THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘The Lion King’

The one that ruled them all.

After the tremendous critical and commercial successes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, both critics and audiences were awaiting Disney’s next move with bated breath. In the pipeline were two wildly different animated projects currently in production; The Lion King, a coming-of-age tale centred on a young lion cub, and Pocahontas, a sweeping romance based of the life of a Native American icon.

Studio executives and animators were enormously excited by one of these projects, with predictions it would be another huge box office success for the Disney studio. Meanwhile, the other “ugly stepchild” project was a title barely anyone at the studio wanted to touch. Many presumed the project likely would never see the light of day. And, even if it did, the film was unlikely to make more than $50 million. The answer to which film is which may surprise you.

The idea for what would become The Lion King was conceived in late 1988 during a conversation between Disney chairmen Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney and Vice President of Animation Peter Schneider on a flight to Europe for the promotional tour of Oliver & Company. Schneider floated the idea of setting an animated film in Africa with its focus being the power struggle between a pride of lions and a troop of baboons. Katzenberg loved the idea, seeing it as a chance to craft a coming-of-age drama with elements from his own personal life.

In November that year, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin screenwriter Linda Woolverton spent over a year writing several drafts of the screenplay, which was initially titled King of the Jungle. In this original version, the troop of baboons was led by a villainous character named Scar, who manipulated Simba and his pride of lions to take control of the jungle. Katzenberg initially offered the project to The Little Mermaid directors John Musker and Ron Clements, who passed in favour of directing Aladdin instead. Instead, Oliver & Company director George Scribner was assigned the project, whose intention was to craft a non-musical animated feature.

To assist with the project, Katzenberg assigned Beauty and the Beast story man Roger Allers to co-direct with Scribner, with the directors and several key production members heading to Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya to study African animals and gain an appreciation for the setting of their film. After six months of working on the production, Scribner abruptly resigned after strongly disagreeing with Katzenberg’s decision to turn the film into another extravagant animated musical.

Scribner was replaced by Rob Minkoff, who had just completed directing two animated Roger Rabbit shorts. Coming off his Academy Award nomination for Beauty and the Beast, producer Don Hahn also joined the production and found the project in total disarray, with a major lack of focus in the film’s script. Hahn called for a major retooling of the screenplay, enlisting Allers, Minkoff, and Beauty and the Beast directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale to join the producer in a two-week workshop.

It was here the title was changed to The Lion King, given the film was not actually set in the jungle, and its narrative was spun into the storyline we know today, focusing on Simba and his complicated journey from childhood into facing the consequences of his past and his responsibilities of the future. The concept of the rival troop of baboons was abandoned, with Scar becoming the jealous brother of Mufasa, the lion king of the Pride Lands. While the story was inherently an original tale, a first for a Disney animated feature, the production team were influenced by the biblical tales of Joseph and Moses, and the familial power struggle of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Despite the script still undergoing numerous changes, animation began in 1992, with the animation team given the choice to work on Pocahontas or The Lion King. Most of the experienced animators chose the former, seeing the project as more prestigious, less chaotically organised, and the one most likely to succeed at the box office. With such little faith in The Lion King project from both story artists and studio executives, the veteran animators wanted to align themselves with the surest bet and the smoothest ride. And they weren’t wrong on the latter point.

In the summer of 1992, the writing team added screenwriters Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts to further revise the script and add comedic elements to the narrative through the characters of Pumbaa the warthog, Timon the meerkat, and a trio of nefarious hyenas. By the end of production, The Lion King would list 18 credited story writers in its end credits, highlighting how many rewrites this screenplay encountered during its tumultuous production.

These constant changes created havoc for the animators, many of which had taken the role of supervising character animators for the very first time, given the more-experienced animators had seemingly wisely chosen to work on Pocahontas. By the time the team had delivered fully animated scenes, they were often told these sequences needed to be reanimated due to script changes or dialogue adjustments. Regardless, veteran animators like Andreas Deja and Mark Henn steadied the ship and pushed through the challenges to create their work.

Another major challenge for the animators was the fact The Lion King would stand as the first Disney animated feature film since Bambi to exclusively star non-anthropomorphised animal characters. The characters of the film weren’t expected to walk, talk, and act like humans, like those seen in something like Robin Hood. This was to be more akin to a nature documentary, which encouraged the animation team to craft authentic animal characters with realistic movements and mannerisms.

