The Lion King
Leading up to rewatching “The Lion King” this week for my Movie a Week, I kept thinking about the Second Golden Age of Disney animation that began with “The Little Mermaid.” Trying to pinpoint where it ended is another matter. Disney shut down its’ 2-D cell animation feature department back in ’05, after a series of setbacks in the form of “Home on the Range,” “Treasure Planet,” and films I didn’t catch like “Brother Bear.”
Rewatching “The Lion King,” I couldn’t help but wonder whether it ended with Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers’ 1994 smash, which was- until “Finding Nemo” and “Shrek 2” dethroned it- the highest-grossing animated film of all-time. Don’t get me wrong- Disney delivered good films after “The Lion King,” and with “Fantasia/2000,” “Lilo & Stitch,” and “Tarzan,” some that delivered on the magic of their best films- but the company seemed to lose sight on what audiences wanted in their films, instead trying to branch out in new directions (“Mulan,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Hercules,” and “Pocahontas”) instead of follow the formula of success that permeated through “Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” (still the only animated film ever nominated for Best Picture), “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King.” Hopefully, this Christmas’ “The Princess and the Frog” will bring that magic back- the trailer certainly looks promising.
But back to “The Lion King.” It starts with the music. The theme for the Pride Lands by Hans Zimmer gives the film its’ emotional core. More so than the joyful and wonderful songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, Zimmer’s score brings soul to the film’s animated (and animal-centered) take on “Hamlet.” From the opening frames, his powerful orchestrations of John and Rice’s “Circle of Life” captures the dramatic story to come, as King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) presents his young son Simba to the animals of the Pride Lands. Apparently, that wasn’t how the film was originally going to open, but Zimmer- who won an Oscar for his work- impressed them with his rendering.
From there, Minkoff and Allers’ give the composer free reign, both in driving the story with his emotionally-gripping underscore and in the orchestrations he and his collaborators accomplish in the songs, from comic and fun treats like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Hakuna Matata” (it’s Swahili for “no worries”) to the romantic Oscar-winner “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and the dramatic villainy of “Be Prepared,” when Mufasa’s brother Scar (voiced with classic wickedness by Jeremy Irons) hatches his plan- with his Hyena henchmen (voiced with wicked glee by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin)- to take the throne.
But if the film were merely a drama adventure of self-discovery and learning from the past with some catchy tunes throughout, it wouldn’t be the classic its’ become, or the hit it became in theatres. The film has comic relief that comes in many forms, from Mufasa’s bird-brained assistant Zazu (Rowen Atkinson) to Simba’s friends in exile Timone (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), the film finds ways to integrate humor with the heartbreak of Simba’s Shakespearian dilemma. Feeling the weight of his father’s death during a stampeed, he’s gone into exile, although Scar has told the lionesses of Pride Rock that he died along with Mufasa. But some friendships are sometimes all somebody needs to get through the tough times. And Timone and Pumbaa are just what this king needs right now, teaching him the ways of dealing with wit and heart.
But it’s not enough. Scar and the Hyenas are ravishing the Pride Lands. Simba is needed back home. But it’s not until his childhood friend Nala and the monkey wiseman Rafiki come along him that he finds the king within, and makes his way back to the Pride Lands to take his place. The final confrontation is a visual and dramatic marvel, with the animators at the peak of their powers, following these characters we’ve come to know and love into a series of conflicts that get to the moral and emotional core of the film in ways that are both scary and satisfying. Zimmer’s score provides powerful support, with his Pride Lands theme in its’ full strength. Being a Disney film, good triumphs over evil, but the weight of what’s been overcome remains even as the circle of life continues come the triumphant ending shots. In those moments, Disney paved the way for the triumphs to come from its’ collaboration with Pixar, although it proved too tough an act to follow for its’ in-house animators. Hopefully, the time is coming around again for this beloved studio to take its’ rightful place at the top of its’ field, and John Lasseter and co.’s studio has just been keeping the position warm for it.