… 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?
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.
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.
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.|
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.
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.
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.
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.
… Ironic how things worked out.
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.
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.
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.
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.