s Mufasa’s younger brother, he was next in line for the throne, then Simba was born, sucks to be Scar. Alright, I’m just going to get this out of the way now. At the end of this review, I’m going to give Scar a perfect twenty, something no villain to date has gotten outside of Maleficent. Some of you may agree with that. Some of you will not. Some of you think may think Jafar was robbed. I’m not really going to have space to explain my reasoning in the scoring section so I might as well do it now. From the comments after the Aladdin review (and I actually don’t know if you’ll have anything left to discuss after this one because you went over Lion King so thoroughly), one of the criticisms that was levelled at Scar was that he was a coward. And he is. Undoubtedly. He always shies away from physical confrontation, he’ll sell out allies the moment things go south. But Scar’s cowardice is actually part of what makes him so dangerous. He uses it in a very tactical way. Scar is not a coward because he is not a threat, far from it. Remember, in the final scene he almost kills Simba, a male in his prime many years younger than him. Now, you might say that Simba’s been living on bugs for years and is probably not in peak condition, but Scar’s probably been starving for a good while before Simba has even returned (the Pride Lands have been completely hunted out by this stage) so it balances out. Scar is quite old for a lion by this stage, and if not for one lucky kick he pretty much had Simba dead to rights. Scar projects an air of weakness and being from “the shallow end of the gene pool” because it makes his enemies more likely to underestimate him. But that’s not the reason why he gets a perfect score. In order for a villain to get the full twenty, they need something that I call The Moment. The Moment is a point in the movie where the villain pulls back the veil and reveals just how utterly, irredeemably evil they truly are. It’s usually something very small, and quiet. For Maleficent, it was that scene where she shows Philip his future, a withered old man riding out of her castle on a half-dead horse. Jafar is awesome, but he never had that single moment of terrifying jet-black evil. We’ll get to Scar’s Moment soon enough.
So before Scar can do us all a favour and bite Stan’s head off, Zazu (Rowan Atkinson) arrives to chew him out for not attending Simba’s presentation. Stan takes the opportunity to run off (where’s he now? Nearly thirty and working in Burger King. Hey, maybe you could call Jeremy Irons and see if he wants to collaborate on something? Huh? Yeah, thought not.). Scar then proceeds to chew Zazu out. Quite literally, but Mufasa arrives and tells him to spit the bird out.
James Earl Jones as Mufasa is, in my humble opinion, quite simply the Greatest Movie Dad Ever.
I think every kid wants a Dad like Mufasa, wise, forgiving, loving, fun and an absolute stone cold badass. He’s the kind of Dad you’d have no problem telling the other kids that he could beat up their dads. Hell, Mufasa could beat Superman. You know it’s true.
This movie gets compared to Bambi a lot but for me Mufasa’s death is several orders of magnitude more devastating than that of Bambi’s mother. Because we get to know and love Mufasa, we spend a long time with him. His relationship with Simba feels real and loving and when that relationship is savagely cut short it hurts. Like. A. Motherfucker.
Mufasa asks Scar why he wasn’t at the ceremony and Scar pretends that he forgot but it comes out that he’s just pissed that he’s no longer first in line for the throne. He skulks off and Mufasa warns him not to turn his back on him, but Scar just replies “Yeah, got that assbackwards, bro.” Mufasa wants to settle right then and there but Scar backs down, saying he knows that he doesn’t have the strength to challenge Mufasa. Mufasa watches him go and wonders aloud what he’s going to do with Scar. After all, he is very obviously a Starscream, but he’s also family which means Mufasa can’t off him without making all future family reunions super awkward. Zazu suggests that he’d make a very handsome throw rug.
One of the movie’s other big influences (apart from Hamlet, the Bible, Hero With a Thousand Faces, the personal biographies of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy Disney, Bambi, Star Wars, the plays of Sophocles and the manifesto of the 1968 Democratic National Convention) is the legend of the Fisher King. With Mufasa as king, the Pridelands are lush and peaceful and we get several quite gorgeous scenic shots of the summer rains falling. Time passes and we see Simba, now a little older and voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Thomas was around 11 or 12 when he voiced Simba and he really does not get enough props for his work here. Seriously, this kid is phenomenal. He finds the right balance between making Simba cocky and arrogant while still being appealing and when he needs to do the heavy emotional lifting for the scene with Mufasa’s death? Umph. Absolutely trojan work. Maybe the best voice acting by a child I’ve ever heard.
