Ranking the Disney Canon – 4: The Lion King

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” A king’s time as ruler rises and falls like the sun. One day, Simba, the sun will set on my time here, and will rise with you as the new king.” – Mufasa

You always hear about great films that have extremely difficult productions, Apocalypse Now probably being the most famous example. Well, in terms of that struggle, the story goes that The Lion King is the Apocalypse Now of the Disney Canon. For much of its production, it is said the crew of The Lion King had some struggles finding its characters, story and even music at points, and as noted in a previous post, many of the employees of Disney Animation at the time chose to work on Pocahontas because they thought that The Lion King would end up being the weaker film. Well, as history (and this list) tells us, The Lion King ended up becoming a major critical and financial success, and remains one of the most influential films in the modern Disney Pantheon. The huge box office reception The Lion King received in its 3D re-release two years ago is enough to show the continued popularity of one of the greatest films of the 1990s.

Based partially on the works of Shakespeare, particularly the story of Hamlet, The Lion King follows the life of Simba, son of the King of Pride Rock, Mufasa, who is destined to one day become king himself. This plan, however, does not sit well with Scar, the brother of Mufasa, who believes that he should be the next in line for the throne. As a young Simba excites himself for a grand life as king, Scar puts into motion a plan to claim the throne for himself. The plan eventually succeeds, as Scar betrays his brother and kills him, all while making Simba believe the death of his father was entirely his fault. Simba runs away, eventually growing up with his new friends Timon and Pumbaa, who teach him how to live life with no worries. As Simba grows up, he must realize his destiny as King of Pride Rock, and must save Pride Rock from the iron rule of Scar.

STRENGTHS

One part of me really, really wanted me to start this post talking about the amazingness of characters once again. And that’s certainly a fair place to start, as The Lion King features an entire host of wonderful characters, some of the best and most classic characters in the entire canon. (Again, there is a great reason why The Lion King is so high up on this list.) However, once I finally rewatched The Lion King, I felt like what makes this film so good is its script, both in terms of the overall story and in terms of the film’s humor and drama. And so, with the story we will begin this post!

As mentioned in the synopsis, The Lion King takes a great deal of influence from the works of the great bard himself, William Shakespeare. Being that Shakespeare is considered to be among the great writers in the history of human civilization, the influence certainly doesn’t hurt the film. The Shakespearian tropes of death, betrayal, drama around the throne, visions, self-realization, and a total epic feel, among many other Shakespearian ideals, are all present in The Lion King’s script. And having all of these specific, classic story elements make The Lion King a classic tale from the get go. The tale woven through the threads of The Lion King is big, bold, and extremely fun. Just like a well performed Shakespeare play!

What the Shakespearian influence really does for The Lion King, however, is it creates a very different Disney story than anything we’ve seen before, and that we’ll see again, honestly. In previous posts, I’ve championed the simplicity of stories such as Snow White and Cinderella before, and I still carry a simple belief that some of the great stories are the simpler ones. While The Lion King still tells a fairly simply story (which is good, considering how complex some of the best Shakespeare work can get), the influence gives the story a grander, complex feel that helps to accentuate the emotion and the drama we feel when Simba finds his dead father, or when Simba finally returns to Pride Rock at the end of the film to confront Scar. I truly believe that the influence from Hamlet makes the film feel important, and it really helps the structure of the film as well.

And while there is influence from The Bard, the other great thing about The Lion King is that it isn’t just a straight adaptation of Hamlet (which is also good, for those of you who aren’t big fans of Shakespearian language and soliloquies). Not only is there influence from the other works of Shakespeare (I’ve always felt a very strong influence from MacBeth in The Lion King, particularly in the character of Scar), but The Lion King also takes the basic story of Hamlet and expands upon it by showing us our Hamlet character, Simba, in his youth. The Lion King, when analyzed, is a pretty excellent mix of the classic Shakespearian Style, The Modernist Hollywood Style, and the Classic Disney Style in its storytelling, taking a great amount of influence from each source. And this mix works to create an absolutely compelling narrative that keeps you on the edge of your seat in happiness and sadness the whole way through.

