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Breanna - a lifelong Disney fan - is a writer who lives on a cattle ranch in Alabama. She wants a t-shirt that says, "Where Were You When Mufasa Died?"

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"The King Has Returned"

… Scared you for a second, didn’t I?  Come on guys, did you really believe that I wouldn’t write about The Lion King?  Like I said before, it’s only the most epic Disney animated movie… ever, as well serving as the highest grossing hand drawn animated film in the history of animated films.  Making it and Beauty and the Beast the two most daunting films I’ve had to write about.  There were several points during my writing process where I was severely tempted to simply have my entry on The Lion King to be a YouTube video of its opening sequence followed by “’nuff said.”  Even though I knew I could never do that, not long into the writing process, I realized that would be kind of hilarious and appropriate for a film like The Lion King.  I hope no one took that entry too seriously because I’ve got a doozy ready for you guys.  Okay, now would the real Lion King blog entry please stand up?
First, there’s the whole literary aspect of The Lion King to consider. There are plenty of literary elements present in The Lion King, drawing inspirations from the Bible to the legend of King Arthur.  The Lion King’s most prevalent influence of all is easily Shakespeare.  The Lion King is possibly the closest Disney Animation will come to doing an outright adaptation of Shakespeare (before anyone says anything to the contrary, Gnomeo and Juliet was not a Walt Disney Animation Studios Production – coincidentally, both films involved Elton John).  Though Hamlet is obviously the primary source of inspiration for The Lion King’s story, there are numerous Shakespearean conventions littered throughout the film.  Simba – a prince going through an identity crisis – embarks on a textbook Campbellian journey, during which he loses his king father and culminates in him confronting his evil uncle.  The majority of the film plays like a classic Shakespearean tragedy (though it does also defy that convention of the Bard because obviously the title character does not die come film’s end), right down to having the most tragic scene in the film (Mufasa’s death) be followed by a comedic scene (Timon and Pumbaa’s introduction to Simba).  The Shakespearean influence extends to the straight to video entries of The Lion King franchise: there are elements of Romeo and Juliet present in The Lion King II, and The Lion King 1 ½ is very similar in tone to Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  Scar even briefly holds up a skull in an obvious allusion to the “Alas Poor Yorrick” scene in Hamlet.
Whereas the classic Shakespeare tragedies singled out a solitary character as being at the center of the play’s plot, The Lion King is not so clear.  Consider the title of the film itself.  Rather vague, isn’t it?  Just who is “the lion king” that the title is referring to?  Simba, Mufasa, even Scar, all three lions rule as king during the course of the film.  The audience can only assume that the title must mean all three very different kings.  It’s only fair that we go through each generation in order to be thorough.
The first king introduced in the film is the mighty and wise king Mufasa.  He is the very first lion the audience meets in The Lion King, standing regally at the top of Pride Rock.  Without uttering a single word throughout the opening sequence, Mufasa manages to come across as a friendly (consider the way he smiles at Zazu and how he greets his old friend, Rafiki, with a familiar hug) as well as a loving husband (from the way he nuzzles Sarabi) and father (evident from the way he gazes at his newborn son).  In the following scene he does utter some words and the audience discovers that his voice truly does match the powerful, regal, yet warm nature that Mufasa exudes.  Would you expect anything else from James Earl Jones?


James Earl Jones.  Need I say more?  He’s James Earl Jones.  He only has the most deep, wise, recognizable voice on the planet.  Much like his other famous role in Star Wars, here in The Lion King he is playing a memorable father figure.  Mufasa strikes the proper balance of wise, playful, stern, and protective.  During the scene where he shows Simba the kingdom and explains the significance of stars to the line of kings, he displays a deep understanding of the life cycle; Mufasa knows incredibly well that everything has a beginning and an ending and he does his best to impart this wisdom to his son.  He was successful, though Simba would not fully realize what his father was trying to tell him until much later on in his life. 
Mufasa is plagued by a plethora of problems, besides keeping a rambunctious son on the right track.  Hyenas are constantly invading the Pride Lands, and he has a jealous, passive aggressive younger brother secretly plotting to overthrow him.  Mufasa only has one scene showing prolonged interaction with his brother and it happens right after that legendary opening sequence.  Considering that this is the film’s only opportunity to establish the dynamics of the relationship Mufasa has with his brother, each line and action taken on the part of the characters has to count.  Mufasa’s greeting to his brother is an order to not eat Zazu; Scar greets his brother with, “Why if it isn’t my big brother descending from on high to mingle with the commoners.”  I didn’t think it was possible to place so much passive aggressiveness into one line, but Scar managed it somehow.
That’s how it goes between Mufasa and Scar.  Scar parries every barb Mufasa throws his way with an air of blasé sarcasm as Mufasa continually reminds his younger brother that he needs to respect the line of succession. The fact that Mufasa asks Scar outright if he intends to challenge his brother for the throne indicates that the king is aware of Scar’s ambitions.  This is a significantly more serious side of Mufasa that he does not show unless he absolutely has to.  From the resigned way he looks at Scar as he says, “what am I going to do with him,” the audience can gather that even though Mufasa and Scar do not get along, Mufasa cannot as easily forget his familial ties. 
He is also blessed with a good nature and a sense of humor, as shown during his pouncing lesson with Simba and the way he plays with his son after a lecture.  I especially love the brief exchange he shares with Sarabi when Simba comes to wake him up (“Your son is awake.” “Before sunrise, he’s your son.”).  He also shows his serious and stern side to Simba after his son gets into trouble at the elephant graveyard.  Even though Simba is scared of what his father will say to him, it is obvious to the audience that Mufasa’s frustrations towards his son stem from love and concern for his child’s wellbeing.  Mufasa was the ideal father, so of course he had to die. 
There’s nothing Mufasa wouldn’t do to keep his son out of harm’s way.  He vocalizes to Simba that the only thing that scares him is the thought of losing his cub.  This is something that is used against Mufasa, as it was his parental instinct to protect Simba that ultimately got him killed.  The wildebeest stampede is one of the most famous scenes out of The Lion King and it is easily the most heartbreaking sequence Disney has created since the death of Bambi’s mom back in Bambi.  From start to finish, there’s an ominous cloud of foreboding looming over this scene.  Scar’s parting “Simba, it’s to die for” makes the audience fear for whatever is coming to the little lion cub, which is revealed by a slow camera pan up towards the top of the gorge was a massive herd of placid wildebeest are grazing.  Sadly, they would not be that way for long.

