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Hakuna matata - what a wonderful phrase.
The Lion King is a classic example of the 'Disney magic' in children's films. It seamlessly combines all the elements of a great family film - a 'general audiences' film rating1, animation and simple jokes, along with things that an older audience might enjoy - several stars as character voices and a plot that keeps your attention, makes you laugh and moves you. It is one of the few children's films that it's all right for adults to like - or even to cry at.
The film has a memorable soundtrack as well, with five songs by legendary singer/songwriter Sir Elton John in collaboration with Sir Tim Rice. Almost every song is recognisable and memorable, and the soundtrack won the Oscar for Best Original Score, with the song 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight?' winning Best Original Song.
It's simply an important film to see. The Lion King is famous throughout the world, and an enormous number of people have seen it.
The Lion King was Disney's first original animated feature2. All other projects before it, (such as Peter Pan) had been based on old stories and legends. Partly because of this, The Lion King took a longer time to develop than other movies, because writers had to create the story and characters themselves. The project was originally called King of the Jungle, but as the story was developed, the term The Lion King seemed more appropriate.
Most of the work was in 1991, but writers had a difficult time creating the script. Script supervisor Brenda Chapman noted:
Writing an original story is definitely more challenging, because there is nothing to fall back on. There is no structure to begin with. Sometimes we found ourselves in left field3 and didn't know it until we were way out there.
But in 1991 Chapman, Roger Allers (the director) and Chris Sanders (the designer) went to Kenya and returned to work more with more passion for the project than before. After the trip, the writers first came up with the idea of using the phrase 'hakuna matata' meaning 'no worries,' which is often used in Kenya. Throughout 1992, the story was developed and characters were given new personalities. The story drastically changed as well - in the first version of the film Simba stayed with his pride, instead of living in exile with Pumbaa and Timon (see the plot outline below). One writer also noted that the script was loosely based on Shakespeare's Hamlet - the king is murdered and the prince avenges his father.
The animation process was slow, but worthwhile. Details, such as a breeze across the grass, gave the film the feel of a real African land. The Lion King has animation of a very high quality for such a relatively old film. It is detailed and generally accurate in its depiction of the African animals.
Getting the right music for the film is a key in any Disney film, and The Lion King was no exception. Disney signed lyricist Tim Rice to write the words, and asked him to suggest someone to write the music. He suggested Elton John, but the studio was fairly certain that he would be too busy. However, to their surprise, Elton John was enthusiastic and eager to take on the project. He would later explain:
I actually jumped at the chance because I knew that Disney was a class act and I liked the storyline and the people immediately. The Disney films last forever and children watch them and adults watch them and get just as much fun out of them.
The score was composed by Hans Zimmer.
'Circle of Life' - Performed by Carmen Twillie.
'I Just Can't Wait to be King' - Performed by Jason Weaver, Laura Williams, and Rowan Atkinson.
'Be Prepared' - Performed by Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings
'Hakuna Matata' - Performed by Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Jason Weaver, and Joseph Williams
'Can You Feel the Love Tonight?' - Performed by Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Joseph Williams, Sally Dworsky, and Kristle Edwards
With all the elements completed, the project came together to be a beautiful and meaningful film which was released in the USA on 24 June, 1994. In total, it grossed 41 million dollars in its first weekend and went on to earn 340 million dollars in total - making it the highest-earning animated feature ever4 and the tenth highest-earning film ever, as of 2003.
The main character of the story is Simba5 the lion. He starts out as a newborn and then a carefree young Simba (young Simba is voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas), struggling to be brave and strong. When he gets older (and is voiced by Matthew Broderick), he proves himself as an equal to his father's strength.
Mufasa is the Lion King at the beginning of the movie, but dies in a stampede. He is the incredibly strong father of Simba and brother of Scar. He is voiced by James Earl Jones.
Scar (so named because of a scar around his left eye) is a black-maned evil lion. He claims to have all the brains of his gene pool, but not as much brute strength as his brother Mufasa. He is voiced by Jeremy Irons.
Timon and Pumbaa are a meerkat and a warthog respectively, who help Simba live in exile from Pride Rock. They are best known for their phrase 'hakuna matata' which means 'no worries'.
Nala is betrothed to Simba, and is his childhood friend. They eventually would fall in love and have a child.
Zazu is the king's majordomo. Zazu provides some comic relief in the movie, usually in the background, saying things like '...but I always say, cheetahs never prosper.' on occasion. He is voiced by Rowan Atkinson.
Sarabi is Simba's mother. She is voiced by Madge Sinclair.
Shenzi, whose name means 'uncouth', is the smart hyena, but often makes jokes. She is voiced by Whoopi Goldberg.
Banzai, whose name means 'to lurk', is a hyena who often makes quips at the lions. He is voiced by Cheech Marin.
Ed is the stupidest hyena. He doesn't do anything but laugh stupidly.
Rafiki is a mandrill who assumes a sort of shaman role. He is voiced by Robert Guillaume.
Sarafina is Nala's mother.
Warning - may contain spoilers!
