Want to feel old? ‘The Lion King’, the Disney animation beloved the world over, is 20 years old this week.
That’s right, two entire decades have passed since Simba and friends frolicked in the African plains; since the film debuted in cinemas in 1994, we’ve seen a Broadway musical, two straight-to-video sequels and an entire internet’s worth of YouTube videos where people hold their kittens up in the air to ‘The Circle Of Life’.
We’re celebrating 20 years of ‘The Lion King’ with 20 things you probably didn’t know about Disney’s epic.
The Lion’s Share
Until it was recently trumped by ‘Toy Story 3’ and ‘Frozen’, ‘The Lion King’ was the highest-grossing animation of all time – and it’s still the highest-grossing hand-animated movie in history. ‘The Lion King’ is the only film from the 20th century in the Top 25 most successful animations ever made (‘Aladdin’ is next at #30), and unless there’s a huge upswing in VHS sales any time soon, it’ll always hold the prestigious honour of being the best-selling home video of all time, with 55 million copies sold around the world.
To Roar, Or Not To Roar
Literary types will already know that ‘The Lion King’ takes vast swathes of inspiration from William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ – the murdered king, the heir apparent in exile, the coming of age and revenge plot – but did you know it was also influenced by Ancient Egyptian Osirian mythology? Bonus fact: the video ‘sidequel’, ‘The Lion King 1 ½’, is effectively an adaptation of the ‘Hamlet’ comedy spin-off ‘Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead’, with Timon and Pumbaa telling their side of the story.
Simba vs Kimba
The film was received well all over the world, except in Japan, where Disney faced a backlash. The controversy was due to eerie similarities to a popular Japanese animation called ‘Kimba: The White Lion’, which also featured a lion cub who loses a parent and who has a baboon mentor. ‘The Lion King’ voice actor Matthew Broderick even assumed that Disney were adapting Kimba for Western audiences: “I kept telling everybody I was going to play Kimba. I didn’t really know anything about it, but I didn’t really care.” So that’s okay then. Luckily, Kimba creator Osamu Suzuki didn’t sue because he was flattered by Disney’s mimicry, which they still deny to this day.
Listen to Elton
If you hire Elton John to provide music for your movie, make sure you actually put it in the movie. When John was invited to a special screening mere months before ‘The Lion King’ opened, he was put out to notice that his song, ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’, had been left out. Elton lobbied – and by lobbied, we mean held his breath and threw a tantrum – to have it reinstated, and Disney relented. At the 1995 Academy Awards, the song won the Oscar for Best Original Song, and Elton won the award for World’s Smuggest Man.
Scar’s From The Past
Disney don’t skimp when it comes to demonising their villains, so for Jeremy Irons’ bad guy Scar, they went full Hitler. Look closely during Scar’s musical number ‘Be Prepared’ and you’ll notice that Scar’s army appear to be goosestepping like Nazis, while Scar himself is watching from up on high, elevated on a large perch, as favoured by Adolf. The markings on the side of the rock are also suspiciously Swastika-like in design.
What’s in a Name?
Ever wondered how the characters of ‘The Lion King’ got their names? Well, if you thought ‘Simba’ was just a straight rip-off of ‘Kimba’, think again – it’s actually the Swahili word for ‘Lion’. All of the character’s names mean something in Swahili: ‘Rafiki’ means ‘Comrade’; Pumbaa means ‘Ignorant’ or ‘Lazy’; ‘Shenzi’ means ‘Savage’; ‘Nala’ means ‘Gift’. Timon is one of the only characters whose name doesn’t translate in Swahili, but that’s because it’s a reference to another Shakespeare play, ‘Timon Of Athens’.
If you want an example of how detail-oriented Disney’s animators are, look no further than the scene in which Mufasa explains to his son Simba that the stars in the sky are all old kings. Any astronomers who follow Simba’s gaze might recognise the constellation of Leo in the night sky, plain as day. See what they did there? Leo? Lions? The Lion Ki- Oh, never mind.
Livin’ on a Plain
Disney’s animators were shipped to Africa to study real lions in the wild. They’d tie a long rope to the back of their Jeep and witness the behaviour of the small cubs who’d chase it down the road and bat it around. However, one aspect of ‘The Lion King”s visuals wasn’t documented from the wild – it was taken from MTV. Reportedly, adult Simba’s luscious hair was inspired by none other than Jon Bovi Jovi, who rocks a mullet that could easily pass for a lion’s mane on the African plain.
Bizarrely, ‘The Lion King’ is not the first film in which actors James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair played an African King and Queen. In addition to their (voice) roles as Mufasa and Sarabi, the pair also starred together in ‘Coming To America’ in 1998, playing King Jaffe Joffer and Queen Aoleon of Zamunda, parents to Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem.