To assist with the character designs, the animators studied real-life animals for reference, with renowned wildlife expert Jim Fowler visiting the studio on numerous occasions with a menagerie of lions, birds, primates, and other African animals to discuss their unique behaviours, which allowed the animators to authentically craft their final drawings. The key location of The Pride Lands was closely modelled on photographs taken during the visit to the Kenyan national park, with art director Andy Gaskill inspired by David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, instilling a similarly epic scale into his work.

The animators were further assisted by the burgeoning Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) technology, which allowed the team to simulate cinematic movements such as sprawling tracking shots and dizzying camera movements to create the sweeping scope of the film. For the film’s most complicated scene, a two-and-a-half-minute wildebeest stampede, five specially trained animators spent almost two years crafting the turbulent sequence with a 3D computer program. This allowed the team to design several distinct wildebeest characters who were then multiplied into hundreds of creatures. Each of these characters were given randomised movements to realistically simulate the unpredictable, chaotic movement of the herd.

While lyricist Tim Rice and composer Alan Menken were wrapping up their work on Aladdin, Katzenberg offered the duo the chance to compose the music for The Lion King. Menken declined, instead preferring to align with Musker and Clements on the Pocahontas project, while Rice accepted on the condition he could choose his collaborating composer, with his sights firmly set on pop singer Elton John, who was currently enjoying a career resurgence after several years out of the spotlight.

Despite his initial trepidation at working with a lyricist other than his usual songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, John accepted Rice’s invitation, giddy at the chance to write music for a Disney animated feature film in the same vein as one of his favourites The Jungle Book. The pair wrote five tracks for the film’s soundtrack including the stirring opening number “Circle of Life,” the playful “Hakuna Matata,” and the sweeping love song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”

John wasn’t comfortable with crafting the film’s overall score, seeing the task as simply too daunting for a composer more akin with creating tracks featuring just three to four minutes of music. As such, Katzenberg enlisted composer Hans Zimmer, who was hired due to his two previous film scores in African settings, A World Apart and The Power of One. Zimmer partnered with South African composer Lebo M to supplement the score with traditional African music and choir elements.

While “Circle of Life” was always intended to open the film, the sequence originally featured narration and dialogue to introduce the audience to the film’s characters and explain the complex hierarchy of the animal kingdom. After Zimmer and Lebo M first heard the track, they suggested it may work better with a stirring African vocal introduction and feature Zulu vocals throughout. After the animation team were presented with the reworked number, it was the lightbulb moment they needed for the film’s opening sequence.

The team quickly abandoned the dialogue concept and reworked the sequence to instead stand as both a musical introduction to the Pride Lands and a dazzling display of animation, supplemented by the evocative music and lyrics of the track. Soon enough, one of the greatest pieces of Disney animation was created and one of the most spectacular opening sequences to a film the screen had ever seen. And the executives soon took notice.

After viewing the sequence, Katzenberg decided to feature the entire number as the film’s first teaser trailer. In an unprecedented move, the full four-minute scene played in its entirety ahead of Disney’s theatrical releases The Three Musketeers and Sister Act 2 Back in the Habit in November 1993. No dialogue. No additional scenes. Nothing but the “Circle of Life” sequence. The audience reaction was reportedly so rapturous, it made Hahn extremely nervous the film itself would not live up to expectations.

With just over six months until its release, the animation team worked furiously to perfect the final film, emboldened by the success of the teaser trailer and Katzenberg’s sudden confidence in the project. More than 600 artists, animators, and technicians ultimately contributed to the film, with many required to complete their work from home after a 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck Los Angeles in January 1994, causing the studio to shut down for several weeks. After 11 test screenings, which reportedly achieved the highest scores in Disney’s history, The Lion King was finally ready to roar.

The Lion King was released on June 24, 1994, to widespread critical acclaim. Roger Ebert declared the film “a superbly drawn animated feature,” while The Washington Post called it “spectacular in a manner that has nearly become commonplace with Disney’s feature-length animations.” Accompanied by an extensive marketing campaign, The Lion King broke records with its unprecedented box office run that far succeeded anything Disney had ever dreamt possible.

