The Lion Roars – 30 Years of Disney’s The Lion King and How a B-Picture Became a Blockbuster

In the annals of Disney Animation, and for all animation for that matter, no other film looms as large as The Lion King (1994).  The movie has become a global phenomenon that continues to be as widely popular now as it was when it first released 30 years ago.  In addition to conquering the box office, it has gone on to spawn numerous other properties that themselves become enormous hits on their own, such as tv spin-offs and an award winning Broadway show.  Even a “live action” remake from 2019 would go on to gross over a billion dollars on it’s own.  It seems like everything that this movie touches turns to gold, and it has been one of the primary engines of Disney’s success over the last quarter of a century.  But it may surprise you that Disney only viewed this movie as a major success after it was released in theaters.  Before that, it was viewed as the studio’s “B-Picture.”  The Lion King was developed in the middle of Disney Animation’s Renaissance period; a time when the studio was ramping up again in success after a long period of failure in the post-Walt Disney years.  The Little Mermaid (1989) is credited for kickstarting this new era and bringing Disney back to their former glory, and that success continued to build with Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) soon after.  At this time, it seemed like the Disney formula of action adventure mixed with fairy tale magic was what was helping them win back audiences.  The Lion King on the other hand was a bit of an odd fit, so it progressed along under the radar of the Disney brass.  But to the surprise of everyone, the little “B-Picture” would be the movie that would transform the studio forever, both in good ways and in bad ways.  But how did this unexpected hit manage to take it’s place in the Circle of Life at Disney Animation.

In the late 1980’s, right before Ariel and friends would make their first splash on the big screen, the top brass at Disney Animation were brainstorming their next move at the studio.  Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin were no-brainers of course, fitting with the fairy tale background that had worked for Disney in the past.  But Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg was interested in exploring an animated feature that was set in Africa.  This idea interested his colleagues, Roy Disney and Peter Schneider, and together they sought out ideas from the filmmakers at their studio.  Director George Scribner, who was just coming off of the minor success of their latest film, Oliver & Company (1988), managed to pitch a story idea that appealed to the executives called King of the Jungle.  The story revolved around a coming of age tale of a lion cub named Simba who is separated from his pride, raised by a family of baboons and does battle with an evil band of hyenas before eventually reuniting with his pride and becoming their king.  Katzenberg referred to it as “Bambi in Africa” as some of the coming-of-age elements were similar to the Walt era classic.  Scribner would refine the story more throughout the years after, adding in more Arthurian and Shakespearean elements to Simba’s story that gave it more gravitas.  But, unlike the other films being developed at Disney at the time, King of the Jungle was not intended to be a musical fairy tale.  It was very grounded in nature, treating the African setting as something more akin to a nature documentary.  After a year into development, the Disney team hired Roger Allers to assist Scribner with direction, hoping to give the story more focus as Allers had did as the Head of Story on Beauty and the Beast.  Allers would bring in his own of story artists, including Brenda Chapman and Chris Sanders, both of whom were rising stars at the studio.  The team worked on the story for a good 2 years, all the while Disney Animation was growing by leaps and bounds.  All of this new change at the studio would have a profound effect on the development of the film, and for a time, it was not moving the movie in the right direction.

Under George Scribner’s guidance, the story lacked an emotional core, and the executives at Disney were growing nervous.  Amidst the success of their mega hit animated musicals, King of the Jungle’s non-musical approach was just not working anymore.  There was worry that the movie would soon be scrapped completely, which prompted a lot of the top talent at Disney Animation to jump ship and join a more sure-fire project that was in development at the same time; an animated musical about the Native American icon, Pocahontas.  For most of the animators, Pocahontas was going to be the next Disney classic, while King of the Jungle was going to be the studio’s “B-Picture;” a minor film tossed through the production line like so many forgotten films of the post-Walt era.  To change the fate of the film, Roger Allers and his team decided to pitch a version of the story that was friendlier to musical numbers.  This did not sit well with George Scribner, who soon left the project entirely.  The movie had lost it’s original director, but was on track to becoming something better.  The title was changed to The Lion King, which was welcome because King of the Jungle made no sense for a movie where there is no jungle.  Producer Don Hahn, an enormously successful talent at the studio who helped to shepherd Beauty and the Beast to it’s success was brought on board to guide this new direction for the The Lion King, and soon after animator Rob Minkoff was promoted to director to take Scribner’s place.  For the team that stayed with The Lion King, being on board this “B-Picture” became something of a badge of honor.  They were now the underdogs, and just like with most underdog stories the ability to overcome the odds stacked against them helped to drive their belief that they could make something really special.