In fact, as much as The Lion King has a connection to Shakespeare, it also has a great connection one of Walt’s classic films: Bambi. While I was taking notes for Bambi before that particular review, I noted to myself how similar Bambi and The Lion King are to each other. They both focus on the story of a young animal, from Birth to Coronation, who must learn what it truly means to be an adult and a leader through the lessons they learn growing up. They both feature the death of a parent, a great fire at the end of the film, two hilarious side kick characters, and a romance that starts as a small friendship in childhood. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Bambi is one of the great stories of the Walt Disney era of the company, and The Lion King executes the story just as well.

In fact, I’m going to break my one rule about comparing films directly to talk about how The Lion King takes some of the story elements it shares with Bambi and expands upon them to create an even higher emotionally resonant story, which is a high compliment, considering Bambi itself is of the most emotional stories in the entire canon. Whereas Bambi is meant to be an episodic look at a lifetime, and Bambi learns a couple different lessons about life in the forest, The Lion King puts more emphasis on how death affects the young soul, and this creates an even stronger emotional connection between Simba and the viewer.

(Just want to point out that this isn’t a knock on Bambi. Bambi, as I mentioned, also has one of the great scripts in the Disney canon, and The Lion King needs to expand the story because its themes are different from Bambi’s. Trust me, Bambi could just as easily be this high on the list. The Top 10 is that close.)

Anyways, I think what truly makes the narrative of The Lion King special is that through all of these influences comes a story that feels fresh, original, and most importantly, exciting. The film is hilarious, tragic, epic, dramatic, and feel good all at the same time as it follows the life of a lion destined to be a leader. Even though I’ve seen this movie 1000 times, it still feels like the first time every time I watch it. Sure, that may be true for many of the other films on this list, but for me, for some reason, it just stands out when I watch the Lion King.

And there are plenty of explanations for why it stands out. For one thing, when looking at the story from a script point of view, this film has so much emotional weight. One of the most brilliant aspects of The Lion King is how absolutely well it builds the drama of the story, in a number of ways, starting at the very beginning of the film. The sweeping montage of animals across the Savannah gathering together alone tells you that this film is going to have a different tone than the rest of the canon. From the very first frame, The Lion King draws you in.

And though I want to save a full analysis of the soundtrack for later in the post, let’s not forget to mention how dynamic of an opening “Circle of Life” is! That famous opening chant set to the visual of the sunset makes for one of the greatest opening moments of a Disney film ever, and, once again, sets the tone in less than five seconds. This is a movie that feels important, that feels like something special, right from the beginning.

Of course, the visuals and the soundtrack are only going to take you so far in this medium, as we’ve seen, and where the Lion King really shines in creating weighty drama is through the character relationships. This has been true for this entire list: Characters come first. If you don’t have good characters, and good character relationships, which has been a theme from the very beginning of this list, more likely than not you are going to fail at truly telling the story you want to tell. As much as I want to talk and praise the plot of this film, and as you have seen, I do very much, it’s the characters that are created through the story that really make this film special.

(It all comes back to character! Always! Remember that, future writers!)

And really, even if it only truly exists for half of the film, the relationship that defines The Lion King for me is for sure the relationship that exists between Simba and Mufasa. The relationship they share is another wonderful look at the classic Disney theme of the relationship that exists between the parent and the child, and I hope to argue in the next couple paragraphs that the relationship between Simba and Mufusa is the defining example of this theme in Disney Animation.

Let’s start with the character of Mufasa. The Lion King presents Mufasa as a complicated figure, one that must find the correct balance between being a leader to his people (err, animals?) and a father to his son. He is someone who finds himself at odds with his brother, yet a lion who still gives his brother the benefit of the doubt, regardless of the arguments they get into. Mufasa is a Lion among Lions, a man among men, as wise and as noble of a king the Pride Lands have ever seen.

