Often considered the zenith of the Disney Renaissance, The Lion King is indeed one of Disney’s greatest features, a step away from the princess mold in favor of Shakespearean drama, though still with the perfect blending of humor and show tunes. Officially the third highest-grossing animated film (after Frozen and Toy Story 3), it was a joy to watch as a child and is still just as delightful.
The beginning could be compared to that of Up, a moving collection of beautifully crafted scenes that mark the high point of the entire film, though sparking a sense of grandeur and goose bumps rather than tears. The rest of the film doesn’t quite reach the same level as the first glorious song, though it tries and comes very close, particularly during the wildebeest stampede through the canyon. That scene, accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s ever-ideal score, carries the tension and terror of a childhood trauma, further deepened by Mufasa’s death. Usually, it’s the mother that gets it in Disney films, but their foray into explicit fratricide is even more heartrending than most parental losses. After all, Bambi never found his mother’s lifeless body.
Despite the occasionally weighty material, the filmmakers peppered the film with plenty of jokes and memorable characters that captivated kids and parents alike. Boasting some of the best casting of any Disney film, The Lion King featured some big names that truly owned their characters: James Earl Jones as deep-throated Mufasa, Jonathan Taylor Thomas as young Simba, Nathan Lane as nasally meerkat Timon, Ernie Sabella as swinish Pumbaa, Robert Guillaume as sagacious mandrill Rafiki, Rowan Atkinson as nagging hornbill Zazu, and Cheech Marin and Whoopi Goldberg as two hilarious hyenas. Though Matthew Broderick doesn’t exactly fit my idea of a lion’s voice, Oscar winner Jeremy Irons lends gravity and sneering treachery to Scar, one of Disney’s best villains.
However, the film’s greatest strength is its music, which was a gamble, since unlike previous Renaissance efforts, it lacked Alan Menken’s involvement. Yet Elton John and Tim Rice fashioned one of the most popular of Disney soundtracks, from the carefree jubilance of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Hakuna Matata” to the building menace of “Be Prepared” to the sultry romance of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” Elton John’s cover of that last love ballad deserves a place in my End Credits Song Hall of Fame. (Trivia note: I didn’t realize until recently that Jeremy Irons only sang most of “Be Prepared”; after straining his voice on the line “You won’t get a sniff without me,” the song was finished by Jim Cummings, who provided the hysterical laughter of the hyena Ed. Now that I’m listening for it, I can hear Cummings’s voice, but it’s a credit to his voice talent that he could sound so similar to Irons.)
The film and its music were also adapted into the hugely successful Broadway play, and the film and play have supposedly made The Lion King the highest grossing title in stage-and-screen history. While I do like other Disney films better, The Lion King’s enthralling animation and music and prudent life lessons make it a Renaissance classic to be cherished for years to come.
Best line: (an emerging gopher, again played by Cummings, to Zazu) “Sir, news from the underground.” (That just cracks me up every time!)Rank: 57 out of 60
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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