Anyway, Simba tries to wake Mufasa at the crack of dawn because he promised to show him the kingdom. Sarabi (a fantastic Madge Sinclair) tells Mufasa “Your son’s awake” and he counters “Before sunrise, he’s your son.”
Sigh. I have tried the Mufasa Defence. It does not work.
Simba finally headbutts Mufasa to wake him up and, dude? I feel your pain. Our daughter has had to sleep in with us for the last week or so because she’s been sick and when she wakes up and wants you to wake up? Not so much a baby as a mace with arms and legs.
Mufasa takes Simba up to the top of Pride Rock and shows him the Pridelands, telling him that one day he will rule over everything the light touches.
Mufasa explains the Circle of Life to Simba, saying that as king he will have to respect all creatures, from the ants to the antelopes. When Simba raises that valid point that it’s kind of hard to respect something that’s so darn delicious, Mufasa explains that while they may eat the antelope, when they die their bodies become the grass which the antelope eat. Which I’m sure the antelope find deeply satisfying.
Zazu arrives to give Mufasa the morning report. Zazu is voiced by Rowan Atkinson, who does a fine job. But because he’s Rowan Atkinson I can’t help but hear lines from Blackadder every time Zazu speaks.
Zazu unleashes a wave of (ugh) puns that is mercifully cut short when news arrives that the hyenas are running amok in the Pridelands. Mufasa runs off to deal with them and Zazu takes a disappointed Simba home. Simba runs into Scar and is all “guess what where I’m going to be king of?” which of course is the very last thing that Scar wants to hear. It’s actually a really well done scene. Simba’s not trying to be a dick, he’s just genuinely excited at the idea of being king. Conversely, while we don’t want to see Scar become king, it’s not hard to sympathise with someone who’s having lemon juice rubbed in the wound like that. I also think it’s interesting, considering how Simba will later accuse Scar that “everything you ever told me was a lie” just how rarely Scar actually does lie to Simba. In this scene especially Scar just notes that Mufasa didn’t show Simba what’s beyond the northern border, tells Simba that it’s dangerous and that he should never go there and lets slip that there’s an elephant’s graveyard. Nothing he says is untrue. One of the things that makes Scar such an effective villain is that he understands his victims so well that it only takes the very slightest, seemingly innocent action on his part to put them in harm’s way. Simba runs and gets Nala and asks Sarabi’s permission to go to the “watering hole”. Ironically, when I was a teenager and I wanted to go to the watering hole I’d ask my mother if I could go to the “elephant’s graveyard”. Sarabi agrees but, because she’s not an idiot, insists that Zazu goes with them.
Zazu mistakes their whispered plotting to
kill him and eat the evidence escape his watchful eye as young love and tells them that their parents will be thrilled. All three of them.
Simba and Nala don’t get it and he tells them that they are engaged to be married. Simba and Nala are grossed out by this, with Simba saying “I can’t marry her, she’s my best friend.”
Right. Because that’s the weird part about this. Look, let’s just get this out of the way. Simba and Nala are half-brother and sister. I know it, you know it, and the Lion King wiki’s desperate grasping at straws notwithstanding…
…we’re all just going to have to accept that lions are gross and move on. Simba says that when he’s king he’s going to change the law so that he doesn’t have to marry his sister and personally I think that’s the beginnings of a fantastic legislative agenda. But Zazu is all “young man, incest built this kingdom!” and says that if the incest goes, he goes, and by the way that Simba is shaping up to be a rather shitty king. We then get I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.
And I have to ask…why y’all gotta be hatin’? This is a great song. Okay, it’s probably the weakest in the movie but that’s like saying Leonardo is the worst turtle. He’s still awesome!
The song over, Simba and Nala give Zazu the slip and finally arrive at the elephant’s graveyard. They wander through the graveyard, which is creepy as hell because God apparently outsourced the job of designing elephant skulls to HR Giger. Zazu arrives and tells them that they need to get the hell out of here like yesterday but it’s too late. The hyenas have arrived, Banzhai (Cheech Marin), Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg) and Ed, voiced by Jim Cummings.
Alright, before we go any further we gotta talk about racism.