OK, that may be a bit flowery, but it’s true. Mufusa is a very strong parent, and a very strong king, and it’s important to the character of Simba that Mufasa is the ultimate figure for Simba to look up to. Mufasa needs to have that other worldly tone, the king who seems to know the right thing to say in every situation, the parent who can be stern and fun with his son in the same conversation. Mufasa needs to be the father we wish we all had at one point to give us direction and advice that resonates to this day.

A quick aside: I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my least favorite Disney Myths is that the parents are always missing, and thus, the parents are not that important in the Disney film-verse. Well, that’s as far away from the truth as possible. In fact, in the history of Disney Animation filmmaking, parents are among the most important figures imaginable. Time and Time again, a parental relationship, even if it is not necessarily a kid and their parent, comes back as a driving force for the character to change, and this can be something we can take into our own lives. And this is as true as ever within the frames of The Lion King.

The film absolutely nails the character of Mufasa right on the head, starting with the acting choice. James Earl Jones brings the exact right amount of wiseness and gravitas to the character, and as his booming voice tells Simba that everything the light touches is their kingdom, you can feel like you are seeing a grand, historical figure give a great speech to his son. You feel like you are witnessing the wisdom of a great historical monarch. Every word out of Mufasa’s mouth is perfectly written to give every word an important meaning, every sentence a wise, necessary feel.

But actions can always speak louder than words, and Mufasa’s actions are really what speaks about the character. Mufasa isn’t just a powerful speaker, but he’s a powerful fighter as well, and the scene in which Mufasa saves Simba from the Hyenas speaks to that. Mufasa is supposed to be a character that is feared as much as he is revered, and it completely works when you see his anger. And yet, this anger, this fight, leads to a brave character that, once again, becomes the ultimate figure for Simba to look up to.

Another quick aside, this time more directly related to the film: the action in The Lion King is superb. From the smaller action sequences like the Hyena fight to the grand, epic, finale between Simba and Scar, the action is tense when it needs to be, humorous when it wants to be, always entertaining and, in some cases, breathtaking.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled analysis of the father-son dynamic.

What truly defines Mufasa to me, however, is the scene right after Mufasa saves Simba. The scene in which Mufasa scolds Simba about his actions. But it’s not that part of the scene. It’s the part of the scene in which Mufasa and Simba wrestle with each other.

Those couple, sweet, short seconds are as perfect and goosebump enducing as anything in the Disney Canon, and completely defines the emotion of this movie. By this point, you are completely invested in the relationship between Mufasa and Simba, and that moment is the icing on the cake, the memory you have when you are crying your eyes out when Simba is crying over his father’s body.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. I mean, I’ve only really covered one half of this relationship, haven’t I? Simba is our protagonist, after all. I think it’s about time we get to his side of the story, don’t you? I’ll assume that you’re nodding your head. So I will continue.

Simba is among the greatest protagonists in the history of Disney Animation, and that’s because his world view as a young cub is so relatable and so easy to root for. Simba is an energetic child, one that wants to see everything in the world around him, regardless of the potential consequences. He is a cub who wants to be able to do what he wants, who, well, just can’t wait to be king. He is the child that most of us were at one point, when the world was new and mysterious and we just wanted to take everything in for the very first time.

And it could be easy to make a character that wants to be dangerous like this sort of jerk and sort of unwatchable, but what makes Simba such a good character in his youth is his unbridled enthusiasm for every opportunity he has. He is so cheerful, so full of life, that even when he wants to go to the forbidden elephant graveyard, there’s a part of you that is kinda sorta rooting for him, just because he is so excited about the potential danger he faces, the danger that he laughs in the face of.