The film is set in wild Africa around a peaceful area called Pride Rock (after the large horizontal rock that served as the home for the King of the land - a powerful lion named Mufasa). The land had a certain tranquility about it with Mufasa as king. At the beginning of the movie, the king and his lioness mate Sarabi have a child, named Simba. There is a dramatic moment as a mandrill named Rafiki shows the newborn Simba to all the animals of the land from atop Pride Rock.
The film shows Simba learning about the world he lived in, and the land around Pride Rock specifically. His father teaches him about nature and the 'circle of life' and the way that the animals are able to live in peace together and he is told that he must respect the animals and that the family eat antelope as 'When we die, our bodies become the grass. And the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great circle of life.' Simba is informed that he will some day be king, being the son of the reigning king. Mufasa also warns his son not to go into a 'shadowy place', and to only explore 'everything the light touches'.
Meanwhile Scar, the menacing-looking brother of Mufasa, considers the arrival of Simba. Being the brother of the king, Scar would have been next in line to be king - a position he makes no secret of wanting. He simply doesn't like Simba, and when talking to the the King's majordomo bird Zazu, his tone of voice indicates this. Simba is anxious to be king though, and dreams of it. He is so anxious to be big and brave, he almost dies when he is tricked by his uncle Scar into disobeying his father and going into the 'shadowy place'.
Scar begins to plot with the hyenas to make himself king. He promises them food if they help him become king, vowing that they will never go hungry again. The plan intitiates by the luring of Simba onto a rock in the middle of the land. Scar has the hyenas chase a wildebeest herd, causing the herd to stampede. The way Scar has arranged it, Simba will be caught up in the stampede and will be killed. When the stampede starts, Scar alerts Mufasa of this (pretending to be concerned for Simba's safety) and Mufasa runs into the stampede to rescue him.
In perhaps the most dramatic scene of the movie, Mufasa rescues Simba from the middle of the stampede and puts him atop a rock. He can't get up, and asks Scar (who is on top of the rock) to help him. Scar throws him backwards into the stampede, killing him. Of course, Simba sees none of this and when he realises his father is dead, he blames himself. His uncle advises him to run away so he isn't blamed for killing the king. He then tells the hyenas to hunt down and kill Simba, but they don't succeed. Figuring he won't last very long on his own, being young, the hyenas decides to let him go. Everyone in the kingdom assumes that Simba is dead in the wild, and they let Scar become king.
Therefore, Simba decides to live in the wild and meets a warthog named Pumbaa and a meerkat named Timon. They teach him how to live in the wild, and not to worry about what he did, teaching him their worry-free philosophy - 'hakuna matata'. Simba lives with Timon and Pumbaa from when he is a cub until he is a fully-grown adult lion.
Later, when Timon and Pumbaa are walking through the jungle, a lioness pounces on them. Simba realises that it's Nala, his boyhood friend. She tells Simba that Scar ruined Pride Rock that she is looking for help, which is why she is in the jungle. Everyone in the kingdom thinks that Simba is dead, and she implores him to go back there and turn the kingdom around, as he is the rightful heir to the throne, but Simba refuses. He and Nala eventually fall in love, though he still wouldn't go back to the jungle. Meanwhile, Rafiki (the mandrill who originally lifted Simba above his head on Pride Rock for the entire kingdom to see) realises, through one of his mystical powers, that Simba is alive and sets out to find him.
When Rafiki finds Simba, he speaks to him in a confusing manner. Simba is bothered by it at first, but then somewhat awed that Rafiki knows he's the son of Mufasa. The mandrill leads Simba to an area of the jungle where he promises he will see his father. A huge cloud forms the shape of Mufasa and speaks to Simba, advising him to go back to Pride Rock. Persuaded by the cloud, he decides to do so, and sets out for his Kingdom.
Once there, Simba is amazed at what Scar has done to the land. The trees are dark, there are few animals and the hyenas have apparent control. While Simba sneaks to confront Scar, Nala goes to rally the lionesses and Pumbaa and Timon create a distraction. Scar is naturally scared of Simba, who is as strong and intimidating as his father. He decides to fall back on his plan - he tells the kingdom that Simba was responsible for the death of Mufasa (which only the hyenas and Scar know is not true) and suddenly Scar has the upper hand. He backs Simba to the end of an overhang and almost pushes him off. As Simba hangs off the ledge, Scar is ready to push him off, just as he did Mufasa. He then tells Simba that he killed Mufasa.
This angers Simba greatly, and he pounces up on Scar, choking him. He makes Scar admit that he killed Mufasa, and in his fluster he says that the hyenas are the enemy, which the hyenas hear. Simba offers to let him run away, but the hyenas get to him first and devour Scar.
The movie ends with the pride's lands being restored to their full glory, and Rafiki lifting Simba and Nala's daughter Kiara above his head on Pride Rock, in the same way Simba was lifted at the beginning of the film.
The sequel to The Lion King was released in 1998, but was not shown in cinemas. The Lion King II: Simba's Pride was one of Disney's made-for-video sequels. It starts where the first movie ended, with Simba's daughter Kiara. The story is similar in some ways to The Lion King, but with Kiara in Simba's place and Simba in Mufasa's place. It is generally considered a worthwhile and good sequel to such a classic.