The story definitely became more Shakespearean in tone over time, becoming less like Bambi and more like Hamlet.  Simba would be betrayed by his uncle Scar, witness the murder of his father Mufasa, and live in exile until he reached adulthood where he would challenge his usurping uncle for the throne.  The direction of the movie would also visually take inspiration from great Hollywood epics from filmmakers like David Lean and Cecil B. DeMille, helping it to feel grander and more in line with the true vastness of the open Serengeti where the movie is set.  Producer Don Hahn stated that there were three pillars in particular that define the movie above all else and helped to make it the masterpiece that we all know; three sequences in fact.  One is the opening scene that introduces us to the world of this story; second is the wildebeest stampede scene that the story pivots on; and the third is the most magical scene in the movie where Simba confronts his father’s spirit, speaking to him from the great beyond.  Each of these moments are what sets the movie apart from all the other Disney films, and each was groundbreaking in their own right.  The wildebeest stampede for example took the still primitive tool of CGI animation to the next level, creating an epic scale sequence that would’ve been impossible to pull off only a few years before.  It was a bold sequence to pull of visually, but it also needed to land with the audience emotionally.  Simba’s father, Mufasa, the great Lion King, is murdered by his treacherous brother Scar and young Simba is given his first brush with death.  The sequence recalls a similar scene with Bambi after he loses his mother; but this time, Disney chose to not shy away from confronting death.  Bambi’s mom is killed off screen and we never see her again.  In The Lion King, Simba finds Mufasa’s lifeless body and grieves over it.  It’s an emotional sequence, beautifully animated, that was key towards helping The Lion King feel more momentous than the average Disney animated flick.

The next big factor in The Lion King’s success of course was the music.  No other Disney film sounded like Lion King, with it’s sweeping score infused with authentic African melodies and instrumentation.  Hans Zimmer, an acclaimed composer of note in Hollywood, was brought on board to score his first animated feature.  His work was a welcome departure from the work of Alan Menken, who had successfully scored most of the Disney Renaissance movies.  Menken’s work is brilliant, but his melodies would have been out of place in this African set story; plus he was already deep into working on Aladdin and Pocahontas during that time, making him unavailable.  Zimmer was a much better match, given that he had been working African influence into a number of his film scores before Lion King, including one particularly influential film called The Power of One (1992).  On that film, Zimmer collaborated with a South African musician named Lebo M who he wanted to work with again on Lion King.  Lebo M would prove instrumental in helping to shape the authentic African sound of the score; helping to find the right collection of musicians and instruments, as well as coaching the choirs whose voices would become key parts of the overall score.  Lebo even can be heard in the film itself as the very first voice we hear, with his iconic “Naaaaaaah” sung over a rising sun in the opening shot.  The songs would also need to be special as well.  Lyricist Tim Rice was brought on board at Disney to help complete the song score for Aladdin after the tragic passing of Howard Ashman.  He then moved over to working on The Lion King, and he proposed the bold idea of getting Elton John to write the melodies for the songs in the film.  No one believed that a pop star of Elton’s stature would want to work on a Disney animated musical, but to everyone’s surprise, he said yes.  In total, Elton John  and Tim Rice wrote five original songs for the film; the upbeat “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” the traditional villain song “Be Prepared,” the silly comical song, “Hakuna Matata,” and the pop friendly love ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” among them.  But, if there was one song that mattered more than the others, it was the one that opens the movie, “Circle of Life.”  One of the pillars that the movie rested on, there has never been a grander opening number found in any animated film before or since.  It was the perfect tone setter, a magnificent showpiece for this ambitious epic, and it probably stands second to “When You Wish Upon a Star” in the pantheon of monumental Disney tunes.

The third pillar that mattered to the film is the climatic moment where Simba must confront his past and take his place as king; a responsibility he had been running away from.  The message becomes clear to him after he sees the image of his father reaching out to him from the heavens.  If there is one sequence that defines the movie above all else, it’s this moment.  The image of Mufasa silhouetted in the sky by storm clouds, creating this heavenly visage, is a work of pure art that stands among the best at Disney; especially in the Renaissance era.  Apart from the stunning animation, it also mattered who got to speak for the character of Mufasa, because he demanded a voice of authority.  Luckily, Disney was able to cast the iconic voice of James Earl Jones in the part.  No stranger to voice over roles, Jones brings such a dignified presence to the character Mufasa; very much embodying the identity of a Lion King.  To bounce off of the power of James Earl Jones’ powerful voice, Disney perfectly cast actor Jeremy Irons in the scheming, slimy role of the villainous Scar, who provided the perfect counter to Jones’ performance.  A duo of teen heartthrobs from different eras, Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Taylor Thomas, were cast in the role of Simba at different ages in his life, and both managed to give Simba the right amount of boyish charm while at the same time giving him the right amount of emotional pathos in the heavier moments of the movie.  Thomas’ performance in the death scene of Mufasa really feels authentically heartbreaking, and Broderick likewise gives a powerful turn during the pivotal conversation with Mufasa’s spirit.  The rest of the cast is also filled with perfectly matched voices.  Broadway vets Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella were auditioning for roles as wisecracking hyenas, but the filmmakers realized they worked so well as a team that they instead got cast as Simba’s comical sidekicks, Timon the Meercat and Pumbaa the Warthog, both of which they were perfectly matched for.  And for the key role of the wise baboon shaman Rafiki, Disney cast legendary TV and stage actor Robert Guillaume, who really helped to ground the film with a dignified African sensibility.