While we are learning about Mufasa’s wiseness, in those same scenes, we are learning about Simba’s sense of wonder. And this dynamic is truly what makes their relationship as excellent as it is. Mufasa, though he never truly admits it, was like Simba once upon a time, but has grown up to be a wiser, smarter lion, and he knows that he needs to start educating Simba now to put him on his path towards leadership. And it’s clear that Simba knows this, and wants to be his father. But he wants to be the wrong parts of his father. He wants to be the brave and powerful side of his father, as opposed to the reserved, smarter side of his father.

I know I’ve done way too much analysis about the specifics of these two characters and the nature of their relationship, but I feel like it is necessary that, for all of its plot and side characters and charm and humor, what really makes The Lion King the film it is. Without the mastery of this core relationship, nothing else in the film resonates, nothing else works. Nothing else works. The audience needs to feel that the bond between Simba and Mufasa is real, and special. And the film, as mentioned before, does this with a stroke of mastery.

And with their mastery, the filmmakers rip out the hearts of nearly every member of the audience with the most heartbreaking moment in a Disney film since, well, the death of Bambi’s mother. The death of Mufasa is just perfectly executed, and a big reason for this is how well the relationship is built up in the beginning of the film. Sure, there is a certain natural sadness when Simba calls out for help, but the moment wouldn’t have as nearly the impact it has if the Mufasa-Simba relationship weren’t as perfect as it is.

And the moment also wouldn’t work without the brilliant, enormously breathtaking wildebeest chase sequence. God, where to start with this one? It’s perfect. This segment of the film is perfect. The tension, the music, the animation, the drama. All of it. This is one of the greatest scenes in the history of the medium of animation. I really think so. This is the scene I think about when I think about The Lion King. It’s a perfect set-up to the moment that comes right after it. Mufasa falling to his doom as Simba cries out in terror should be put in the dictionary next to the definition of “perfect.”

And that moment also leads us to why Simba is one of the most interesting and best protagonists in the Disney animated canon: he goes through an absolute drastic personality change halfway through the movie. The characters of Adult Simba and Young Simba are two different characters. And yet, it’s easy to see why they are the same. It’s so easy to see why the young, feisty, daring Simba who just couldn’t wait to be king developed into the care free, Hakuna Matata Simba that we see as an adult. It’s among the most dramatic changes in character we’ve seen in the canon thus far.

And this gives Simba a really interesting, complex arc of rediscovery that’s rarely seen in the field of Animation. Simba becomes a character who loses himself, loses who he is, and has to confront the  trauma of his past directly, (both literally and figuratively, in this case), in order to remember the true Simba that has lied dormant in him for so long. This entire arc, from the moment he first looks out on the pride lands to the moment where he reclaims his rightful place as king, is nothing short of an astounding journey, and a hell of a journey to go through with this character.

And one of the things that spurs on this arc is the reappearance of Simba’s childhood friend, Nala.  The relationship between Nala and Simba is among the most underrated romances in the Disney canon, and the reason it works so well is because it feels so natural. Their playful relationship as kids, where the thoughts of a marriage together disgust the both of them, is a perfect primer for how their relationship is rekindled as adults. When the two reunite, there is still a playfulness, still a sense of the friendship they had as kids, but as adults, they realize that this playfulness can be something more.  Now, Nala isn’t the most complex, or the greatest female in the Disney Canon, but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t a great character. Because she is.

Nala is just a step on the ladder to creating a wonderful journey for Simba to embark on as a character. But what truly makes any hero’s journey spectacular is having a fantastic villain at the end of the Rainbow, and boy, does The Lion King have a good villain.

Scar.

Scar easily competes for the spot as the greatest Disney Villain ever put onto the page. I can’t start this praising of Scar without mentioning the absurdly amazing vocal performance by Jeremy Irons. Seriously, this is a top 5 all time voice performance here.  Man, Irons should have won some sort of award for this. Seriously.