The movie’s centrepiece, the tragic death of Mufasa in a wildebeest stampede, proved to be exceptionally difficult for Disney’s CG animators. The technology was still in its infancy, meaning the scene took over three years to animate fully, without the individual creatures bumping into one another. The scene is two and a half minutes long, which means every second of footage took over a week to be completed.
Long gone are the days when films were animated by a small room of inkers, painters and colourers: Disney employed more than 600 artists, animators and technicians to create ‘The Lion King’. Approximately one million reference drawings were produced over the movie’s lifespan, with over a thousand hand-painted backgrounds created along with 119,058 individually-coloured frames of film.
Disney have done a pretty good job of keeping their squeaky clean reputation intact over the years, but ‘The Lion King’ did represent their first slip into unpleasant territory: toilet humour. Believe it or not, but Pumbaa the warthog was the first character in Disney history to ever fart on film: before 1994, no Disney character had ever experienced flatulence in a movie. ‘Squeaky clean’ was perhaps not an appropriate term to use in this case. Parp.
An Ignominious End
Villain Scar dies at the hands – or rather jaws – of the hyenas he betrayed, but that wasn’t the end of him. At least, not quite. Eagle-eyed viewers watching Disney’s 1997 animation ‘Hercules’ might have spotted a familiar looking throw rug on the floor: granted, one of the 12 tasks of Hercules was to slay the Nemean Lion, but what are the chances it’d have the exact same scar over one eye? Think back to ‘The Lion King’ and remember what Mufasa sees in Scar’s future: “He’d make a very handsome throw rug”. He did!
They Ain’t Lion
The script went through many different passes before it was whittled down to a manageable, kid-friendly length. Characters from the original screenplay who fell by the wayside included a lion cub named Mee-Too, a sarcastic bat-eared fox and a rhinoceros with a tickbird on his back. In subsequent drafts, the tickbird eventually became wise-cracking subservient hornbill, Zazu.
Zazu Are You?
When casting the voice of Zazu, Disney tapped up every classic British comedian they could think of: at one point or another, all five surviving members of Monty Python were touted, as were all three members of The Goodies (Bill Oddie would have LOVED playing a bird) and The Two Ronnies, Barker and Corbett. Eventually, Disney settled on rubber-faced funnyman Rowan Atkinson after episodes of ‘Mr Bean’ were shown on US TV.
Internally, Disney referred to what would eventually become ‘The Lion King’ as “Bambi in Africa” – it was known by some inside the company as ‘Bamlet’, in reference to the Shakespearean overtones. The movie’s original working title in 1986 was ‘King Of The Jungle’, except the production team realised before long that lions don’t actually live in the jungle. Despite this faux pas, there are still items of official Disney ‘Lion King’ merchandise that bear the phrase ‘King of the Jungle’. Have they learned NOTHING?
The Name’s Mufasa…
It’s hard to think of anyone else providing Mufasa’s booming, majestic voice other than James Earl Jones, but Disney originally had a bigger name in mind: they pursued none other than Sean Connery for the role. Maybe Connery turned them down, or maybe they objected to his voiceover role in blatant Aladdin rip-off ‘The Princess And The Cobbler’ in 1993, but the former Bond was not deemed to be a good fit for Mufasa and James Earl Jones – the voice of Darth Vader, no less – got the gig.
Having successfully avoided a lawsuit regarding the similarities with ‘Kimba: The White Lion’, Disney found themselves staring down the barrel of legal action from the most unlikely of sources: an animal biologist. The specialist, who was primarily a hyena researcher, sued Disney for defamation of character, claiming that the animals were unfairly portrayed as villains. Another behavioural expert, who offered advice to animators during production, led a boycott of the movie, which obviously worked a treat, which is why nobody has heard of ‘The Lion King’ and you’re reading a blank page.
Think you know all the songs from ‘The Lion King’ off by heart? Including the opening African chant? Unless you own the rare ‘Rhythm Of The Pride Lands’ companion CD, you’re missing out on the total Elton John/Tim Rice ‘Lion King’ experience. An extra song for Timon and Pumbaa, titled Warthog Rhapsody, was recorded, but though the sequence was storyboarded, it was dropped from the movie and subsequently never animated. Bonus music fact: ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ was originally a Timon and Pumbaa duet.
The B Team
Disney were working on another movie, ‘Pocahontas’, at the same time as ‘The Lion King’, and as such, they split their resources. With the benefit of hindsight, it might seem a strange decision that they considered ‘Pocahontas’ to be the most important and commercially viable film of the two, but Disney gave preference to the historical epic and ‘The Lion King’ was considered a side project. 20 years later, and ‘The Lion King’ is one of the most successful movies ever made. ‘Pocahontas’? Not so much.
Happy birthday ‘The Lion King’!