When we return to Simba sitting on the rock, there is noticeably no sound at all, except for little Simba working on his roar.  Then the little cub can’t help but notice that the ground is suddenly vibrating, and – in a moment that is very reminiscent of the ripples in the drinking water scene from Jurassic Park – notices that some pebbles are bouncing on the ground of their own accord.  Much like how Bambi’s mother’s final scene was made all the more tense by the accompanying music, Hans Zimmer starts some very nerve wracking string music as that herd of wildebeest start pouring over the side of the gorge like a river of death.  There’s a line from Jumanji that describes a stampede: “Don’t be fooled, it isn’t thunder.  Staying put would be a blunder.” 
Anything in massive amounts can be terrifying.  Alfred Hitchcock proved that in The Birds, and pretty much every zombie movie ever made has illustrated that point.  Even a normally docile animal like a wildebeest can be the scariest thing you’ve ever seen if there are hundreds of them and they are all running towards you at full speed.  All of those wildebeests were conceptually tricky for the animators; they ended up writing a new computer program just for this film so that they could animate hundreds of wildebeests running in the same direction in a disorderly way.  Their efforts paid off, as they were successful in creating an unprejudiced, unstoppable force of nature out of CG figures that blend perfectly into the hand drawn world.
The direction taken in this scene is absolutely fantastic.  The way the camera suddenly cuts back to Simba’s reaction to seeing the oncoming stampede makes each member of the audience feel as though they were facing the horde of wildebeests themselves.  As Simba is desperately trying to stay ahead of the charging animals, this fantastic African war chanting starts.  It adds a tremendous amount of tension to the frenetic quality of the scene.
What is truly gut wrenching about watching the stampede rip through the gorge is seeing Mufasa dive into the throng without hesitation to get his son.  The audience knows that there’s no way that both of them can escape from this situation alive.  With that many scared animals charging forward, it was simply not possible for both Mufasa and Simba to escape unscathed.  I believe that Mufasa must have known that he was probably not going to make it out of that gorge alive because his first priority was ensuring that his son did.  Of course, for a brief moment when the mighty Mufasa leaps out of the gushing river of wildebeests it looks as though that the great king might just make it out of there after all.
At least, it did until Scar had to go and screw everything up by murdering his brother in cold blood.  It’s a ridiculously chilling moment to see such a powerful figure like Mufasa literally pleading for his brother’s help; looking into Mufasa’s eyes during this scene reveals that he believes that in spite of their differences, Scar would not forget the bonds of blood and would come to his older brother’s aid.  Scar replies by driving his claws into his brother’s flesh, and ominously whispers, “long live the king.”  When the audience sees Mufasa’s eyes shift as he registers the act of betrayal just committed against him, Scar transcends from manipulative, passive aggressive, power hungry brother, into the most despicable kind of villain the mind can conjure at that moment.
The first image that the audience receives of The Lion King’s villain is a lion holding a mouse by the tail between his claws.  Besides hearkening back to the classic image of a lion and a mouse, this scene also reveals a great deal about Scar’s personality.  Even though his manner is quite blasé, the way he torments that excessively small mouse indicates a shadow of the sadism and cruelty he is capable of.  Considering that the symbol of the Disney Company also happens to be a mouse adds yet another layer of villainy onto Scar.

