It’s a little difficult, in 2018 to understand just how far Disney animation had fallen by the late 1980s. The studio that had done so much to pioneer animated theatrical features had, after the passing of Walt Disney himself, gradually abdicated its throne as the king of animation, leaving an entire generation of kids wondering why Disney had abandoned them. That is why the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s is so important, not just to Disney, but to fans of animation in general. The Renaissance wasn’t just a great movie house reclaiming its former glory. It was reminding us all what it means to live up to one’s own legacy. And as it did, it brought us a tale of fallen kingship, usurpation and redemption that succeeded spectacularly on its own merits, but also as an enduring metaphor for Disney itself: The Lion King.
In the Pride Lands of eastern Africa, Mufasa the lion reigns. He is the patriarch of his pride and the overseer of the “circle of life” that governs all things, especially the ecosystem of his dominion. As he instructs his little cub Simba on what it means to accept great responsibility, and to lead with dignity and honor, Mufasa’s nefarious brother Scar plots from the shadows to take the throne for himself. With the aid of some hyena minions, Scar arranges for Mufasa’s murder, drives Simba into exile, proclaims himself monarch, and promptly drives the Pride Lands into ruin as his hyena minions run riot. Meanwhile, Simba lives a wastrel’s life in exile with his slacker friends, Pumba the warthog and Timon the meerkat. Only when Simba runs into his old friend, the lioness Nala, does he learn of what has befallen his home, and how badly he must return to set things right. As his love for Nala rekindles, and as Simba receives counsel from the ghostly spirit of his departed father, he accepts his duties as king and goes home on a collision course to unseat Scar and make things right once more. Not just for him, and the memory of his family, bur for all creatures that live in the Pride Lands, big and small, predator and prey.
This movie landed smack in the middle of the great Disney Renaissance, and it is so smoothly executed that one easily overlooks a long and difficult writing process that went into this. Disney wanted to create its first feature that involved an original story rather than a retelling of other source material, and in that, the effort was only partially successful, given how strongly the movie’s Shakespearean tones—namely, Hamlet and Henry IV Part I—shine through. (Not to mention a controversial resemblance to the Japanese anime, Jungle Emperor.) Be that as it may, that Disney chose to draw its characters here as true animals, and not as anthropomorphized versions might seem like a small detail, but it was, and is, a big step in a new direction for Disney, especially in the context of its previous features. Given the grandly collaborative of making any movie, but animated ones in particular, Disney’s narrative and visual efforts here provide an enduring story that is at once both new and familiar, accessible by the young and old, and able to endure well into the future. That’s never and easy thing to do, but here, Disney does it so well that they made it look easy.
Even among the high bar set by the other musicals of the Disney Renaissance, the Lion King stands triumphant, with a original soundtrack and score that has become a thing of legend in its own right. Each of the tentpole songs of the soundtrack—I Just Can’t Wait to be King,” “Hakuna Matata, and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” among others—are instant classics thanks to the combined brilliance of Tim Rice and Elton John, but they succeed best as a delivery mechanism for the story. And nowhere do we see this better than in the movie’s opening four minutes—initially used as an extended trailer—in which “The Circle of Life” introduces us to Mufasa’s Africa and the presentation of his baby son to the world. It is a scene of such goosebump-inducing majesty that even Disney’s own executives feared they couldn’t possibly live up to such a strong opening. They had good cause to worry, even if those worries proved false.
But the Lion King succeeds outside of its musical theater as well, especially when it explores Simba’s transit from innocent cub to exiled layabout to returned king. One of the brilliant things about the movie’s opening is in the back of our minds, we know that all of this grandeur is setting up a tragedy to follow, for no family ever survives a Disney animated feature intact. And as we see Mufasa shadowed by Scar, we know what is to come, and the tension of watching it build provides a unique pain point for the audience. We can see that Simba’s progression cannot begin until his father departs, but we are not given the reprieve of Mufasa’s death occurring offstage. Instead, we get to witness the murder of the king in the movie’s moment of truth, which has become a cinematic pivot point for an entire world of moviegoers.
The scene itself is a masterpiece, driven by Hans Zimmer’s dramatic score and the groundbreaking computer graphics used to animate the terrifying wildebeest stampede that is Scar’s regicidal weapon of choice. As we watch Mufasa race to the rescue, we know he will not prevail, and yet, he comes so close that we are tricked into thinking that perhaps this time, things will be different. Perhaps, for our sake, Disney will spare the king, and us. But when Scar sinks in his claws and whispers to his brother one final insult, we know that will never be the case. There cannot be triumph without tragedy. Disney knows this, and will never let us forget it. Long live the king, indeed.