When The Lion King was first released on June 24th, 1994 it wowed children and adults alike, rocketing up the box office charts and later winning two Academy Awards. Watching it again twenty five years later, it’s clear that The Lion King‘s lasting success is owed to Disney’s broader transition away from simpler fairy tales towards more inventive and ambitious stories in the ’80s and ’90s. The Disney ‘formula’ is firmly in place now, but The Lion King was one of the first Disney films to blend Shakespearean drama, adult themes of death and grief, and modern tongue-in-cheek humor (made popular in Aladdin) within a vibrant animation spectacle.
The opening is nearly as iconic as the film itself, with emotional strains of a Zulu chant sung as a sun quickly rises against a blood-red sky. It feels like an opera being performed over a nature documentary, as animals from all walks of life gather in the presentation of a newly born lion cub. In a single song, the pieces of the film are put in place; lions may reign, but they exist within a delicate circle of life and death. These themes could feel overly sentimental within another context, but a quarter of a century later the scene still evokes a grand sense of beauty and wonder.
From this point forward, the movie rocks back and forth between danger and light-hearted fun, positioning Simba as a carefree cub with a lot to learn. Within the first act, The Lion King provides valuable lessons in parental disappointment and personal responsibility, but Disney keeps it light by sprinkling in colorful musical numbers and wry humor. It isn’t until Simba sees his father Mufasa plummet to his death that the filmmakers show their hand when it comes to how dark they are willing to go. Some may speak on the death of Bambi’s mother as a traumatic childhood film moment, but Mufasa’s death feels much more menacing and heart-wringing. Disney seems to have turned emotional manipulation into an art form over the decades, but the moment feels well earned. It becomes a catalyst for the rest of the film, a story of lineage and denial, and the surprisingly deep lesson of forgiving yourself for childhood trauma that was out of your control.
If it seems like I’m reading a lot into a children’s cartoon, it’s because The Lion King doesn’t feel like one. Outside of more than a few jokes about flatulence, the film is much more of a drama than a comedy, which makes sense given the characteristics it borrows from Hamlet. But even so, the jokes and silly characters that lift Simba’s spirits manage to not feel out of place within one of Disney’s darkest tales. It is a testament to the animators and writers that they are able to navigate such a delicate balance of humor and true sadness with apparent ease.
Another remarkable part of The Lion King is its soundtrack. Between the original songs — which were written by Sir Elton John and Tim Rice — and the riveting score by Hans Zimmer, the movie is as much a visual spectacle as it is a cohesive musical. The unique nature of the soundtrack set it up perfectly to become a Broadway hit in 1997, where it still remains today. Though the songs and score match each other well, they also differ greatly. Like the balancing act in tone, many of the songs in The Lion King capture very different moods, from the cute and likable “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” to the dramatic love ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” there are many moving parts that feel like they shouldn’t work, but do. And they do it so well that two sequels, a television series, the Broadway show, and a 2011 theatrical re-release later, Disney still felt that there was more to gain from the original story.
A 2019 live-action remake of The Lion King (in the style of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and The Jungle Book) includes an enviable cast (Donald Glover, Beyonce, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, and more), and the animation looks as stunning as you would expect from thousands of top-notch animators working for one of the most prolific companies in the world. As a lover of the original film and its legacy, I don’t expect the re-imagining to amaze audiences as effectively as the first one did in 1994. All I can hope is that it brings the story to a new generation of children, and leads them back to the original as a celebration of one of their most impressive works in the last century.