Though he is not my all time favorite Disney villain, Scar does rank towards the top as one of the wickedest, cruelest, and most manipulative of Disney’s villainous offerings.  Murder alone is abhorrent enough, but to murder your own family for personal gain is about as reprehensible as it gets.  Simba as a youth has three keys scenes with Scar: when Scar sets a trap for Simba in the elephant graveyard, when Scar tricks Simba to stay in the gorge before initiating the wildebeest stampede, and finally when Scar manipulates Simba into believing that he is responsible for Mufasa’s death.  In all three of these scenes, Scar is manipulating his innocent young nephew into dangerous situations.  This shows how methodical Scar is; each time Simba finds himself in trouble, it appears to be his own fault, even though Scar was the mastermind pushing all of the pieces into place.  Adding a perverse layer to his scenes, Scar skillfully manipulates Simba under the guise of a loving uncle; Simba is so innocent and trusting that he does not recognize the threat emanating from his uncle as the other adults in his life (Mufasa and Zazu) clearly do.  It is especially sickening for the audience to watch Scar comfort the grieving Simba only moments after unrepentantly murdering the cub’s father. 
This is the only moment in the film in which Mufasa, Simba, and Scar are all on screen together.
Scar is a villain in the tradition of Cinderella’s Lady Tremaine, preferring to work behind the scenes, manipulating the players to achieve his own agenda.  Whether it’s using Simba’s innocence, playing on Mufasa’s love for his son, or appealing to the hyenas’ desperation for food and water, Scar rarely soils his paws (which you might notice are the only lions’ paws in the film that have their claws extended at all times) in his schemes.  When Scar sets up Simba to visit the elephant graveyard, he leaves it to the hyenas to dispose of the young cub.  When he needs a wildebeest stampede, he gets the hyenas to create a wildebeest stampede for him.  The first time Scar does something by himself is when he personally does the deed of murdering his brother.
This aspect of Scar’s personality, whereas he employs others to do his dirty work, is still prevalent during his time as a king.  While he lies around picking his teeth with bone shards as Zazu serenades him bouncing songs, he sends the lionesses out to hunt for food in a barren wasteland, ignoring the fact that the hyenas are destroying everything in the once glorious Pride Lands.  When his subjects try to trouble him with actually ruling his kingdom, he acts as though he has a perennial headache and blames someone else for the problems plaguing their kingdom.  Also revealing is the fact that Scar made any mention of Mufasa’s name illegal.  Scar obviously does not like to believe that he could possibly be a bad ruler.  After all, the lyrics in “Be Prepared” reveal the kind of king Scar desired to be: “Meticulous planning / Tenacity spanning / Decades of denial / Is simply why I’ll / Be king undisputed / Respected, saluted / And seen for the wonder I am / Yes, my teeth and ambitions are bared / Be prepared!”  Obviously, Scar is not seen by his subjects as a “wonder” and he is certainly not “respected” or “saluted,” but this is an ambition that Scar has clearly clung to for most of his life, so he is not willing to let go of his vision of being a “king undisputed” so easily.  Look at how violently he lashes out against Sarabi when she vocalizes that he is not as good of a king as Mufasa was. 
Of course, Scar was ultimately undone by his own doing.  Revealing to Simba that he was Mufasa’s true killer was a mistake, but the greatest mistake he made was trying to pin the whole thing on the hyenas that he did not know were listening intently a short distance away.  Amidst the ominous laughter of a hungry horde of hyenas, Scar’s eyes get a little wider as he begins to pathetically plead for his life.  Though the audience does not actually see Scar’s fate, the writhing shadow with a bunch of hyena shadows pouncing on it tells us everything we need to know.  There have been some pretty gruesome villain deaths thus far, but I have to say that being mauled alive by hyenas would be a pretty nasty way to go out.  It is a fitting, poetic end for Scar though, in that his manipulations of Simba and the hyenas throughout the film brought about his demise.
There were two men we can blame for creating such a memorable villain.  One of them is esteemed British actor, Jeremy Irons, who gave Scar that signature gravelly rasp as well as that poisoned honey undertone that coats most of his dialogue with Simba.  Irons’ performance as Scar was so tremendous that his face was actually worked into Scar’s design.  Who could have animated such a complex villain so full of contrasting traits?  Who else but Andreas Deja?  Even though he was type casted as the go-to villain animator for the early part of the Disney Renaissance, I have to say that there aren’t many animators alive today who do villains quite as well or quite as thoughtfully as Deja can. 
Mark Henn, an animator famous for his leading ladies, worked as the supervising animator for young Simba.  He did an incredibly admirable job in creating a realistic lion cub that was still very reminiscent of a young boy.  Of course, Henn didn’t accomplish such a feat alone.  One of the most famous child actors of all time provided young Simba’s voice.  This is a little embarrassing to admit, but when I was twelve years old, I had the biggest crush on Jonathan Taylor Thomas.  Though my romantic inclinations towards him have faded considerably since then, it’s still a kick for me to hear that signature scratchy voice of his as young Simba.  He was a really gifted child actor, and the voice he gave Simba was cocky, vulnerable, and real.  Even though he is a lion cub, Thomas was able to conceive Simba as a believable young boy.  Best line: “Mom, you’re messing up my mane!”  I just love the way Thomas read that line; he sounded exactly like a frustrated little boy talking to his mother.
Simba starts out the film so eager to be an adult, to be brave, to be king.  In other words, he wants to be just like his father.  It’s what drives him to impetuously visit the elephant graveyard, which ends up teaching him that he is not yet the lion his father is in the harshest manner possible.  He endangers himself, Zazu, and Nala, and his father has to trespass into hyena territory in order to save them all.  The worst part of Simba’s day comes when his father expresses his disappointment in his son’s actions.  The shame that Simba feels was beautifully illustrated in the visual of his tiny paw accidentally stepping into his father’s significantly larger paw print. 
The harshest, most defining experience of all awaits Simba along the bottom of a gorge in front of a herd of stampeding wildebeests.  I mentioned that the last scene that Disney did that was as heartbreaking as Mufasa’s death was the death of Bambi’s mom back in 1942.  Though both scenes are centered around children coping with the loss of a parent, there are elements present in The Lion King that addressed grief more directly than Bambi did.  For one thing, neither the audience nor Bambi actually saw his mother being shot.  In The Lion King, the audience and Simba are forced to bear witness to every horrifying moment of Mufasa’s fall into the stampede in slow motion. 
Also, in Bambi, Bambi and the audience never see his mother’s body.  Simba unfortunately does find Mufasa.  This is the scene that really brings The Lion King up to a whole new level that very few animated films had gone to before or since.  It’s one thing to address the subject of death in a family film; The Lion King addressed death, but more importantly it addressed grief and everything that comes after the death of a loved one.  In the scene where Simba comes across his father’s body, these are issues are addressed in a bleak, stark, and unforgivable manner, and The Lion King is a better film for it.
The tears are always guaranteed to flow during that first full glimpse of Mufasa.  He had once been such a beautiful and regal lion that was so full of life and wisdom.  To see him lying still and broken with one of his whiskers bent is heartbreaking.  Thomas’ scratchy little voice tearfully urging his father to get up is the sob icing on the tear cake.  When Simba crawls underneath his father’s paw and nuzzles in to be closer to him, the audience realizes that they are no longer watching a cartoon about a lion cub: in this moment, it becomes evident that we are viewing a child first discovering what grief is and not fully sure how to cope with such a tremendous loss.

