Disney’s “The Lion King” (1994) Review

Image: Disney, Wikipedia.org

Shakespeare in the Park with Lions!

PLOT –

When Simba, the lion cub heir to the throne, is accused of his father’s murder, he runs away, only to meet new friends that help him return as the rightful king.

As far as the story itself is concerned this film is essentially Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It all works really well and serves as a good adaptation of the work for children, to the point where some thought The Lion King was an original story. The plot here is simplified, but pays homage to the Shakespeare’s dramatic play. There are some amazing and iconic scenes in this film, especially the graveyard, stampede, vision, and final battle scenes. The songs also have brief spoken introductions then launch into song, and it’s perfect. There are, however, some pacing and tonal issues with the film.

This is a slow-moving plot that focuses too much on the future and the past, rather than the present. Even though the villain Scar drives the plot from the start, the plot is a waiting game for Scar and the protagonist, Simba. Simba waits to grow older and be king, while Scar waits for the fruition of his plans, and even after these are accomplished, still more waiting is to be done. Neither character chooses to take any further action until the last act of the film, when they are forced to do something.

These idle scenes (including the many expository set-up scenes) slow the film down in-between the amazing action set pieces and wonderful songs. Together, these alternating fast-paced and slower scenes work pretty well together, but in a vacuum, the idle scenes are not that great. The film improves drastically when Timon and Pumbaa enter because their “philosophy ” (or “phiwaffophy” as 3-4 year-old me would say) anchors them to the present so they can act and actually be interesting instead of sitting idle, worrying if the choices they have made or will make are the right ones instead of stagnating themselves. The main lion characters have this problem, where they are stuck in place until the plot needs them to move, different to most Disney films where the protagonists are more active.

Regarding tone, the subject matter is dramatic, adult, and dark, yet peppered with jokes, sometimes jarringly shifting tones within the same scene. When this film is at its darkest though, make no mistake: the tone does not change, and that part is excellent, if heavy.

My PLOT RATING is 8 / 10.

CHARACTERS –

Simba (Johnathan Taylor Thomas, Matthew Broderick) is possibly the most passive Disney Protagonist to date. He has no clear motivation or drive in the film. His reasons for wanting to be king? Not given. His reason for going back to his home? Spurned on by other characters instead of looking within. He is a very flat character, there to be the straight man to the more humorous characters around him.

Simba and the plot of The Lion King seems to take some inspiration from the plot-driven Pinocchio, where the protagonist was more interesting as we saw him learn to become a better person, rather than Simba, who is only slightly more interesting by the end of the film, even as he learns the hardest lesson of all. Both main characters also are dragged through their respective plots through the decisions and suggestions of others rather than explore for themselves (barring both films third acts, where an unselfish decision is finally made), and this does not lead to that much growth for the protagonist.

Nala (Niketa Calame, Moira Kelly), yet another flat character, is a better version of Simba, yet she plays the ‘yes man’ to Simba, and only serves as getting him back home at the end. She does have more nuance than him, but not that much. Their characters are both markedly better as children than adults, where their acting is given more range. When they meet again as adults, however, little time is given to develop their relationship, and their love at the end feels somewhat hollow.

Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is honestly a more worthy protagonist than his son. He is the character that roughly half of the film features, and a way better lion character (excepting his brother) than the others. Even when not onscreen, his presence is felt by the other characters and he casts a shadow over the film. He is wise, brave, caring, and a bit playful, and sets an example of the qualities that Disney fathers should have. Mufasa is what people remember most about this film (for more sad than happy reasons) and it is a shame that the character is not being explored more within it.

Scar (Jeremy Irons) is a great Disney Villain. He’s sarcastic, flamboyant, scheming, ruthless, cunning, and actually, pretty similar to Jafar from Aladdin. What Jafar lacks that Scar has is the ability, or gall, to fight back, and Jafar is not as childish as Scar, while Scar never fully goes insane and keeps his composure throughout the film. Scar fights dirty, is a coward, and uses his minions way more often than Jafar ever did, keeping his paws clean. Scar is also the stereotypical scorned younger sibling that never got what the older achieved, and as a result, has grown bitter with resentment and anger.

Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg), Banzai (Cheech Marin), and Ed (Jim Cummings), are Scar’s comic relief henchmen. They have some of the most fast-paced dialogue in the film as they bounce back-and-forth with puns and decisions that they confirm with the other two. It’s interesting to have a trio that’s not only comedic, but dependent on each other. Even so, they each have distinct personalities, and do bicker, but when the chips are down, they rely on each other, and I find that sweet.

Similar to the hyena trio are the primary comedic relief of the film, Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). Whereas the hyenas are more of slower, deliberate word-play comedy, Timon and Pumbaa are zany, fast, and full of wild reactions. From anyone else, this type of comedy would fail, but Lane puts a suave spin on his lines, and Sabella hams it up in an earnest way. These two mesh incredibly well together, similar to vaudeville comedy duos like Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy.