In its opening weekend, the film took $40.9 million in the U.S. to stand as the fourth biggest opening weekend of all time and the highest opening weekend for a Disney film in history. By the end of its theatrical run, The Lion King had grossed $312.9 million, making it the first animated film in history to gross more than $300 million in the U.S. The film raked in a further $455.8 million internationally, bringing its worldwide total to a staggering $768.6 million. This made The Lion King the highest-grossing film of 1994 and the second-highest-grossing film of all time behind Jurassic Park. Not bad for a project few wanted to work on.

Katzenberg launched a major awards season campaign push, hopeful of The Lion King echoing the history-making success of Beauty and the Beast in snatching an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. The studio created a lavish “For Your Consideration” promotional package featuring the film on VHS, the soundtrack on CD, and a pop-up art book showcasing the imagery from the film, which was mailed to all members of the Academy.

Despite the overwhelming critical and commercial success and a key precursor win at the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, The Lion King failed to garner a nomination for Best Picture, instead receiving three nominations in the Best Original Song category and a further nomination for Best Original Score. At the 67th Academy Awards, The Lion King won both categories, with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” the chosen winner from the three songs nominated. The Lion King was the fourth consecutive Disney animated film to win both music categories, sparking a call for a change in the Academy’s structure, which we’ll cover in the next piece.

It’s rather unfathomable now to ponder how The Lion King was once considered a flop in the making. The irony to think the Disney studio had such little faith in a project that would soon become the most successful animated film of all time. But it was indeed a risky venture and one that very easily could have fallen flat on its face. Every element had to be perfect for this film to work. And, somehow, it was. The animation. The music. The characters. The narrative. That sublime opening sequence. That devastating death scene. The stirring ending. It all combined to create a genuine miracle of cinema.

Right from its now-iconic opening moments, you knew you were in for something truly special with The Lion King. It was the culmination of everything Disney had learned since its rebirth with The Little Mermaid five years earlier. The animation was on another level, with evocative visuals creating moments of pure majesty, devastating heartbreak, and thrilling action. The character designs were so full of emotion and life, meaning an audience instantly forgot they were watching a bunch of talking animals.

While there are undoubtedly some major plot holes and baffling character choices in its haphazardly constructed screenplay, it’s easy to overlook such quibbles when the end result is so genuinely magnificent. For all its joy, The Lion King leaves a heavy blow with its crushing pain. We’d seen Disney characters lose a parent before, but nothing quite like the on-screen death of Mufasa, which still stands as one of the most devastating moments in cinema history. The narrative tackles Simba’s complicated journey with grief in a delicate way, offering an insight into the complex emotions associated with both grief and guilt.

Performed with such sublime wit and campy flamboyance by Jeremy Irons, The Lion King offered the most deliciously menacing and downright evil villain Disney had ever created. While the debate will always rage over this fact, you cannot ignore the fact Scar is quite literally the only Disney villain to kill someone on screen. And not just anybody. His. Own. Brother. It’s an act of treasonous treachery that makes the actions of every other Disney villain pale by comparison. It’s rather unfathomable such a moment was included in rather graphic detail and the film still managed to receive a G classification rating.

Much like Aladdin, it’s frustrating to find the bulk of the African animal characters of The Lion King are voiced by white performers, no matter how magical those voice performances may be. It’s rather uncomfortable to consider Simba, the king of the African savannah, is voiced by Matthew Broderick, one of the whitest white guys Hollywood has ever seen. But we’re still a long way from Hollywood embracing representation for people of colour, so it’s hardly surprising Disney weren’t exactly breaking down barriers with their early 1990s casting choices.

Narrative quibbles and colour-backward casting choices aside, The Lion King was and still is a masterful piece of cinema. Its visuals now live in cinema history as some of those most dazzling sequences animated films have ever offered. Its music is still as catchy and enjoyable all these years later. Mufasa’s death still brings a tear to your eye and that opening sequence still makes your heart soar. The Lion King stood as the summit of the Renaissance period. Sadly, it’s all downhill from here.

Is The Ling King a Disney Classic? As one of the most triumphant achievements of Disney’s illustrious history, The Lion King is a Disney Classic in a class all of its own.

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