So he goes into exile and meets two fellow outcasts in the form of Timon and Pumbaa.  It is during this time that Simba is taught that when bad things happen, he needs to turn his back on the world and not be plagued by worries or responsibility.  So Simba grows into adulthood without any worries or responsibility whatsoever, and his vocal duties are taken over by the ultimate slacker, Ferris Bueller himself, Matthew Broderick.  While Broderick does instill in Simba a laid back attitude, he also does a great job conveying the weight of the guilt Simba still carries with him. 
The scene that best illustrates this is the exchange about stars with Timon and Pumbaa.  It forces Simba to hearken back to the time he had with his father before his passing, something I imagine Simba would rather not reflect on too often.  The fact that Timon and Pumbaa openly mock such an idea, even unknowingly calling his father a “mook.”  Simba looks incredibly uncomfortable and sad, even though he half-heartedly goes along with his two friends stating that the idea is “pretty dumb.”  When he goes off to be alone with his thoughts, it is clear that for the first time in a long time, Simba feels lonely.  After all, his father had promised that when Simba looked to the stars, he would be there to guide him whenever he felt alone.  Well, Simba felt alone ever since Mufasa’s death and not once did his father come to him to offer some guidance.
Simba couldn’t find his father because he was looking in the wrong place.  He could shout at the sky until his face turned blue, but his father would not appear.  Simba only saw his father again when Rafiki told him that his father lives on, not in the sky, but within Simba.  Only when Simba began to look for an answer within his own heart did his father appear before him.  The potential within Simba is all due to what Mufasa instilled in him as a cub.  For Simba to completely go against what his father taught him, he was unconsciously trying to forget his father so that he would not have to cope with the reality that the man he aspired to be is gone.  Though Mufasa’s words of wisdom are deliberately vague, they are more than enough to get Simba to embrace his destiny as a king, choosing to learn from his mistakes in order to become a wiser king.  Off goes Prince Simba to challenge King Scar for the throne.


What’s interesting about Simba is that he and Scar have something in common, at least while Simba is still a cub: they both think of being a king as only a means of possessing more power, not as a responsibility.  Before his experience in the elephant graveyard, Simba’s impressions of what it means to be king are not so different from Scar’s: “And this will all be mine?” “But I thought that a king can do whatever he wants?” “I’m going to be king of Pride Rock, my dad just showed me the whole kingdom and I’m going to rule it all” “So you have to do what I tell you” and pretty much all of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.”  These are the naïve musings of a young prince who has no clue what kind of responsibility leading a kingdom can entail, so what’s Scar’s excuse for this: “I’m the king!  I can do whatever I want!”  That quote is pretty much word for word a condensed summation of everything that Simba said as a cub.
This casts a really interesting light on the connection between Scar and Simba.  If Simba had grown up in the Pride Lands without any of the experiences of his uncle trying to kill him, he might have continued believing that being a king was simply a means of possessing lots of power.  So if Simba had not experienced the shame that came from his fiasco in the elephant graveyard, he probably would have never gained the wisdom about humility and the kings of the past.  With this in mind, it becomes apparent that without the hardship Simba faced, he probably would have grown to be just as useless a king as Scar was.  In a perverse way, Scar is partly responsible for Simba becoming as good a king as he turned out to be.
The similarities between Scar and Simba continue after Simba’s exile.  Simba vehemently refuses to take responsibility for his kingdom even after Nala informs him of how bad things had become since he left.  Scar vehemently refuses to acknowledge how bad things had become under his rule.  Both lions are in a state of denial, so what exactly makes them different?  For one thing, Simba was fortunate to have a very wise father who imparted his wisdom to his son before his passing, so that Mufasa does indeed live on within Simba.  All it takes is a whack on the head from Rafiki and a ghostly visit from his deceased father to make Simba remember all that he was taught. 
Another thing is that Simba chose to take responsibility for his supposed role in his father’s death and returned to face a past that had been plaguing him for years.  Scar never took responsibility for his plethora of mistakes and ill deeds.  Simba could have taken a very similar road as Scar by continuing to reject his role as the king, but he did not.  So what distinguishes Simba from Scar is the most basic literary device of all time: their choices.  Simba vocalizes this outright:
Scar: What are you going to do?  You wouldn’t kill your old uncle.
Simba: No, Scar.  I’m not like you.
The final confrontation between Scar and Simba is amazing.  This is the first time Simba and Scar have seen each other in a really long time, and Simba is no longer the scratchy voiced innocent cub that Scar scared into exile.  Instead, he has grown into a regal and powerful lion that will not be easily intimidated by his uncle.  Simba has grown to so closely resemble his father that both Scar and Sarabi call him Mufasa upon first seeing him.  Since Simba has realized at this point that Mufasa lives on inside of him, it is almost as though Mufasa and Simba have merged into one being for the film’s climax.  Simba is no longer fighting for just himself to reclaim the throne and his home; he is also fighting as Mufasa to avenge his death.
Simba briefly reverts back to the timid cub he once was during the pseudo trial Scar forces upon him.  It’s interesting that Scar says almost word for word what he said to Simba shortly after Mufasa’s death: “If it weren’t for you, Mufasa would still be alive.”  Except instead of sounding like a sympathetic and kind uncle comforting his grieving nephew, Scar passionately adopts the role of the accuser.  Of course the tables quickly turn for Scar, when in his arrogance believing that he had won, confesses to Simba that he was Mufasa’s real killer. 
The shocked look in Simba’s mimic Mufasa’s when he learned of Scar’s betrayal.  Simba briefly flashes back to the worst moment of his life when he watched his father die as he realizes that the albatross he had been carrying on his shoulders for all that time was not his to bear.  Simba and the lionesses then go about forcibly removing the hyenas from Pride Rock as a fire started by lightning blazes all around them.  Symbolically, fire has long been a symbol of rebirth so its significance in this scene is that it is cleansing Pride Rock of the misdeeds committed by Scar and the hyenas.  Then the rain comes, symbolizing long open wounds finally being healed.  The water literally washes away the pain and hardship that the Pride Lands had suffered, visually expressed when the flowing current washes away a skull from the ground.  With the rain coming down all around him and the knowledge that his father’s wisdom will always be there to guide him, King Simba assumes the throne with a mighty roar and finally takes his place in the great circle of life.