They both truly care about Simba, and their relationship to him is not only like friendship, but a partner- and parent- ship as well. Timon and Pumbaa can be considered the first two men to help raise a Disney Protagonist, and nothing wrong is presented by this, as well as their alternative diet, referencing the dietary needs that would become more and more popular in the 2000’s. These two are the start of some more inclusive Disney characters that we will see in films to come.

Other, more minor characters are some of my favorites. Zazu (Rowan Atkinson) and Rafiki (Robert Guillaume) are some of the funnier side characters, Zazu with his infrequent wild expressions, pompous manner, and natural comedic line delivery (this is Mr. Bean after all) is wonderful, and Rafiki with his constant chanting, wild outbursts, and wise, cryptic sayings, is awesome. Also awesome, but not as humorous is Sarabi (Madge Sinclair), who shows that no matter how much evil tries to influence or push someone, that person can stand tall and not give in or break down.

My CHARACTERS RATING is 9 / 10.

DIALOGUE –

The dialogue here is great. Many memorable lines, and not just the ones that are funny. Dramatic lines are also greatly remembered here, as well as life lessons that stand even today. The voice cast and line delivery are key in having these lines be memorable, and a good 80-90% of the cast, now famous, played an integral part in helping these quotes cement themselves in animation history. Also to mention, the lead-ins to the songs are organic, and cleverly written, not jarring like some previous Disney Musicals.

My DIALOGUE RATING is 10 / 10.

EFFECTS –

The effects shown here are some of the best in Disney’s 2D animation catalogue, the wildebeest stampede sequence in particular. The character expressions are again, fantastic, with some more cartoony than others. The backgrounds are phenomenal, and several shades of lighting are present throughout the film. Individual blades of grass and dust move along with the wind, and there is a lot of attention to detail to the world of the Pridelands.

My EFFECTS RATING is 10 / 10.

MUSIC –

The score in this film is amazing. Each character has an identifiable theme, and each sequence has great, memorable music. The music also fits every sequence perfectly, matching the action shown and some more somber scenes bringing out heavy feelings like regret, sadness, and loss. Hans Zimmer won an Oscar for his score, and it is well deserved.

On the lyrical side of things, Tim Rice and a little known composer named

ELTON JOHN

wrote the songs in the film, some of the best in the Canon, coming back to Disney’s Renaissance Broadway roots, after The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

“Circle of Life” – Both versions (opening and closing credits) of this song are perfection, and both still give me chills. Pure majesty for the soul.

“I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” – A fun, showstopper of a song explaining that Simba just can’t wait to be king, as well a showing how he leaves Zazu behind. The visuals in this are beautiful and colorful, and the lyrics are quite memorable.

“Be Prepared” – A wonderful Villain Song that showcases Scar’s plan, flamboyance, and sheer amount of henchmen. Also, an interesting fact: when the visuals turn red, Jeremy Irons’ voice changes to Jim Cummings’ voice because Jeremy Irons’ voice blew out.

“Hakuna Matata” – A great, funny song that lats Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella loose. They both sing with gusto, and provide a lot of humor in a place where it is sorely needed, and provides a passage of time for Simba to grow.

“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” – A nice love song whose strength relies in the verses instead of the chorus, giving more character to Simba and Nala, though this song is their entire romantic arc. Timon and Pumbaa also join in at the beginning and end, providing some interesting shifts from comedic to romantic and back again.

My MUSIC RATING is 10 / 10.

OVERALL –

If you ask someone born in the 1990’s what their favorite Disney film is, they most likely would say The Lion King. As someone born in the 1990’s who has a favorite Disney film…

My favorite Disney Film is not The Lion King.

The Lion King is a wonderful film, and I can see why many find it their favorite. The story is a deep dramatic retelling of Hamlet, the characters are a nice balance between serious and silly, and the dialogue, effects, and music are breathtaking for their time. I just have some issues with the plot and main characters, and while this film holds a special place in my heart, other films are just a little bit more special to me.

This film also does have a sense of overhype though. This review has actually taken longer for me to write than others because I was wondering if I was being too harsh on it or too easy on it. When I bring up that I’m reviewing this film, people have mentioned “I hope you don’t go too hard on it,” and scoffed when I said it wasn’t my favorite film. Part of my (small) dislike for this film is the huge fanbase that has come out of it, and the decrying of any negative quality, and I personally think that this film, while almost perfect, just needs more compelling, driven, and less annoying main protagonists and a more character-driven story.

The Lion King has a great legacy. I still do love most everything about it. I also love the works of Shakespeare, which is a huge plus for this film. Everyone who worked on this film did a fantastic job, putting their blood, sweat, and tears into a film that originally was a B-Team project (oh, if they had known…) and…

The final product is close to perfection, a grand masterpiece.

Image: Disney, Disneyparks.disney.go.com

My OVERALL RATING for Disney’s The Lion King is 94%.

Next time: A film that I can really dig into….

Image: Disney, Thefilmexperience.net

… Sorry, I couldn’t resist…

 

Stay tuned!

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