Hey, here’s something that will make you feel old! The Lion King is turning 20 on Sunday. The Disney masterpiece roared (shh, let us have that one) into theaters on June 15, 1994, where it would “Hakuna Matata” its way to becoming the second-highest-grossing film of the year, earning an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and two Grammys in the process.
Although The Lion King is now seen as a centerpiece of Disney’s so-called Renaissance period, it had modest origins, and even those involved in the project believed it would be a tough sell. “The pitch for the story was a lion cub gets framed for murder by his uncle, set to the music of Elton John,” producer Don Hahn explained. “People said ‘What? Good luck with that.'”
But the Shakespeare-lite story of Simba, King Mufasa and evil uncle Scar exceeded everyone’s expectations then and, 20 years later, it’s still an amazing film. We’ll apologize in advance to Frozen princesses, singing candlesticks and even Billy Joel in dog form, because here are 20 reasons we think The Lion King is the greatest Disney movie ever.
1. There’s nothing more majestic than that opening sequence: The sun slowly rises over the African savannah and an endless parade of silhouetted animals raise their heads, all in rhythm to the percussive beats of “Circle of Life.” Empire Magazine named it No. 11 on its list of the Greatest Opening Scenes in film, a rating that seems several digits too low. (Also, if you translate those chanted Zulu lyrics, they mean “Here comes a lion, Father/Oh yes, it’s a lion.” Some mysteries are better left unsolved.)
2. Twenty years on, and we still get chills when part-time artist, full-time shaman Rafiki walks to the edge of Pride Rock and presents the newborn Simba to the animals assembled below. So, a quick show of hands: How many of us have recreated Rafiki’s triumphant pose while holding a perfectly wrapped burrito?
3. “Hakuna Matata” is a wonderful phrase. This movie introduced us to that “No Worries” motto at least a decade before country singers like Kenny Chesney started kicking their shoes off and singing about their own lack of problems. Also, we’re still trying to learn the Swahili phrase for “I don’t know any other words in Swahili.”
4. For an animated film, it touches on some deep subjects including morality and mortality, the idea of destiny and the ways to approach – and learn from – the tragedies in your past. One reviewer called it a “deep-dish Jungian fable,” a kind of synopsis you’ll never hear in reference to, say, The Emperor’s New Groove.
5. As Shakespearian adaptations go, it’s basically Hamlet on four legs: The evil uncle kills the king and the young prince eventually avenges his father’s death. Heck, Simba-as-Hamlet even gets a visit from his dad’s ghost. There are also parallels between Polonius’s advising Laertes, “To thine own self be true,” and Ghost Mufasa telling Simba, “Remember who you are.” And, yes, we have a theater degree and no, we don’t get to use it very often.
6. “Oh yes, the past can hurt,” Rafiki tells Simba. “But you can either run from it or you can learn from it.” That’s one of the many lines that will stick with you after the final credits have finished scrolling to the top of the screen.
7. James Earl Jones couldn’t be a more majestic Mufasa. According to the directors, he was cast as the lead lion because they thought that his “powerful” voice was similar to a lion’s roar. It’s hard to argue with that. (And Mufasa was a much better dad than that Vader guy.)
8. The rest of the cast was one phenomenal ensemble, featuring the voice talents of Rowan Atkinson, Matthew Broderick, Robert Guillaume, Jeremy Irons, Nathan Lane and, of course, Jonathan Taylor Thomas at the peak of his Home Improvement power.
9. Scar was the most chilling villain of undetermined geographic origin since Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Through the superb voice work of Jeremy Irons and his unmistakable hiss, Scar was equal parts menace and sarcasm. And his signature song, “Be Prepared,” has to be the only Disney animated sequence that was based on a Nazi rally.
10. Mufasa’s death is one of the most devastating sequences in any film, animated or not. That scene where tiny Simba paws at his father’s cheek is the definition of heartbreak. And before we start weeping on our keyboard, let’s move on to…
11. Timon and Pumbaa are the kind of aimless, irresponsible friends that everyone needs when they’re trying to figure out what to do with their lives. When the film was being cast, Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella were working together in Guys & Dolls on Broadway. They apparently bumped into each other on the day of their audition, and decided to read together … for the parts of the hyenas. When the directors saw their hilarious chemistry together, they were immediately cast in those now-familiar roles.
12. We do love those hyenas, “dangling at the bottom of the food chain,” even though they caused the famine that almost wiped out the entire pride. But still! Their characterization as evil – if bumbling – henchmen was so offensive to one prominent hyena researcher that he sued Disney for defamation of character.
13. The 3D re-release came with a fantastic “blooper reel,” which includes several solid seconds of James Earl Jones trying to clear his throat. (That may or may not be our ringtone.)
14. It might be twenty years old, but the movie and its messages are timeless. Other than maybe Timon doing one or two Arsenio Hall-style whoops, there’s nothing that seems dated about it. (But that’s admittedly a hallmark of the best Disney movies, all the way back to its own Snow White, who still looks amazing at 76.)
15. You can’t mention The Lion King without thinking about its songs, written by Elton John and Tim Rice. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “Hakuna Matata” and “Circle of Life” were all nominated for Academy Awards. (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” won.) And to think that Tim Rice originally suggested working with ABBA, a collaboration that could’ve yielded something like “I Just Can’t Wait to Be Dancing Queen.
16. Although John’s version of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was the slow jam for every Homecoming dance in the fall of 1994, the cast’s own versions in the movie are equally fantastic. The highlight is Jason Weaver belting out “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” sounding like an “I’ll Be There”-era Michael Jackson in the process.
17. Those songs inspired the wildly successful Broadway musical, which sometimes makes an entire section of an airplane break into song. You know, just like in a musical!
18. Yes, we still laugh at the fart jokes. Despite all of our talk about Shakespearian regicide, we cackle like a leftover hyena when Pumbaa’s backside flattens an entire field of grass. (He was the first Disney character to fart onscreen. A TRUE PIONEER!) If you listen to the lyrics of “Hakuna Matata,” it’s more or less about how Pumbaa’s embarrassing large intestine led to his change in personal philosophy. So yeah, maybe don’t listen to those lyrics.
19. If you’re considering a Disney tattoo, you can’t beat Rafiki’s drawing of Simba, possibly with “Remember Who You Are” inked around it in a tasteful font.
20. The Lion King is so good that Frozen pretty much ripped it off. A stunning royal family torn apart by tragedy? Check. A hero who banishes himself (or herself) from the kingdom? Check. A musical number about being free from responsibility? Check. Seriously, Frozen?! LET IT GO.
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