This movie does get tarred with the ‘ol racism brush more than most Disney movies so first I feel obliged to note what the movie does right in terms of race. Not only does it have the most ethnically diverse cast of any Disney movie we’ve covered so far (with one notable exception that it probably wouldn’t do this movie any favours to draw comparisons with) but the roles played by persons of colour in this movie are diverse, many, un-stereotyped and well written. It’s also refreshingly colour blind; Simba is voiced by white actors, but both his parents are voiced by black actors, and Nala even has one voice actor from each race. This alone puts it head and shoulders above most Hollywood movies. However, that’s not to say that there isn’t stuff in this movie that becomes deeply uncomfortable when viewed in a certain light. Some of the racism accusations I dismiss out of hand. For example, no, Scar is not black. He is not supposed to be black. He is depicted as being darker than the other lions to make him visually distinct and to mirror the fact that he has dark moods and motives and because he is a shady motherfucker. If you want your character to be black, you do not cast Simon Gruber. But some of the other charges have a bit more bite.
Take the hyenas. It’s been argued that because the Pride Lands become a wasteland once Scar allows the hyenas to live with the lions that the movie has a pro-segregationist message. Why shouldn’t the hyenas be allowed into the Pride Lands after all? Aren’t they part of the Circle of Life? Isn’t Scar simply creating a more just society by allowing them their fair share? Was Mufasa actually a tyrant, forcing an entire underclass into the ghetto of the elephant graveyard? It’s a troubling reading of the work, and not entirely without merit. But as I’ve said before, Disney movies don’t really have subtext, it’s all in the text. Personally, I rationalise it like this:
Mufasa is not oppressing the hyenas because they’re not his citizens. The movie makes it clear that the elephant graveyard is beyond the borders of Mufasa’s kingdom. Zazu in fact even makes the point that the hyenas would be perfectly within their rights to kill him, Simba and Nala because they’ve entered the hyenas’ territory. We can assume then that the hyenas are an independent nation and that far from oppressing them, Mufasa is simply defending his land and subjects from attacks from a hostile power. Also, the antipathy the lions have towards the hyenas is probably less to do with racism than with the fact that hyenas eat lion cubs. Which would be kind of a deal breaker. In this reading, the Pride Rock under Scar is not some kind of socialist paradise where the down-trodden underclass have finally risen up to take what’s theirs, it’s a nation living under a foreign military occupation. This makes sense when you remember that there is a group of real world people who are implicitly compared to the hyenas, but it’s not any ethnic minority.
It’s the Nazis.
So I can live with the portrayal of the hyenas. Having said that, there is one aspect of the movie that I find deeply problematic from a racial perspective but we’ll get to that when we get to that. The hyenas chase Simba and Nala through the graveyard…
…and they get chased to a dead end. It looks like it’s all over but then…
Mufasa arrives and kicks all of the ass. He beats the hyenas so badly, that animals that just happen to be in the same genus feel it.
Mufasa tells the hyenas that going near his son is callin’ for a maulin’ and they run off.
The scene where Mufasa confronts Simba over his disobedience is one of my favorites in the whole film (I only have like…eight). First it’s the atmosphere. I don’t know enough about sound design to know how they make this scene sound like they’re really standing in the middle of the savannah at sunset but it’s exactly the right kind of silence, if that makes sense. The scene also feels so real. If you’ve ever been given a dressing down by your Dad you know exactly what’s going through Simba’s mind right now. Mufasa explains to Simba the difference between courage and recklessness and the two reconcile beneath the stars. Simba asks Mufasa if they’ll always be together, and Mufasa tells him that his father once told him to look up at the stars and know that the great kings of the past looked down on him from those stars. Mufasa tells Simba that he will always be with him.
Meanwhile, back at the elephant graveyard, Scar chastises the hyenas for not offing Simba like they’d agreed. Shenzi asks what they were supposed to do, kill Mufasa? And Scar replies: “Yeah. Duh.”
This leads us into Be Prepared, which would be the greatest Disney villain song of all time if Hellfire wasn’t a thing.
This song, where Scar outlines his plan to use the hyenas to take over the Pride Lands is hilarious, dark and instantly classic. It’s also interesting to note that Jeremy Irons doesn’t actually voice all of Scar’s sung dialogue. Apparently he threw his voice out during the “YOU WON’T GET A SNIFF WITHOUT ME!” line and the rest of his lines had to be recorded by Jim Cummings impersonating Jeremy Irons.
