WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: Protected by his doting father Mufasa, lion cub Simba looks over the Pridelands with excitement, knowing that one day he will become ruler of all he sees. However, Simba’s jealous uncle Scar callously usurps the throne, sending the rightful heir into exile full of panic and guilt. Simba makes new friends and carves out a new untroubled life, but a familiar face or two make him aware of his rights and responsibilities.
From their vantage point of Pride Rock, regal lions Mufasa and Sarabi (voiced by James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair) present their first-born son Simba to their respectful subjects – zebras, giraffes, hippos and so on. Not everyone is delighted by the new arrival, however; Mufasa’s brother Scar (Jeremy Irons) resents being pushed down the line of succession, and tricks the young, impetuous cub (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a child, Matthew Broderick as an adult) and his lioness friend Nala (Niketa Calame/Moira Kelly) into visiting the dangerous elephants’ graveyard, the lair of savage hyaenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings). Alerted by his fussy majordomo, hornbill Zazu (Rowan Atkinson), Mufasa rescues the youngsters, but the incident sparks an idea in Scar’s mind. He places Simba in the path of a buffalo stampede, then sets up Mufasa for a fatal fall and lays all the blame on the distraught cub.
Simba flees and grows up trying to forget about his past, aided by easy-living pals Timon and Pumbaa (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella), a tuneful meerkat and warthog combo; but reminders are never far away, especially when Nala turns up with dreadful tales of Scar and the hyaenas’ desecration of the Pridelands, soothsaying Baboon Rafiki (Robert Guillaume) hot on her heels. Will Simba confront his own guilt – and his treacherous uncle?
Although Disney are naturally upbeat about their movies, many of which are (apparently) timeless ‘Classics’ as soon as they’re released, even the most sycophantic of supporters would concede that films such as The Black Cauldron and Oliver and Company did little to enhance their reputation in the 1980s. However, the decade ended with The Little Mermaid and the impetus provided by its success snowballed into Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. The majestic gathering of the animals with which the film starts can only have been made by people who absolutely love animation, and the rest of the film aims for equal levels of excellence.
Famously, The Lion King was the first Disney animation to feature no humans, and it’s all the better for it; the characters are beautifully animated, combining just the right amounts of cartoon cutesiness and animal grace. They are given vocal talents to match, too: the wonderful rich tones of James Earl Jones, the weary sarcasm of Irons, the buffoonish blustering of Atkinson, the arch wisecracks from Lane, the sinister menace from Goldberg.
The script is full of smart little jokes, especially for Timon and Zazu (his interrupted rendition of ‘It’s a Small World’ is a lovely little in-joke), but the overall feel is grand, epic, the tale of a great tradition. The film is sincere about the circle of life, in ecological terms (Mufasa’s speech about Antelopes eating the grass) as well as hierarchical, Mufasa and Simba being from a line of kings who rule to keep the land in balance. And on top of all that, the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice are mostly of high quality* and are backed up by Hans Zimmer and Lebo M’s evocative, African-tinged score.
If there are nits to be picked, they are largely down to matters of personal preference which others will say act in the film’s favour. The Lion King is not exactly over-burdened with plot, and what there is plays out as a junior-school reduction of Hamlet (ie. taking out the incest, contemplation of suicide, and the possibility of Nala going mad and drowning herself in the watering hole). Which is fine, but older viewers may just yearn for something a tad meatier – although the climax is brilliant and provides as much drama as you could possibly ask for.
And some may take issue with The Lion King’s philosophical stance. I wouldn’t call it fascistic by any stretch, but it is interesting to contrast The Lion King with the equally charming Babe: one says that you’re born into a role and that you’re letting yourself and others down if you deviate from it, by (for example) adopting the dropout philosophy of ‘Hakuna Matata’; the other says that your status at birth shouldn’t hold you back from changing your life as you see fit. I’m not suggesting that these competing philosophies are writ large on the screen, or that they have any bearing on the quality of either movie: but the messages are there and are worth pondering.
Anyway, if little of this seems like a review of the movie, it’s because The Lion King is simply a marvellous film with so much to recommend it that niggles over a lack of complexity or originality** only act as slightly dull spots which boost the shine of the whole. Funny, moving and beautifully brought to life, I definitely feel the love for one of Disney’s genuine classics.
NOTES: 1The ‘Special Edition’ loses a point for the reinstatement of ‘Morning Report’. It was obviously not good enough to be the first song of the film proper, so why inflict it on us now?
2The Japanese animation Jungle Emperor/Kimba the White Lion never made it over to Britain, so I couldn’t possibly make any comparisons. I have, however, seen a few Youtube clips which are, let’s say, interesting. As the teacher says, there is no new thing under the sun…