25 Years Later, ‘The Lion King’ Is Still a Very Big Deal
This week sees the release of the long-awaited (?) remake of Disney’s The Lion King. Just over 25 years following the premiere of the animated original, this new version hasn’t delighted critics — few of these Disney remakes do — but that matters little when the box office predictions are so staggeringly high. A $150 - 180 million opening weekend is being predicted for the domestic release alone, and frankly, I’ll be shocked if this thing doesn’t gross over $1 billion. Out of the three Disney remakes with 2019 releases (Dumbo sorely disappointed in terms of its commercial performance while Aladdin outperformed cynical expectations), this is the one that felt like the safest bet for success. How could it not? Over a quarter of a century since it was first unleashed on the world, The Lion King is still a very big deal.
Let’s break down some numbers. The Lion King opened in 1994, became the highest-grossing movie of that year with a worldwide gross of over $763 million, and won an Oscar. Two straight-to-video movies followed, as well as an animated spin-off series on The Disney Channel. There have been multiple live shows and attractions dedicated to the franchise at Disney’s numerous theme parks. The musical is the third longest-running show in Broadway history, a winner of six Tony Awards, and officially the top-earning title in box-office history for both stage productions and films. As Forbes noted, the musical has made Disney more money than Star Wars.
On top of the commercial success, The Lion King was also a critical peak for the studio, at a time when they’d regained their artistic legitimacy during their much-vaunted ’90s renaissance following the darkness of the previous decade. It’s somewhat ironic because Disney didn’t have all that much hope in the movie when it was in production. Following the surprise success of Beauty and the Beast and its record-breaking feat of becoming the first animated film to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination, Disney was eager to finally snatch the top prize. The movie they thought would do it was Pocahontas. Yeah, really.
Production for both films started concurrently and most of Disney’s big-name animators went to work on Pocahontas since it was considered the more prestigious title. Of course the Academy would straighten up and listen with this movie. It was historical and spiritual and about America. The other movie was about talking cats, and the last time Disney had done that, they’d gotten Oliver and Company, which didn’t exactly set the world alight. Even people working on the film were skeptical of what it could be. The original script was heavily retooled but there were still concerns that audiences wouldn’t be up for what essentially amounted to Hamlet with lions. However, there were plenty of passionate animators on board and they had less scrutiny from the highers-up compared to the production of Pocahontas, so they could push the boundaries a little further.
Curiously, despite the obvious Hamlet comparisons, The Lion King was marketed heavily as the first ‘original’ Disney movie. This was the first time, the advertising claimed, that Disney had made an animated feature not adapted or inspired by a pre-existing work. It’s not derived from a fairy-tale or historical character or novel, that’s true, and the comparisons to Shakespeare’s work is more tenuous than a true adaptation. However, the ‘original’ brand is something that sticks in the throat of many a fan of Kimba the White Lion. It has been noted for many years how the classic anime, created by Osamu Tezuka (widely described by fans as the Japanese Walt Disney), bears an uncanny resemblance to The Lion King in numerous ways. It’s honestly pretty hard to overlook the startling similarities once you’re aware of them. The makers of The Lion King have long denied that this was intentional, and the directors even claimed they were completely unfamiliar with Kimba while making the movie, but the debates have continued and for good reason. It’s kind of weird to talk up how proud you are of your first ‘original’ movie when it’s both rooted in Shakespeare and someone else’s copyrighted work.
But despite all this, the popularity and fan adoration of The Lion King endures. Whether you can overlook all that baggage or not is relative, but the final product is truly some of Disney’s most stunning work. The opening scene alone, which the studio smartly turned into the movie’s first trailer, is a soaring achievement. It’s a film suitably Shakespearean in mood, one that has some of Disney’s funniest moments as well as its most emotionally devastating. A deceptively simple movie, The Lion King is chock full of emotion and character and real stakes that stir the souls of children and adults alike. Disney has never had problems writing good music for their movies, but that triple-threat combination of Hans Zimmer, Elton John, and Tim Rice produced some of their most memorable. There’s not a simple dud number on there, and the score alone is easily top five Zimmer (his work on the film was so beloved that Terrence Malick approached Zimmer to work on The Thin Red Line because he loved it so much).
What makes The Lion King so timeless is the animation. There are moments of such aching detail here that ensure the film never loses its dramatic punch. Think of the scene where Mufasa rescues Simba from the hyenas and you see every conflicting emotion on his face: Guilt, shame, a touch of petulance, and true adoration for his father. Or look at how Scar’s weary uncle routine barely disguises his withering condescension towards his nephew, who remains oblivious to his true intent. Or check out the movement of Rafiki, both gangly and graceful.
Disney’s animation studio gained the acclaim it did for its refusal to cut corners, especially during times when cartoons often looked more like static images than moving pictures. This is a studio that takes the medium seriously as a storytelling tool and refuses to relegate it to second place next to live-action. There are things you can do in animation that you can’t do elsewhere (like, oh, say, photo-realistic CGI), and you see that in full force in The Lion King. You believe every second of that story because the animation allows you to invest in these characters and their plight. That’s one of the reasons this remake has proven so disheartening. There are things you just can’t do with CGI that’s striving for hyper-realism over expressiveness. There’s no wonder there, and the original is full of it.
It feels reductive at best to compare the original and remake in terms of ‘art versus business’ because that’s just not how any studio works, much less the House of Mouse. However, there is a reason so many fans of The Lion King feel kind of burned by this new one. That potent combination of story, style, character, music, and emotion would not have worked had the animation been bad, or if it had prized realism over creativity. But moaning about the live-action remake problem of Disney is an endless cycle that only serves to remind us of why they exist in the first place: To remind audiences how good the original products were (and also to make money, obviously). In that aspect, The Lion King remake does its job, and it will ensure another twenty-five years of love for that property. Of course, the original was perfectly capable of doing that on its own.
Header Image Source: YouTube // Disney