I can’t actually tell you which lines are Cummings and which are Irons because Jim Cummings is a goddamn sorcerer.
This sequence does raise one question though. Why the hell do the hyenas even need Scar? From what we see of Mufasa’s pride there’s Mufasa, two cubs and maybe thirty lionesses tops. Judging from the Be Prepared sequence there are enough hyenas to just invade and take over the Pride Lands.
The next day, Scar leads Simba to a small rock in the middle of the gorge and tells him to wait there because his father has prepared a surprise for him. Simba asks if he’ll like the surprise and Scar says that it’s “to die for”. See? Say what you want, but at least he’s honest. Scar leaves Simba alone and we then pull back to see just what Scar’s “surprise” actually is.
The stampede scene is, in my honest opinion, one of the single most perfect sequences in all of cinema. It’s just…I don’t know how you could improve on a single frame of it. I described in The Little Mermaid review those few seconds during the Part of Your World reprise where everything, animation, acting, music, direction just came together perfectly. This is the same effect, but they manage to sustain it for almost five minutes instead of five seconds. It starts with the slowly mounting dread of Simba seeing some pebbles rattling on the ground as the herd approaches. Then there’s the terror as he looks up to see them bearing down on him. The music rises and it all kicks off.
Just…everything about this scene. Almost twenty years later and the CGI is still damn near flawless.
It’s Mufasa, running against the herd, unstoppable. Doesn’t matter how many times they knock him down he keeps going he keeps going, he will not let his son die. Scar stalking along the ledge like a dark god, calmly, patiently watching the game unfold beneath him. Everything going to plan. That moment of relief when Mufasa gets Simba to safety, savagely undercut as he’s swept away by the tide.
Simba’s single, screamed “DAD!” Like a knife in your gut. Jesus, but Thomas sells it. Give the kid an Oscar for that one word.
His eyes search the crowd for any sign of his father, the music getting more and more frantic.
A second passes. Two. Three.
Then, a miracle! Mufasa soaring up into the air like a falcon, clinging to the cliff walls, battered, bruised but still alive. Still fighting. He’s going to make it. He’s going to make it.
Scar has left nothing to chance.
Brother! Help me!
Long live the king.
Disney movies have dealt with death before. But I cannot think of any other death in the canon that has the rawness, the intensity, the sheer emotional weight of Mufasa’s passing. Simba’s desperate attempts to rouse his father could have been the worst kind of emotional manipulation but the movie earns it. It’s not reaching for an emotion it hasn’t earned. It’s just collecting its due. And then, amazingly, things get worse.
I said before that Mufasa’s death trumps that of Bambi’s mother several times over. I think what happens next is really why the former is so much more horrific than the latter. Bambi’s mother was killed by Man, depicted as a faceless force of nature. And Bambi at least had his father to look after him after she died. The scene where Scar comforts Simba starts off as you’d expect but quickly takes an exceedingly dark turn. Instead of telling him that it’s not his fault, Scar tells Simba that he is to blame for his father’s death, wonders aloud what his mother will think and tells him he has to run away and never return. Jesus. Can you even imagine what that kind of guilt would do to a child? Watching the movie as a kid, I just thought Scar was horrible. Watching it now as a parent, I will take immense satisfaction when this fucker is eaten alive by hyenas.
His entire world shattered in moments, Simba runs off into the wilderness. The hyenas skulk out of the shadows, and Scar says two words with all the emotion of a man swatting a fly: “Kill him.”
And that, my friends, is The Moment.
Simba manages to escape the hyenas through a briar patch and runs off into the desert.
So to recap, Simba has been almost killed, witnessed the death of father, been exiled, almost been killed again, run through a field of razor sharp thorns and is now dying of thirst in the desert and is about to be eaten by vultures. And all he can think is “Worst. Surprise. Ever.” He’s rescued by the arrival of Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). I’ll admit that these characters don’t quite hold the same charm for me as they did when I was a kid but I can definitely appreciate why they’re in the movie. After the emotional Ragnarök of the last act a little kid-friendly comic relief is just what the doctor ordered. Timon and Pumbaa take Simba in and teach him their personal philosophy “Hakuna Matata”, which is Swahili for “Who gives a fuck, amirite?”
