Why The Lion King Became Such a Beloved Disney Film

And how has it endured for twenty five years?


Although a photorealistic computer-animated feature as opposed to live-action, the upcoming The Lion King is nevertheless the latest in a long line of remakes of Disney’s most iconic animated features to have been produced in the last few years. With Cinderella, The Jungle Book and Dumbo having been beloved films for decades, and Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin having a nostalgia value for young parents who would themselves have seen the originals in cinemas, it is clear how the studio recognised that there is a market for these remakes, and the profit margins proved that they were correct. Coming out only two years after Aladdin, the original Lion King boasts a similar nostalgia value, indicating how Disney identified a market for a potential remake. However, the film’s enduring success cannot be defined solely by nostalgia, and as such this piece is going to analyse why The Lion King is a Disney property which remains so beloved after 25 years that the studio would remake it.

The Lion King premiered in June 1994, during a period for the studio’s animated features known as the Disney Renaissance. Following Walt Disney’s death in 1966, the studio’s output was of a lesser standard, which the decline in profits that are reflected by the Box Office Mojo figures make even more apparent. However, as shown in the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, the mid-1980s saw a considerable restructuring and increased staffing of the studio, in order to rejuvenate the animation department and return its output to the high standard which had made Disney a household name a half-century earlier. The hard work paid off, as early Renaissance films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin were each met with huge box office returns, critical acclaim.

As such, by the time that The Lion King was released, the studio had made a complete u-turn and were producing some of the biggest films of the 1990s, although none as big as The Lion King – a reworking of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which utilises the wild animals of Africa as its characters. Lion Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is King of the Pride Lands and loving father to his cub Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas). However, Mufasa’s power-hungry brother, Scar (Jeremy Irons), plots to kill both father and son in order to become King. While he succeeds in killing Mufasa, Simba flees for his life, and Scar becomes King of the Pride Lands. Years later, an adult Simba (Matthew Broderick) must determine if he is capable of overcoming past trauma and claiming his place as king.

While the characters and songs of the era’s films were met with a positive reception, the animation quality is what the Disney Renaissance films are most praised for, with few other American hand-drawn animated features having received the same degree of critical acclaim for their visuals, and it is not hard to see why. The scope of the era’s animation is breathtaking, yet there is also a tremendous amount of background detail. Furthermore, the characters are very expressive, while the animation of the Renaissance-era films also boasts rich colour palettes and excellent visual quality. All of these praiseworthy attributes of the era’s animation can certainly be found in abundance in The Lion King.

The animation’s breathtaking scope becomes apparent in the opening frames. A glowing sun rises over a wide African plain, in a moment which uses rich shades of red, orange and yellow, as well as crisp silhouettes of the plain and a tree against the sun. Just in these first few seconds, it is made clear that The Lion King will boast the scope, rich colour palette and stunning quality that Renaissance-era films are praised for. Stunning landscape shots of the African plains, rich in colour, are one of the film’s motifs, with probably the best example happening early on in the film, when Mufasa takes Simba out to see their kingdom and the pair stand upon a hilltop, staring out across miles and miles of African landscape.

As well as breathtaking scope, there is a lot of background detail in The Lion King, with the opening scene, the musical sequence “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and the wildebeest stampede being notable examples, due to the sheer number of carefully designed background animals. There is also a dense quality to the luscious design of the jungle in which meerkat-warthog duo Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) live. As for style, the character design emphasises most that The Lion King is best suited to traditional hand-drawn animation. Computer-animated features today may give animals the texture which could not be achieved in hand-drawn features, yet it would be impossible to have the supporting characters of The Lion King in any other style. The prime example of this is the hyena Ed (Jim Cummings), whose design is very cartoonish – his tongue hangs out permanently, his eyes bulge and stare off into different directions, and his jaw quivers with constant giggling. It is a very cartoonish style of character design, which would not work as well in a computer-animated or live-action film.

A great example of a moment in the screenplay which would only work in an animated feature is in the climax, when Timon and Pumbaa distract the hyenas by doing the hula and lying on a platter. Classic cartoons such as Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry are great examples of how the screenwriting of animation has often defied logic and the laws of science (primarily for comic effect), and this moment in The Lion King is another example. Pumbaa has an apple in his mouth and is lying on a bed of leaves, while Timon is wearing a flower necklace and grass skirt – items for which there can be no logical explanation, as they are in a barren wasteland where all plant life has died off. As such, this moment would be far harder to execute in a live-action film, due to its defiance of logic and the laws of science.

There is one moment which feels dated, as it sees Pumbaa get stuck between a tree root and the ground due to his bulky body. While this is the film’s only explicit fat joke, it would be much more difficult to make today and would likely cause controversy, as body-shaming has become a much more sensitive societal issue in the past decade due to social media. However, it is the only outdated moment and can ultimately be overlooked in a film whose screenplay boasts such wonderful songs as “Circle of Life”, “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”, “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, and which engages with themes of family, friendship, justice and destiny.

