Directed by Roger Allers and Bob Minkoff
Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton
Starring the Voices of Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Robert Guillaume, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings, Madge Sinclair
Made in the heydey of the ’90s Disney renaissance, The Lion King represents one of the finer moments of the studio’s creative vision and occupies a high stature in the eyes of the fans, who consistently keep coming back to it, whether in the form of this original film and its sequels, the Lion Guard television series, or the acclaimed Broadway musical.
A young lion prince is born in Africa, thus making his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) the second in line to the throne. Envious and devious, Scar plots with the hyenas of the shadowy outlands to kill King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Prince Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), thus making himself King. Soon enough, Mufasa is killed and Simba is led to believe by Scar that it was his fault, and so flees the kingdom in shame. After years of exile with a carefree pair (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella), the now-grown Simba (Matthew Broderick) is persuaded to return home to overthrow the usurper and claim the kingdom as his own, thus completing the “Circle of Life”.
Despite being mired in the controversy of whether it lifted its storyline and main character from the Kimba the White Lion anime, The Lion King is much more indebted to the classic play of William Shakespeare, Hamlet. The major beats are all there: the King is murdered by his jealous brother, who usurps the throne; the King’s son is forced to choose between avenging his father or allowing that crime to go unpunished, thereby sparing his own life of the responsibility. Simba’s arc through the second half of the film is a precise mirror of Prince Hamlet’s, insomuch that The Lion King becomes, in my mind, the only adaptation of a Shakespeare tragedy to successfully end happily.
But before that arc can begin, The Lion King first treats us to two similar perspectives on the mighty throne of Mufasa: young Simba, and Scar. The youthful cub is anxious to be King, believing that simply because he was born into the line, he will get a free pass to use the power any way he wants. Just like every kid out there who wants to rule the world. As Simba endures his growing pains under the fair and loving guidance of his father, his uncle Scar broods. Played in cunning manner by Jeremy Irons, Scar’s desires aren’t too far from Simba’s–his are just hidden under the lies of adulthood, as he believes his rule will automatically bring about a golden age. Like every dictator that has ever come to power, Scar’s delusions bring about misery and sorrow, like every good villain’s plan should.
Throughout the first half, we get some wild song sequences, like the tribal-influenced “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and Scar’s dark “Be Prepared,” and of course, the ever popular and beautiful “Circle of Life.” Each song, some with input from the great Elton John, is bolstered by terrific visual sights of the plains and jungles of Africa, as is the story by each amazing voice actor, led by such talents as James Earl Jones as Mufasa, Jonathan Taylor Thomas as young Simba, and Robert Guillaume as my personal favorite, the wise and wacky witch doctor of a baboon, Rafiki. There is also the incredible attention to detail displayed by the animators, who slip in subtleties of performance into the characters that correspond to their actual animal inspirations.
The pivotal moment separating both halves is the death of Mufasa, a moment which I’m sure traumatized a lot of kids back in the day (and probably still does). By showing this moment which was only referred to in Hamlet, The Lion King eschews intrigue for sheer pathos, and propels Simba into a life of hedonism with the film’s best comic relief, Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumba (Ernie Sabella). Out in the jungle, the now-grown Simba (Matthew Broderick) gets to live out most of our most wonderful and illogical fantasies away from the responsibility of life, before reality comes crashing back.
I could go on and on about the thematic and narrative depth of The Lion King, but since this is a review, I’ll just end on my most basic, unfiltered thoughts on it: I still love it. Far and away, the only film that comes close to it from the Disney renaissance is Aladdin, and that’s mainly due to Robin Williams. This film, while still boasting big names, doesn’t really have one major player that carries the film effortlessly; instead, the strength of the plot and the visual majesty of its setting is what makes The Lion King stand apart from its colleagues.