Hakuna Matata, while a catchy little ditty in it’s own right, also serves as a montage to show time passing and get us from Cub Simba to Adult Simba.
It is of course at this point that Jonathan Taylor Thomas hands off voicing duties to…sigh.
Okay, as a loyal disciple of my lord and idol Doug Walker…
…I do not much care for Matthew Broderick. However, much as I hate to say it…he’s not bad in this. I don’t know what they slipped into his coffee to break him out of his usual torpor but he actually gives a pretty good performance.
Things are idyllic for Simba, Pumbaa and Timon until one day Pumbaa is out foraging for insects and finds himself on the business end of the food chain.
He’s about to get eaten by a lioness when Simba arrives and…gets his ass handed to him. He realises that the lioness is none other than Nala (now voiced by Moira Kelly) and the two have a joyous reunion while Timon looks on and tries to figure out what the heck just happened.
After introductions are made, Simba and Nala go off to catch up and we get our next song Can You Feel the Love Tonight? Elton John wrote this to be one of the all time great Disney love songs and…yeah, I think it’s safe to say he succeeded. Incredibly someone apparently thought the song would work better as a comedic number given to Timon and Pumbaa (the beginning and the end of this version can still be heard in the final movie). You can listen to this version here. Needless to say, when Elton heard that they’d given his beautiful love song to the comic relief warthog…he was less than pleased.
Thinks hit a rocky patch for Simba and Nala though when she starts asking uncomfortable questions like “So…you’ve been alive here this whole time while we’ve been starving, huh?” Nala tries to convince to come back and reclaim the throne but he tells her to screw off.
While stewing in his own guilt, Simba runs across Rafiki aaaaaaaaaaand now we’ve gotten to the part of the movie I really have a problem with. Now, don’t get me wrong. I freaking love Rafiki. He was my favorite character in the movie as a kid. He’s hilarious, sweet and an absolute badass. But…did no one, did NO ONE, in Disney working on this movie realise that there is exactly ONE character in this movie with an African accent and it’s…well…
I feel awful for even bringing it up because of course that was never their intention. Unless Disney really is secretly run by a cabal of Nazi white supremacists using their movies to spread their doctrine of racial superiority.
But that is a fucking boneheaded mistake to make, especially since Disney has gotten in hot water over this kind of thing before. The only possible explanation I can think of was that the character was conceived as African back when Rafiki was still going to be a cheetah and they had to change species when it became clear that Rafiki was going to need two little things.
And just…no one picked up on it. Which was really, really, really fucking stupid of them. But I don’t feel inclined to hold that against the character or Robert Guillaume who voices him. Anyway, Rafiki pulls a Yoda and pretends to be crazy and tells Simba that his father is still alive and that he can take him to him. Hey, wouldn’t it be hilarious if when they got there Mufasa was just sitting there eating a tin of beans having faked his death years ago and he just looks up to see Simba and he’s all “Oh. Well, this is awkward”? But no, Rafiki shows Simba a vision of his father who proceeds to give him the most cosmically epic guilt trip ever delivered. This scene is gorgeous, Zimmer’s score, the visuals and Jones” delivery combine to create something almost transcendentally beautiful. Simba finally comes to terms with his guilt, and sets off for home with Rafiki whooping encouragement and the stars themselves falling in celebration (again, echoes of the Fisher King).
Simba returns to the Pride Lands to find that under Scar’s rule it’s become the kind of place Al Gore sees in his nightmares. He turns to see Nala, Pumbaa and Timon and whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah. You mean to tell me Nala, with a tiny meerkat and a warthog in tow, managed to get back to the Pride Lands at the same time as Simba despite him having a whole night’s head start on her? Was he strolling the whole way? When we see Simba running through the desert, I thought that was in slow motion for dramatic effect. I didn’t realise that’s just how slow he was.
They get close to Pride Rock and Timon and Pumbaa create a distraction for the hyenas that…raises one or two questions for me.
The way now clear, the approach Pride Rock in time to see Scar summoning Sarabi. She stalks majestically through the growling hyenas, pausing only to administer the frostiest look of disdain ever captured on film.
Sarabi tries to get it through Scar’s crazy, crazy noggin that there’s no more food because there is no more food and she can’t just go out to the local store for a fresh pack of wildebeest. She says it’s time to up stakes and leave and Scar says that that’s not happening. Sarabi points out that sentencing your entire kingdom to starve just because you don’t want to change the address on your stationary is not really something Mufasa would do and Scar smacks her across the face.