We’ve talked a great deal about Mufasa, Scar, and Simba, but they were not the only characters in the film.  The Lion King has an incredibly strong and diverse supporting cast.  Timon and Pumpaa (voiced by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella respectively) fulfill the roles of classic Shakespeare clowns very admirably.  The film’s biggest LOL moment was when Timon and Pumbaa distract the hyenas by hosting an impromptu luau; the line, “What do you want me to do?  Dress in drag and do the hula?” was improvised by Lane.  Rowan Atkinson did a great job as the stuffy, uptight Zazu, while Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings made the trio of hyenas both menacing and hilarious to watch.  My two favorite supporting characters, though, were Nala and Rafiki. 
As an adult, Nala definitely embodied the idea of what a lioness is.  She’s definitely strong (I love how Simba only recognized her after she had pinned him again), both physically and mentally.  One of my favorite scenes in The Lion King is the fight that she and Simba have in the jungle after “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”  Simba lashes out at Nala because she is a living, local reminder of the life he left behind and the responsibility he ran away from.  The back and forth between her and Simba actually comes across as a realistic argument that a couple might actually have.  She did not hesitate to call Simba out on not taking responsibility for his kingdom, and even manages to get in the best line in the scene: in response to Simba smartly remarking that she sounds like his father, Nala replies, “Good.  At least one of us does.”
For a long time, I wondered why Nala’s voice sounded so familiar to me.  It wasn’t until I did a thorough poking around Moira Kelly’s IMDB credits that I found out why: she played Kate in one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies, the figure skating romance, The Cutting Edge, with D.B. Sweeney, who would go on to voice some Disney characters of his own (but we’ll get to them later).  Another standout voice in the film was Robert Guillaume, who ranks alongside Jeremy Irons for providing an outstanding vocal performance in The Lion King with his role as Rafiki: one part sage, one part psycho, one part martial artist, all awesome.  Rafiki knows exactly what Simba needs to hear and conveys his meaning in the clearest way possible, whether it means showing Simba his reflection or hitting him over the head with a stick.  Guillaume gifted Rafiki with the most psychotic but awesome laugh.  One of my favorite scenes in all of The Lion King was when Rafiki inflicts some serious Bruce Lee action on the hyenas.  James Baxter (one of Belle’s supervising animators) animated Rafiki.

We need to pause on the subject of the animators.  As I went through the credits looking at who supervised which character, I was amazed that I only recognized three names: Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, and James Baxter.  Where are the likes of Eric Goldberg and Glen Keane?  On the Platinum Edition documentary for The Lion King, it was mentioned that there were two films in production around the same time at the Disney Animation Studios: The Lion King and Pocahontas.  The general feeling of the filmmakers was that it would be Pocahontas that would go on to be the great film that received the same amount of prestige and reverence that Beauty and the Beast had, while The Lion King was deemed as the “B picture” that no one wanted to be assigned to. 
… Ironic how things worked out.
The Lion King was pitched as Bambi in Africa.  There are some thematic elements The Lion King shares with Bambi (loss of a parent, the life cycle, death and rebirth), but it was the film’s use of its African setting that sets it in a class apart from Bambi.  The beautiful backgrounds create the world of the Savannah, especially during the sequence in which the rain starts coming down around Rafiki’s tree. Chris Sanders – a production designer who would later go on to direct Lilo & Stitch – was inspired by the bright color palette of African art when he designed the “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” sequence.   Africa’s greatest presence in the film, though, is the fantastic African choir that performs throughout the film’s musical score. 
For the majority of Disney Renaissance films thus far, Alan Menken had been the films’ composer as well as being responsible for songs’ melodies.  This was not the case for The Lion King; there were actually four very different talents working on the music that would be heard in the film.  Tim Rice worked as the lyricist on the film.  It was his recommendation to the filmmakers that they get Elton John to write the melodies.  Elton John did not write the score to the film; that job belonged to Hans Zimmer, who sought out an old friend of his from South Africa named Lebo M., who he had worked with before on a film called The Power of One.  If you were to ask me, it was Lebo and his choir that made “Circle of Life” as amazing as it turned out to be.
Of the “Circle of Life” sequence, I have this to say: Greatest. Opening. Ever.  From that first power chord that Lebo M. belts out (that always makes me jump a little) to that final iconic shot of baby Simba being presented to the kingdom, every famous moment in this opening sequence has ingrained itself into the fabric of pop culture and the American consciousness.  God only knows how many times I’ve seen the opening of The Lion King riffed by a show or movie.  All it takes is someone holding a baby up high on a rock and suddenly we’re back to Lion King
“Circle of Life” has easily become a signature scene of Disney, ranking up there with Lady and Tramp’s date, Dumbo flying, and Cinderella’s tattered dress transforming into a beautiful ball gown. The song alone is incredible, but the chill inducing quality that the scene possesses is a combined effort of both the music and animation working together.  The images of the animals going towards Pride Rock not only conveys the meaning of the song, but adds a layer of poetry and symbolism that had not been seen in a Disney film prior to this one.
When I was a kid, my absolute favorite song out of The Lion King was “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.”  It’s still a fun song with Simba fantasizing about what kind of king he will be.  Jonathon Taylor Thomas did not provide the vocals of Simba for this song; a kid named Jason Weaver did.  What’s impressive about Weaver, though, is that he had a raspy voice that sounded very similar to Thomas’.  So much so that if I didn’t own the song on iTunes and couldn’t clearly see the name “Jason Weaver” under artist, I would say that it was the same performer for both the voice and the song.  The sequence was also memorable for the stylized animation that suddenly takes over the Savannah.  I mentioned that Chris Sanders was inspired by African art for this sequence, but can you imagine all of The Lion King looking like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King?”  Because early on during the planning process for The Lion King, that was the original direction they were going to go in.  Once the story began to take on a more mythic, epic quality, the film’s style was changed to match the tone.

