The Lion King

4 Oct

When it was originally released back in 1994, I suspect even Disney was unprepared for the immense popularity The Lion King garnered. Seventeen years, over $800 million at the box office and 55 million home video sales later, Disney is giving its perennial classic a wide theatrical re-release ahead of its Blu-Ray debut.

Despite being touted as Disney’s first original story, The Lion King is heavily influenced by Hamlet and the Biblical stories of Joseph and Moses (not to mention rather controversial similarities with anime series Kimba the White Lion). We follow the anthropomorphic lion Simba, heir to the throne of the Pride Lands, who is tricked into thinking he killed his father, Mufasa (the reigning King), and ostracises himself, leaving his treacherous uncle Scar to take the throne.

A traditional Campbellian hero’s journey, The Lion King is only rivalled in poignancy in Disney’s illustrious canon by Bambi with which it shares several similarities. However, Bambi’s journey is no where near as emotionally engaging as Simba’s who’s evolution from immature then guilt-ridden cub to a nihilistic then mature adult is convincing, extremely well written and, above all, tear-jerking. Fuelling these developments is the devious villain – Simba’s uncle Scar. An act of both regicide and fratricide, convincing Simba he was responsible for Mufasa’s death then assuming the throne and letting the abominable hyenas in to the Pride Lands are a few of the things Disney’s most heinous villain gets up to. In a scene that seems lifted directly from Leni Riefenstahl’s masterpiece of propaganda Triumph of the Will, Scar and the hyenas are even equated with Hitler and the Nazis.

However, Disney couldn’t leave things all dark and gloomy – look at how The Black Cauldron did at the box office! – so someone in the production team  inserted a comedy duo straight out of vaudeville  – Timon, a wisecrack meerkat and Pumbaa, a warthog with a flatulence problem. The film achieves just the right balance between the heavy story and comic relief and, with the exception of the flatulence gags, the jokes are genuinely funny. Pumbaa even channels some classic film characters including Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Virgil Tibbs (In the Heat of the Night) during the final act but they distract from and interrupt the flow of the main action.

To provide the musical numbers, Tim Rice teamed up with Elton John with great effect. Toe-tapping pop tunes (‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’, ‘Hakuna Matata’), love songs (‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’) and rousing anthems (‘Circle of Life’) advance the plot or contain important, relevant messages. Equally important is the Academy Award-winning score, provided by Hans Zimmer, which is one of the most beautiful to grace an animated film and perfectly captures the emotional state of the scene. Another beautiful element to the film is the stunningly detailed animation. Some scenes are filled with crisp, eye-poppingly bold, exotic colours while others are atmospheric with large brush strokes and dark, shadowy shades but the animation quality is consistent throughout.

Today, as the film’s twentieth anniversary approaches, The Lion King remains a benchmark for animation. Arguably the best film in the Disney canon, it remains one of the greatest animated films of all time and will remain that way for generations to come.

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