Simba makes his appearance and tells Scar to surrender the throne. Scar says that he’d love to, naturally, but he really couldn’t disappoint the hyenas. I mean, look at their little fuzzy faces. Scar then turns the tables on Simba by forcing him to confess that he’s responsible for Mufasa’s death. And no, I don’t blame Sarabi and Nala for taking a few seconds to process this, they’re going through a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. Scar and the hyenas corner Simba on the ledge.
Simba slips and ends up clinging to the ledge while lightning strikes the parched plain below causing it to erupt in flames because God was apparently trained by Ra’s Al Ghul.
Scar has Simba dead to rights, but can’t resist gloating and tells Simba that he was the one that killed Mufasa. Simba, filled with the kind of rage that can tell physics to go screw, leaps up and pins Scar, forcing him to confess to the lionesses that he killed Mufasa. Well, you tell a bunch of lionesses that you killed their baby daddy, what do you think’s going to happen? There’s a massive battle between the hyenas and the lions, with Timon, Pumbaa and even Rafiki getting their individual moments of pure badassery.
Finally, Simba corners Scar at the very top of Pride Rock and tells him that he doesn’t deserve to live. Scar tries to pin the blame on the hyenas (unfortunately for him they’re in earshot) but Simba tells him that he’s not going to kill him. He orders Scar into exile using the exact same words that Scar used all those years ago “Run. Run away. And never return.”
Scar pretends to agree to this, and then throws some flaming debris in Simba’s eyes. No going back now. Only one of them is leaving here alive. The final battle is savage and brutal, made all the more thrilling by Hans Zimmer’s magnificent score. Scar almost beats Simba but his nephew just manages to fling him off the rock.
Scar survives and is relieved to see the hyenas standing over him, calling them “my friends”. But Shenzi remarks that she seems to remember him calling her the enemy. Our last view of Scar is of him backing away in terror as a horde of slavering, demon-eyed hyenas slowly close in on him.
With Scar dead, Simba ascends the rock. He hears his father’s voice, and we see the skull of an antelope being carried off by the rains, a symbol of death being swept away. Then, with the music swelling, Simba roars.
The herds return to the Pride Lands and the movie ends the way it began, with the Lion King and his Queen presenting their newborn child to the kingdom. And the Circle of Life rolls on.
It’s actually hard to put the scale of The Lion King’s success in anything less than astronomical terms. I remember reading as a child that enough VHS tape of this movie was sold to stretch from the earth to the moon and back four times. It grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide. It was the biggest film of 1994, and briefly the second most profitable film of all time after Jurassic Park. It remains the most successful traditionally animated film of all time, and given the sad state of feature length traditional animation it may hold that record, well, forever. Not bad for a movie that was originally envisioned as a quirky little B-movie to hold the public’s attention until Pocahontas came and blew everyone away. It’s also the Disney movie that has perhaps got the strongest claim to being the studio’s crowning achievement. This movie would in many ways mark the end of an era with Disney. Oh, there’s a good six years of the Renaissance left to go of course. And many of the movies that would come after would be able to stand with the very best of the studio’s output. But there would never again be a streak of gold quite like the Mermaid/Beauty/Aladdin/Lion King run. Too many things had changed. Frank Wells, the President of the Walt Disney company who so successfully managed to keep peace between the Titanic egos of Katzenberg, Eisner and Roy Disney tragically died in a helicopter accident a few months before the movie was released (it’s dedicated to his memory). What happened next is a story for another time, but it ended with Katzenberg leaving the studio to set up what would become Disney’s great rival, Dreamworks. Nothing would ever be the same after this. Success would never be as certain, and if it came, it would never top the heights of this movie. What else can you say about it?
It’s the king.
Not as good as I remembered it (with the exception of the stampede scene), but still very strong.
The Leads: 19/20
Yeah, despite being saddled with Matthew Broderick, Simba is a fantastic lead.
The Villain: 20/20
Supporting Characters: 19/20
Timon, Pumbaa, Rafiki, the hyenas, Zazu. An embarrassment of riches.
The Music: 20/20
FINAL SCORE: 96%
NEXT UPDATE: 11 July 2013
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. The blog updates every second Thursday. Thanks for reading!