Anyways, what makes Scar a fantastic villain is his brains, in more ways than one. For one thing, this is a villain with a very sensical motive, a very sensical worldview, and a very sensical reason for having that world view. Scar is as far away from an evil for the sake of evil” motive as possible. This is one of the times where the Shakespearian influence really creates something special. Scar is as devious a villain as Iago and Lady MacBeth are, and are as smart as the two of them as well. Scar is a smart cookie, and he thinks every single aspect of his plan through, from top to bottom. Scar is scary because he has the brains, even if those brains are a little messed up.

But where Scar really shines is the fact that he joins Maleificent, Pinocchio’s Coachman, and a few others as villains whose plans actually work for an extended period of time. Let’s think about that for a moment. Scar succeeds in murdering the king of the Pride Lands, convincing the king’s son that to run away, and takes the throne for himself. That’s a damn good villain if I ever saw one.

But like all great villains, Scar has a fatal flaw or two that causes his own downfall. And that’s the fact that his ruthless need to survive, this feeling that he needs to be treated better because he’s never been treated as the best, puts himself into these situations such as the pride lands being devoid of food, or the Hyenas suddenly turning against him as he tries to talk his way out of death. And the whole time, Scar is brilliant. He just might be a bit too brilliant for his own good.

Man, I’ve talked a ton about the drama in this film. It seems like this film is completely humorous when it completely isn’t. In fact, it has some of the funniest moments in the entirety of the Disney canon. And the humor in this film gets no better than the humor that comes from Timon and Pumbaa.

I’ll easily admit that Timon and Pumbaa are two of my all time favorite Disney characters, and that’s because they are the perfect comedic duo, as they are perfectly able to bounce off each other. Timon’s “I think I’m smart but actually really stupid” and Pumbaa’s “I think I’m dumb but I’m actually really smart” shtick never gets old, and almost every single line or song lyric out of their mouths is absolutely hilarious, due in large part to the wonderful comedic performances from Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella.  And what’s even better is that they play off of Simba and Nala perfectly as well (“The Monkey’s his Uncle?”), and are able to have an infinite amount of amazing moments. This is how you do side characters, people. Take a look!

(They even have some of the best moments of the final battle. The Hula Dance and They Call Me Mr. Pig slay me every time.)

On other Side Character front, The Hyenas play a perfect set of henchman to Scar, and play their roles rather well throughout the film. Zazu gives Rowan Atkinson the ability to really stretch his comedic muscles and get some really, really fun moments. And Rafiki brings the perfect balance between crazy old shaman and wise old sage, and his scenes with Adult Simba, especially the moment where he talks about how the past can hurt, are the perfect thematic moments of this movie.

And that’s what this whole review is about. The story, the characters, the humor, the drama, the sadness, all come together to create a perfectly thematically rich journey for our characters.

Did I forget anything? Oh! The Music!

The Lion King has, by far, the strongest soundtrack of the 1990s era of Disney, and one of the strongest soundtracks in the history of the company. I say that because every song, except for Be Prepared, which is still a wonderful song, can compete for the best song on the soundtrack. Circle of Life, I Just Can’t Wait To Be King, Hakuna Matata, and Can You Feel The Love Tonight are all amazing songs. And the score! Han Zimmer’s score is one of my all time favorites, as tracks like This Land, …To Die For, and King of Pride Rock all help to give the film that great sense of importance.

There, now that’s everything.

BEST MOMENT AND SONG

The best scene in the film? Easy. The Wildebeest Chase scene. End of story.

As mentioned above, the choice for best song is hard. But I got to go with Hakuna Matata. It’s just too much fun, and it features a couple of my all time favorite characters.

CLOSING COMMENTS

The Lion King is by far the best Disney film of the 1990s, and it certainly was able to make it through all that hardship in production. This film continues to live up to its reputation, and remains one of the greatest films of the 1990s.

And we’ve still got three perfect films to go.

Are you ready?