Controversial opinion: I think The Lion King is a tad overrated. I remember being so into this movie when it was released, but have fallen out of love with it over successive viewings. This is not to say that The Lion King is not a good movie. It’s definitely in the top ten of Disney’s best feature films. I’m just saying that it’s not the best animated feature the studio has made.
Visually this is a stunning film. The animation is excellent, especially in how it realistically represents animal movement. My big qualm is that it employs the typical Disney house style without pushing the artistic envelope. To be fair, this criticism can be made of most Disney films. It’s just particularly noticeable after watching Lilo & Stitch, which modeled the characters after the chief storyboard artist’s personal drawing style and used watercolor for the backgrounds. I’m also a huge fan of Sleeping Beauty, a film with an aesthetic outside the Disney norm.
The Lion King also has a great soundtrack, thanks to the brilliant pairing of lyricist Tim Rice and pop-rock superstar Elton John. I’m a big fan of John and really do love these songs, but they often lack the spark that other Disney tunes have. Personally, I feel The Little Mermaid and Aladdin did better jobs of incorporating their songs into the story. Also, when I think of those two movies, the best songs in each film feature the protagonists. Ariel sings the show stopping “Part of Your World,” and Aladdin duets with Jasmine on “A Whole New World.” But with The Lion King, I’d argue that the best song in the entire movie is “Be Prepared,” crooned by the villain of the picture. As much as I love a good villain (and Scar is one of the best), I don’t think he or she should get the best song.
Finally, there’s the fact that this was advertised as Disney’s first original story. Everything else to this point had been based on a book, fairy tale, or some other source material. The Lion King was meant to be brand new, and as a kid I totally thought it was. Then I got a bit older and realized this is basically Hamlet on the Serengeti. There’s nothing wrong alluding to Shakespeare or any other author, I just find it disappointing that Disney kind of tried to pass the story off as their own when there are too few changes to the source material to justify calling it original.
I know a lot of people will disagree with my review. The Lion King is pretty much universally beloved by people in my generation. If you’re in your late 20s to early 30s you pretty much grew up singing “Hakuna Matata” and quoting this film (also, if you were like me you may have spent a fair amount of time swooning over Jonathan Taylor Thomas). But if you take a good look at the Disney catalogue you will find many movies that are better. It’s not that The Lion King isn’t worth your time, it’s just not the studio’s strongest offering.
This movie was the pinnacle of Disney’s phenomenal run of hits from the late 80s to early 90s. It is hard to believe that before The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, Disney was very close to bankruptcy due to several failures at the box office from films like The Great Mouse Detective and the god awful Black Cauldron. After Little Mermaid was a hit, Disney went on a run of hits that only Pixar can better. Outside of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King made up a quartet of Disney smash hits that jumpstarted their company, helping it to become the behemoth we know it as today. The Lion King was the last film released of that foursome and it is arguable their best. Certainly it terms of box office numbers, it was the best of Disney’s animated films that have been referred to as the Disney Renaissance.
The Lion King is the story of Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas). Simba is a lion destined to be king of everything the sun touches once he inherits it from the current king, his dad Mufasa (James Earl Jones). Mufasa is teaching his son how to be a good king when that day arrives, but Simba is young and headstrong, always getting into trouble. When Simba’s Uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) plots to kill Mufasa, he convinces Simba the death was his fault and tells him to run away never to return. Simba believes his treacherous uncle and flees to a deserted forest where he befriends a meerkat and a warthog, named Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), who take him under their wing and teach him about their life motto “Hakuna Matata” (it means no worries). Now an adult, Simba (now voiced by Matthew Broderick) is enjoying the laid back lifestyle on offer from his new friends until his old best friend Nala (Moira Kelly) finds him and tells him what a terrible king Scar has become. Simba must find the courage to be the real king and win his kingdom back from his evil uncle.
So this is basically Hamlet with lions, and I love it. The story of Hamlet is a timeless one, but Disney have been able to find a way to make this story told a million times completely fresh and entertaining. The music in this film, as in all of the popular Disney films, is top notch. Written by Elton John and Tim Rice, the songs in this film are incredibly catchy. I know them word for word over twenty years later.
I also have to say that I really love the animation style. While watching this film there is such a difference between this animation style from what we see today in films like Wreck It Ralph or Frozen. Those films are great, but there is a charm about these kind of films that the later films just can’t capture. I’m sure it isn’t all to do with the hand drawn animation, but that certainly helps.
The Lion King is a brilliant film that takes a story told a million times, but still manages to make it feel fresh and exciting.