These songs and themes are ultimately made so memorable and engaging as they are conveyed through the film’s most beloved and endearing factor – the characters. Characters are key to a film’s quality, and animated films are no exception. It does not matter how stunning the animation is, or how catchy the songs are, if the characters are one-dimensional and bland then the film will struggle to find an audience who enjoy it. Thankfully, like so many other Disney films, The Lion King has memorable and engaging characters, who are ultimately why it is such a beloved film by adult and child alike.

Voiced with real warmth and energy by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, Timon and Pumbaa have great chemistry and are a lovely reflection of deep friendship – they clearly love and understand each other, yet they are not above teasing each other. Furthermore, while they are both comedic characters, their dynamic works well because Timon is very much the leader, while Pumbaa serves as the voice of reason to the sometimes rash and insensitive meerkat. However, what has made them one of Disney’s most iconic double-acts is how endearing they are, which mostly comes down to their outlook on life. Despite having been social outcasts, they have a very positive outlook on life and their iconic song – “Hakuna Matata” – is so named after their motto, which means “no worries”. It is with this motto that they cheer up the young Simba, after they adopt him when he flees from the Pride Lands, and in doing so bring so much added warmth and joy to the film.

Voiced with sinister charm by Jeremy Irons, Scar is one of the great Disney antagonists, not because he is evil, but because he is a master manipulator. He is capable of tricking countless characters into trusting him unquestioningly, due to his innate ability to read individuals and identify strengths and weaknesses, which he in turn exploits for his own gain. Scar can also charm others into trusting him – notably he phrases his veiled insults to the hyenas in a way which makes it sound like he has been exceedingly kind to them. As for relationships, Simba’s romance with Nala (voiced as an adult by Moira Kelly) subverts the usual Disney tropes by not being the central relationship to the narrative. Instead, Mufasa and Simba’s father-son relationship takes centre-stage, and makes The Lion King an endearing film which holds up to this day due to its timeless qualities.

Despite being animals, their bond is relatable as it is a realistic and honest reflection of a parent-child relationship. An early scene between them, which is relatable for parent and child alike, sees an excitable little Simba wake Mufasa up at first light, having been promised an early morning excursion the day before. Simba is excited at the prospect of a trip out with the father he adores, like a young child who has been anticipating his weekend treat. However, Mufasa is slow to get up due to how early it is, a realistic and amusing reflection of the father who will never truly learn to function on the lack of sleep which comes with children, and who will often utter words to the effect of “just five more minutes.” Both parent and child can see themselves reflected here, and I have friends who were aged 5-8 years old when The Lion King came out, and 25 years later are parents themselves and now relate to Mufasa in this moment.

Mufasa is one of the all-time great Disney fathers, not just because he adores Simba and thinks nothing of risking his life to protect him, but because he is willing to be vulnerable in front of his child, subverting Simba’s view that he is the ultimate beacon of courage. Mufasa admits to Simba that the prospect of losing his son terrifies him, and in doing so their bond becomes even stronger, as it brings a greater sense of raw honesty to their relationship. Years after his death, Mufasa lives on in Simba, his spirit giving Simba the motivation that he needs to return to the Pride Lands as an adult and take his rightful place as king. No matter what scene Mufasa is in, James Earl Jones’s signature deep voice brings real warmth and sincerity to the character, as well as a sense of authority, meaning that it is impossible to imagine anyone else voicing the powerful lion – so much so that Jones is reprising his iconic voice role for the upcoming remake.

Despite a terrific Academy Award-winning soundtrack, the primary reason for The Lion King’s enduring success really does come down to the characters. With an all-time great Disney antagonist in Scar, an iconic double-act in Timon and Pumbaa, and Mufasa and Simba’s heartwarming and relatable father-son relationship at the centre of the narrative, the strength of the characters are key to why the screenplay, like the film itself, holds up to this day and has received enduring success and an enormous fanbase. As for the animation, it has aged marvellously thanks to the rich colour palette, the wonderful detail and the expressive character design. As such, there is no shortage of reasons why it is such a beloved film, and why Disney have deemed it worthy of a remake.

Were this film released today, in an era where computer-animated features dominate the genre, it could just as easily be a huge hit with critics and audiences alike, as the recent success of Your Name, The Breadwinner and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has proven that there is still a market for traditional, hand-drawn features. The fact that, next to these films, The Lion King still does not look or feel dated testifies to its enduring quality, and emphasises the fact that, whether the remake is a hit or a miss, the original shall remain a beloved Disney property for years to come.

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