The more epic tone of The Lion King is reflected in one of the finest villain songs Disney has ever churned out.  A good villain song reveals the motivations driving that film’s respective villain and a little bit about their psychology.  “Be Prepared” accomplishes this in droves.  Not only are Scar’s lofty ambitions and quenchless thirst for power revealed, but the hyenas’ desire for food – lots of food – is revealed as well.  For the sequence itself, the animators drew inspiration from the famous propaganda film, Triumph des Willens (or Triumph of the the Will in English) when they animated the hyenas marching beneath Scar on a podium.  The allusion to Nazi Germany adds a chilling layer to Scar and the kind of ruler he will prove to be.   

On the other end of the song spectrum we have “Hakuna Matata.”  Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella play off of each other really well during this more comedic number.  My favorite moment from this song sequence was during the bridge of the song when Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba are dancing and swaying through the years.  The audience gets to watch Simba grow up before their eyes and Joseph Williams takes over Simba’s singing duties from Jason Weaver.  Simba’s adolescent mane is really cute.
My favorite song out of The Lion King was indeed the big Oscar winner “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”  Aside from the Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella opening, my favorite version of the song is the one that is heard in the film (sorry, Elton).  The beautiful melody and romantic lyrics make it one of the great Disney love songs; I’ve heard that there are couples that choose to dance to it at weddings, which I find kind of strange… and awkward.  Why?  Because to me, it’s not a song appropriate for a wedding or any event that might happen in public.  The theme of the song is about two people forgetting about the chaos the world has to offer.  I mean, did you seen the look Nala gives Simba after she gives him that kiss?  That’s the most enticing “come hither” face I’ve seen a Disney heroine put on since the little girl lured Mowgli into the Man Village in The Jungle Book.  My point being that it is a song better suited for a quiet night alone with your sweetie, possibly accompanied by a bottle of red wine and a roaring fire.  Though if you choose to go that route, I would recommend the Elton John version of the song.  Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane just do not set a sexy mood.
When Disney first began to release the Platinum Editions on DVD, they were also reissuing the films to theatres in limited run Imax engagements.  To further draw crowds, they added a newly created scene to make the reissue special.  This practice turned out to not be very profitable, so it died a quick death with only Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King receiving the special edition Imax treatment (Aladdin was originally set to follow in their footsteps).  This is why there were three different versions of Beauty and the Beast on the DVD and subsequent Blu-Ray.  It’s also why the “Morning Report” version of The Lion King exists.

Of all of the songs created for The Lion King on Broadway, the filmmakers chose the “Morning Report” to animate and add to the film, a decision that has plagued many a Disney fan, myself included.  It doesn’t further the plot along, it doesn’t add a new dimension to the secondary characters like “Human Again” did for Beauty and the Beast, and to top it all off the kid that sings for Simba, Evan Saucedo, sounds absolutely nothing like Jason Weaver.  Many fans have asked the question of why they did not add “The Madness of King Scar” instead of “Morning Report,” which fulfills all of the above requirements.  The only logic I can muster up for why they decided not to do that song is that they could not find a way to work it into the film without severely disrupting the flow of the story, at least doing so without having to rearrange more than a few scenes.  It was pretty simple to add a new scene into Beauty and the Beast, whereas here in The Lion King, this special edition could have gotten pretty expensive.  “Morning Report” however was a simple case of switching out some dialogue and rearranging some of Mufasa’s dialogue. 
Does this make “Morning Report” easier to stomach?  Not really.  All of the above reasons I mentioned for why I don’t enjoy this scene are still present.  Most infuriating of all though is that instead of offering multiple versions of the film to watch on DVD (as they did for the Platinum release of Beauty and the Beast), Disney only released this “Special Edition” version of The Lion King to DVD, meaning that I’m stuck with the “Morning Report” at least until the Diamond Edition of The Lion King comes out this Fall.  I hope they will have at least learned from their mistakes by then. 
“Morning Report” also seems to detract from the epic quality that Lion King possesses.  Even when I was an impressionable cub myself, I sensed that The Lion King was different from any Disney film that had been released up until that point.  I remember the time leading up to The Lion King’s initial release very well.  I can vividly recall standing next to the stuffed animal display at my local mall Disney Store watching The Lion King trailer on the massive monitor that they had in there. That trailer in particular sticks out in my mind because of how different it was than any other theatrical trailer I had ever seen.  It consisted of nothing but the film’s opening scene.   Nothing about the film’s plot is revealed and there’s no dialogue exchanged and the only voices heard is Lebo M.’s African choir singing “Circle of Life.”  From just that description, this trailer should have been disastrous, but it wasn’t.  People wanted to see this film based on the power of its opening alone.
Needless to say, the reach of The Lion King extends far beyond the film itself.  The Lion King has had a presence in the theme parks pretty much since the film was initially released.  I mentioned in the Aladdin post that Zazu co-hosts The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management with Aladdin’s Iago (though I heard that the attraction would return to its classic Tiki Room roots this summer after an impromptu refurb; I say impromptu because the attraction only closed for refurbishment after a small fire started inside of an Iago animatronic).  The Legend of the Lion King was a live stage retelling of the film using fully articulated puppets.  It was located in Disney World’s Fantasyland, which is kind of an odd choice, considering that the story of The Lion King does not really lend itself very well to the theme of the Magic Kingdom.   Considering that the attraction opened in June of 1994 – the very same month the film was released – WDI obviously felt pressured to create a Lion King attraction and had to shoehorn it in somewhere at the theme parks.  The Legend of the Lion King closed in February of 2002, and the 4D film, Philharmagic, has since taken over the space the former Lion King attraction used to occupy.  Philharmagic has proven to be a much more appropriate attraction for Fantasyland, plus it features "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" as its chosen musical number from The Lion King.
 If you simply must have your Lion King fix when you come to Disney World, do not despair.  The fourth gate down in Disney World, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I surmise was created for the explicit purpose of having a theme park where Lion King attractions could live and thrive.  Case in point, Rafiki’s Planet Watch where guests board a train and go to the backstage area where they can see for themselves the conservation efforts led by Disney, as well as the hugely popular and longest running Animal Kingdom attraction, The Festival of the Lion King, which opened in 1998.  The songs of The Lion King are performed by an assortment of singers, acrobats, gymnasts, dancers, and even a fire-eater who I suspect also moonlights as a performer at the Polynesian Resort Luau.  It truly is a spectacular show (one of Ginger’s favorite attractions), so if you make your way down to Disney World, it’s definitely a must see.  Need proof of that?  Fine.  A few years ago, after Ginger and I had just sat in on a performance of The Festival of the Lion King, we were slowly making our way to the exit amidst the slow moving throng.  We were right behind what sounded like a British family, consisting of a mother and a father and their little girl, who looked to be around six or seven.  Ginger and I both overheard the father ask his daughter if she liked the show.  Her response:  “I didn’t like it; I loved it!”  Everyone within earshot of that little girl (Ginger and myself included) got a delighted laugh from that statement.  So if you don’t take my word for it, take hers: you won’t like The Festival of the Lion King, you will love it.
With all of these stage show retellings of The Lion King, you might be thinking, “hmm, I bet The Lion King might work as a fully realized stage production on Broadway or something.”  Well, guess what?  You would be absolutely right.  Following the success of Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, Michael Eisner proposed that they give The Lion King a similar Great White Way treatment.  Just about everyone who heard the idea initially balked at such a proposal.  The main reason Beauty and the Beast converted so well to the stage is due in large part to the fact that the film itself was already structured like a Broadway musical.  The Lion King?  Not so much.  To change The Lion King into a respectable theatrical production worthy of being on Broadway would call for a whole new vision and artistic direction that no one associated with the film would have conceived.  Enter Julie Taymor.