Visually, musically and vocally, The Lion King had everything going for it by the end of it’s production.  Even the Disney execs were realizing that their “B-Picture” may be more special than they first thought.  But there were still some uncertain factors still in play.  One, the 1994 Northridge Earthquake that struck the Los Angeles area disrupted the workflow of the animation studio, so a lot of the animators had to bring their work home in order to get the movie done on time.  An eleventh hour change was also made to the “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” sequence after Elton John became upset that his love song was being sung by the characters Timon and Pumbaa, butchering what he had intended for the lovely ballad.  But probably what was most disruptive to the closing days of Lion King’s production was the simultaneous implosion of the Disney corporate level team.  CEO Michael Eisner had lost his right hand man, CFO Frank Wells, in a tragic helicopter crash, and had slighted Jeffrey Katzenberg who was seeking to fill that spot at the Disney company, making him the next in the line of succession at the company.  Eisner and Katzenberg’s relationship, which had always been contentious before, became un-reparable after that and just days before The Lion King was to premiere in the Summer, Katzenberg parted ways with Disney, leaving a major vacancy at Disney Animation.  Though the behind the scenes drama didn’t affect The Lion King at the box office too much, it did spell the beginning of the end of this monumental era known as the Disney Renaissance.  Despite all that, The Lion King not only started strong after it’s premiere on June 24, 1994, it would go on to break every record in the books that year for an animated feature.  By the end of it’s run, it was the then 3rd all time top grossing movie domestically at that time, right behind Jurassic Park (1993) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  It would also collect two Academy Awards that year; Hans Zimmer for his score (his first) and one to Elton John and Tim Rice for the song  “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”  But the legacy of The Lion King wouldn’t stop there.  A couple years later, Disney tasked Avant Garde stage director Julie Taymor with adapting Lion King for Broadway.  The result was another smash hit that won the Tony for Best New Musical and continues to be performed on the Great White Way to this day, over 25 years later.

The success of The Lion King would still be a double edged sword for Disney despite all the great fortune it has brought them.  In a way it became too popular, raising the bar too high for Disney to match or even surpass in the years after.  It’s ironic that the movie that the top Disney talent thought was going to be the superior film, Pocahontas, ended up underperforming the following year in 1995.  To critics and audiences, Pocahontas just didn’t wow them in the same way that The Lion King did.  There would be a steady decline of Disney Animation in the years after Lion King, with some modest hits here and there like Mulan (1998) and Lilo and Stitch (2002).  Disney Animation would go through some drastic changes during this time as well, with Pixar Animation pushing the industry towards computer animation and also more competing animation studios outside of the Disney company also making their moves, including Jeffrey Katzenberg’s newly formed Dreamworks Animation.  The Lion King really was the crest of a wave that helped to revitalize a dying artform at Disney Animation and then inevitably also lead to it’s downfall again.  Even still, the film remains an all time classic and one of Disney’s crowning achievements.  It also proved to be a great launchpad for a rising crop of talent at the studio.  Rob Minkoff would later find success as a live action filmmaker, working on the blockbuster Stuart Little films for Sony.  Chris Sanders would become a successful animation director in his own right, making a big splash with Lilo and Sitich before heading over to Dreamworks where he would create hits like How to Train Your Dragon (2010), The Croods (2013) and the upcoming The Wild Robot (2024).  Brenda Chapman would make her way over to Pixar and create the first ever fairy tale adventure over there with Brave (2012).  That’s an incredible legacy for a team that were considered the underdogs at one time at Disney.  The Lion King has so many iconic moments that still have the power to amaze even 30 years later.  It’s not surprising that this was one of the films Disney selected for special IMAX presentations in the past, as the canvas for the film genuinely earns that enormous screen.  Eventually Disney Animation would find it’s footing again post-Renaissance with hits like Frozen (2013) and Zootopia (2016), as they always seem to do after down periods, but The Lion King still remains a high water mark for Disney.  Whether it’s the catchy songs, the unforgettable characters, the compelling story, or the majestic animation, there’s something for everyone in this movie that makes it special.  And the behind the scenes story of the movie defying the odds to become a reality is itself an inspirational tale.  As they say, “Hakuna Matata means no worries” and that belief in being true to yourself has helped this lion continue to roar all these years later.