For my very first date, my junior year in high school, I went to see The Three Musketeers. Famously, one of the trailers before that movie was just the beginning of The Lion King. I’m not sure if my date was as enraptured as I was, but still. And then that summer—actually, long after said boyfriend and I had broken up—the parents of a kid I babysat paid me to take her to see the movie. My little sister and another kid I babysat tagged along, so I enlisted my then-best friend to come with me. For reasons best known to himself, that was one of the days he decided to go full goth, eyeliner and all. Scared the bejeezus out of at least one of those two kids, though my little sister’s response was pretty much, “Eh, it’s just Patrick.”
So I have, for a quarter of a century now (feel old yet?), been familiar with the story of Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas then Matthew Broderick). He is the son of Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Sarabi (Madge Sinclair). He is betrothed to Nala (Niketa Calame-Harris, then Moira Kelly), though they both find it gross and just think of each other as best friends. And then there’s his Uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons), who would really quite like to be king himself and has no patience for his relatives, and so plots with the hyenas to kill Mufasa. He then drives Simba away, where the young lion finds sanctuary with Timon the Meerkat (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa the Warthog (Ernie Sabella) before Nala finds him and encourages him to live his destiny.
Okay, let’s start here, because this is a controversy I’ve been hearing almost as long as the movie’s been out. I actually haven’t seen Kimba the White Lion. Sorry, but I haven’t. But the important thing to know about that is that I have seen Hamlet. And if The Lion King is ripping of Kimba the White Lion, then Kimba the White Lion is ripping off Hamlet. I wrote a paper about that in college, actually, when I was studying modern portrayals of the Elizabethan era. It’s trivially easy to put together. There’s even a stuffy majordomo (Zazu, voiced by Rowan Atkinson). No players, I grant you, but of course this king doesn’t feel any shame or regret for what he’s done.
Equally famous is the fact that this was Disney’s B-picture of the time. The focus was on Pocahontas. That was the big drive, the movie that was going to actually win Disney that Best Picture. And then the further the movie got into production, the more clear it became that this was the better movie, and indeed Pocahontas is for many of us the start of another Disney downturn—I haven’t talked about it in this column in part because I haven’t seen it. You could, I suppose, pay me enough to do it through Patreon or Ko-fi, but you’d have to be prepared for a lot of ranting about history. Like, a lot.
For those of us old enough to remember seeing this trailer in the theatre, however, we’re old enough to remember having our breath taken away by the quality of that first scene. Okay, so there are leaf-cutter ants in it, which are a New World species. But it’s still amazing. The beauty of the animation, the power of the music, the exquisite care in the character design—this was going to be a great movie. And then we saw the whole movie and were not disappointed.
And, yes, I’m pretty sure I recognized the Nazi iconography in “Be Prepared” at the time. And if I didn’t, I certainly found out about it fast enough—a teacher of mine pointed it out to me that same summer, because I remember talking about it with her, possibly while on my way to babysit her kids. (I babysat a lot in high school.) Much of the scene is lifted whole cloth from Triumph of the Will, which to modern eyes should be unsettling—you should be able to recognize it as a dictator controlling the minds of those who follow him.
It is therefore astounding to realize that Jeremy Irons didn’t really want to do the movie, because he felt a light animated comedy would be quite a difference from the quality work he turned in doing serious adult fare like Reversal of Fortune, the movie he’d made before recording his voicework here. I do kind of wish he were still as discriminating, because lord he’s been in some bad Lighter Fare, but still. When he was shown what they were doing with the animation, he got on board.
It is sadly true that this is an awfully white cast. I have basically no interest in the it’s-not-live-action version coming out, but almost all the cast members are black—including, of course, James Earl Jones as Mufasa because you can’t do better than James Earl Jones as Mufasa and they wisely didn’t bother trying. (Though I do also feel Trevor Noah’s irritation at not having been cast in either this or Black Panther, the two recent big-budget movies set on his home continent of Africa.) It’s sad when the only reason you need two hands to count all the PoC in a movie set in Africa is that one of the hyenas is voiced by a Hispanic guy.
I also have to say that I’m never thrilled when voice actors have to be cast to sing the songs for the people cast to voice the characters. Jeremy Irons blew out his voice doing “you won’t get a sniff without me” and couldn’t finish “Be Prepared,” and okay. But the singing voice of Adult Simba is Joseph Williams, son of John and a singer for Toto. Young Simba’s singing voice is Jason Weaver, who I guess also should count when you list PoC in the movie and therefore does push us up to seven. Which . . . is something?
And speaking of those PoC—the hyenas. It’s appropriate that they seem to be mostly led by Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg), as hyenas are matriarchal, but they are also far from the nuisance species they’re shown as here. Honestly, there are ways they’re better than lions, but they’re not as visually impressive and so get the short end of the stick. They’re also not entirely scavengers, and even if they were, scavengers are a vital part of any ecosystem. Scavenging is one of the things that prevents a place like the Pridelands from looking as desolate as it does when Scar takes over—the more animals sharing a kill, the fewer animals that have to be killed to feed those animals, up to a certain point. It’s the balance of nature.
I would also like to nominate this movie as an entry in the “it sounds cooler in other languages” sweepstakes. That really impressive singing at the beginning of “The Circle of Life”? Yeah, here’s the translation. “Here comes a lion, Father / Oh, yes, it’s a lion / Here comes a lion, Father / Oh yes, it’s a lion / A lion We’re going to conquer / A lion A lion and a leopard come to this open place.” Or at least that’s what IMDb says.
This movie is now, by my standards, old enough to be a classic, which I admit I don’t like thinking about movies I saw in high school. I also don’t think there’s any doubt that it should be considered one. Yeah, its only Oscar nominations were for music. Three for Original Song, in the days when that happened. And its competition was pretty forgettable. But that is, honestly, as much the Academy’s known anti-animation bias for the other categories. I don’t know whether it counts as cinematography or not, but Wyatt Earp is not a better-made movie on any level.
In conclusion, oh, yes, it’s a lion.