 If you have any experience at all with Shakespeare or theatre, then chances are that you have probably heard the name Julie Taymor at least once.  One of my very favorite Shakespeare film adaptations was her version of Titus Andronicus with Anthony Hopkins assuming the role of the title character.  Her more recent film work includes The Tempest, with Helen Mirren playing a female Prospero, accordingly renamed Prospera.  Taymor has actually become somewhat infamous as of late, with her Broadway production of Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, which has been famously ridden with troubles since its opening (she stepped down as the director back in April 2011, and the show has since received an overhaul).  What she brought to The Lion King was an emphasis on the human aspect of the story, and through the use of several global forms of puppetry, dancing, and costuming, was able to take a Disney animated film and reshape it into a Tony award winning theatrical production.  Say what you will about her body of work, but were it not for her unique eye for visual storytelling, The Lion King Broadway show probably would not have become what it is: Disney’s most successful theatrical venture that is still being performed today all across the globe. 
Does The Lion King’s influence extend even further?  Heck yes, it does.  Timon and Pumbaa were spun off into their own animated series called… Timon and Pumbaa.  Personally, my very favorite Lion King inspired attraction can be found down in Epcot inside of The Land pavilion.  Inside this structure (besides the hugely popular Soarin and the not quite as popular Living With the Land) is a really lovely “edu-tainment” film called The Circle of Life.  It stars some familiar faces from The Lion King (Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa) while explaining in unforgiving terms the impact human beings can have on the environment.  So why is this environmental fable so special?  Imagine that incredibly opening of The Lion King, but instead of animated animals, you see the selected animals’ real life counterparts roaming free in their natural habitat the way nature intended.  When I sat in the film once during my stint as a Cast Member, I was caught off guard by how beautiful it is to see animals in such a way, so much so that I actually teared up a little bit right there in the theatre.  Granted, I’m pretty sure that not everyone will be as moved as I was by such a sight, but to see that montage of real life animals in tandem with the always inspiring “Circle of Life” is quite chill inducing on its own. 
Everything about The Lion King is chill inducing though.  Here at the end, I still stand by what I said in my gag post.  I don’t think I have anything to add to what has already been said of this magnificent film.  Easily the most epic film Disney has ever churned out, but also arguably the most profound and honest story they’ve ever told.  It’s a film that doesn’t shirk away from the subject of death, and it forces its audience to confront death and loss head on.  Have I scratched the surface of its brilliance?  I’m pretty sure that I haven’t.  That’s okay, though.  That’s what you guys are here for.  I want to hear what The Lion King says to you.  Where were you when Mufassa died?  What parts of the film moved you most?  What did you take away from The Lion King
As a side note, I apologize for the fake out blog post yesterday, but do check out the comments section on that one because jon TK wrote a fantastic comment on The Lion King that I think is better than my actual Lion King blog entry.  I also apologize for the sporadic updates.  I give you my word as an author that Waking Snow White will be updated in a much more consistent manner now.  I will still post alerts on my IMDB thread, as well as on my facebook page, but I now have a Twitter account too where I will also be posting when I update.  Just look up wakingsnowwhite and click follow.  Thanks for reading guys and I do hope that I hear what each of you has to say in the comments section below!

6 comments:

  1. Awesome review!! 'Nuff said ;)

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  2. And now some stuff I haven't already said...

    I agree that "Morning Report" does not work in this movie. "Human Again" was part of the original plans for BATB, so it's re-inclusion wasn't too disastrous. But it is very hard to retroactively edit an animated film (as the released version of Black Cauldron makes clear). Most of the songs in the stage production had already been taken from subsequent Lion King sequels and albums. My favorite being "He Lives in You', which opens Lion King II, but originated on the first film's tie-in album Rhythm of the Pride Lands. Not much else to say about that sequel. The animation improved greatly from earlier direct-to-video fare, but the story bores me and doesn't make sense. And Andy Dick is in it. Lion King 1 1/2 is much more fun, though it suffers Back to the Future Part II syndrome of having characters in two places at once by rewriting history. ...how did I digress here? Oh, "Morning Report". You CAN watch the original version on the Platinum DVD. You have to go into one of the set-up menus and change it to original theatrical version. For me the worst part of putting the song in is that it takes away all Zazu's little jokes ("I've told the elephants to forget it, but they can't.")

    Another problem I have with the movie is Matthew Broderick. He just never feels like he quite fits in this movie to me, or I never completely believe him in all his moments as adult Simba. It's close, but like Sophia Coppola in Godfather III, he feels out of sync to me with everyone else. Considering that Mufasa and Sarabi are played by the same actor and actress who played the King and Queen in Coming to America, wouldn't it have been fun to have Eddie Murphy play Simba? ...Of course, I doubt Murphy would be believable growing up out of JTT.

    Oh, and don't be embarrassed about crushing on JTT. Every girl that age in the 1990s did. It crested right around the time Man of the House came out, and fizzled away along with his career.

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  3. Hi, Breanna! I am still following you and I check this page every couple of days. I thought there will be update soon when you added the new poll :).
    For me, The Lion King is a film that I've never fully appreaciated when I was a kid. I know, strange. Maybe I was more of a princess-movies type but I still remember that I found The Lion King kinda boring and well...shallow, like it was purposedly playing on our emotions in a very obvious way. Please, don't kill me! ;)
    To say something on my behalf, I truly do understand The Lion King now. Maybe I've learnt that the most true and powerful stories are the ones that look so obvious and predictible on the first sight, maybe I'll just go and blame my brother who was telling me for years that The Lion King was cool (ok, he sided with Scar and hyenas, but I guess he still counts as a fan of the movie).
    As for now, though I haven't added The Lion King to my Disney movies Top 5, I thoroughly enjoy it everytime I watch it, especially the songs and animation. And Morning Report was a waste of money if you ask me, but luckily it's short enough for me to bear it. And my favorite characters are Scar, hyenas and Rafiki (sorry, Simba, I've never find you interesting as a character and you suck in TLK II).
    Yes, sequel. Probably one of the very few Disney sequels I enjoy. And no, jon TK, I don't find it very logical either (I mean - there were some other lions than the ones from the Pride Rock and nobody told us?!). But it has great songs (can you believe I love "Love Will Find a Way" more than "Can You Feel the Love Tonight"?), believable characters (Kovu, you rule) and a love story instead of a story of revenge (basically...).
    ....I hope this comment won't be unbearably long.

    And as much as I love reading any of your reviews, Breanna, I must say I am truly looking forward to your articles on the 1997 and 1998 movies ;). Not big fan of Poca and Quas.

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  4. Awesome post! (as usual)

    While the "The Lion King" isn't in my top favorite Disney movies, it's still pretty high up there =D The vivid colors and animation in this movie are just absolutely breathtaking! And "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" is one of those songs my sister and I will just burst out singing at completely random moments. =D

    I can't wait till you review "The Hunchback of Notredame", "Mulan" and "Tangled"!

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  5. June, 1994. It was a hot, summer Saturday afternoon. I sat on a worn movie-theatre seat with a hole in its faded upholstery where you could see the foam filling peeking out. On one side, my father was trying to unstick his feet from the years-old layers of sticky grime that coated the movie theatre's floors (as I've mentioned before, '80s and to some extent '90s New York was something of a gritty dump); on the other side, my little brother sat with his face frozen in an expression of unadulterated awe that he still saves for viewings of "The Lion King" to this day.

    This is where I was when I saw the movie that changed it all for me. Don't get me wrong, I loved my Disney movies. With five kids, I don't think my parents missed a cinematic showing of a Disney animated film from 1985 'til sometime in the early 2000s. Maybe later. And prior to "The Lion King", we knew that Disney could deliver 'epic'--after all, we had seen "Beauty and the Beast". But this was different, and even though I was just a kid, I could tell.

    I remember seeing the trailers for "The Lion King" on the "Coming soon" segments of the VHS tapes we usually fast-forwarded through. No dialogue. No words, period--minus the singing. Shots of ants scurrying along a branch, of birds flying over a waterfall, of a brilliant red sun rising on the horizon. Cut to the behind-the-scenes shots of animators sketching as a real, live lion sat in their studio.

    Disney movies have made me cry before. But strangely, most of the moments that make me tear up as an adult didn't have such a deep impact on me as a child. However, there is an exception to the rule. I can vividly remember sitting in that packed movie theatre way back in 1994, bawling like a baby as Simba begged Mufasa to get up so they could go home. The earth-shaking realization that no, your parents won't always be there to make it all okay again is a frightening and difficult one for children and adults of any age.

    There's a running joke in my family that whenever I like a character in a movie or TV show, he or she is likely to die. It happens all the time. Mufasa is my all-time favorite character in "The Lion King". Part of the credit goes to the incredible James Earl Jones, whose voice is one of a kind. ut the rest of the reason is simply because Mufasa is absolutely PERFECT. He is all at once a wise ruler, a loving family man, the resposible older brother left to fret over his sibling's lawless ways and poor choices, a genuiely scary threat to anyone who put his loved ones in harm's way, and just an all-around nice guy. I want Mufasa for my dad.

    Case in point: this movie had it all. Art. Music. Comedy. Romance. Tragedy. Drama. It is entertaining enough to captivate even the youngest of viewers, yet deep enough to be the subject of a postgraduate-level dissertation. It drew influeces from diverse and impressive source materials (Shakespeare for kids!) And it was, simply put, a fine movie. What else can I say? A excellent analysis of an epic film. 'Til next time, Hakuna Matata.

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  6. Mufasa is most likely my top male influential and powerful character. His death is always going to be a horrible tragedy. But there can’t be that uplifting triumph, where you rise above the sadness and become more powerful than when you started, without the tragic moment in the first place. The Lion King is just that.

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