02nd Aug2019

Retrospective: The Lion King (1994)

by Xenia Grounds

WARNING: I expect it’s unlikely but if you haven’t seen The Lion King then this retrospective contains massive spoilers.


To say that The Lion King is a classic Disney movie feels like an understatement. It’s widely considered one of the best movies that Disney has ever made. When it comes to the films made during the Disney renaissance then this is the one that probably defined that era the most. Recently, The Lion King has become the latest in a long line to receive the live-action (or CGI) treatment. Reactions to this adaptation has been mixed to say the least. I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t give a proper opinion on it but from what I hear, it’s practically the same as the animation except more visually stunning for this generation of moviegoers. I’ll go out on a limb and theorise that its lack of new additions is also the reason for the mixed reception. That said, it would be hard to change or add anything new to The Lion King without risking making a LOT of people angry in the process as many hold this movie very close to their hearts.

The story is timeless because it’s one that has similar themes which have been seen for centuries: Life, Loss, Death, Grief and Love to name a few. The Lion King has a Shakespearian tone to its tale and part of the reason for this is because it was inspired by Hamlet. You can see the similarities especially with Mufusa’s unfortunate fate and the brother (Scar) who wants to be King at any cost. The part that really made the movie so impactful is Mufusa’s death. Deceased parents are a common thread in Disney movies but it’s rarely done as tragically as Mufusa’s was. You see it play out in horrifying detail and it’s a moment that forever sticks in the mind after seeing it. Seeing young Simba find his father’s corpse and try to wake him up in vain is a scene filled with incredible raw emotion and it’s far from the last one in the movie. If you manage to get through The Lion King without wanting to cry then you are made of steel.

When I was a child, this was the first movie that I saw which really dealt with death. I thought that Mufusa would come back and much to my surprise, they never copped out and found a deus ex machina to bring him back to life. It’s great that Disney had the courage to do that because it doesn’t cheapen death and tells kids that it is permanent, and it can be sudden. That grief haunts Simba for much of the movie even after he meets Timon and Puumba. Those characters serve as great comic relief after the famous Stampede scene and Mufusa’s passing but you never truly forget that it happened like Simba does. Ultimately, it does come to a head with the ‘Remember Who You Are’ scene which to this day still gives me goosebumps. As our favourite monkey shaman says ‘The past can hurt but you can either run from it or learn from it.’ After much running, Simba decides to do the latter and seeing him come to that decision with an African choir singing in the background will leave you with a massive smile on your face.

As I’m on the subject of Africa, let’s talk about the visuals. Now I am half-African and have spent time in that continent and I can say with absolute certainty that The Lion King captures the beauty of African nature incredibly well. This is a little personal tangent but the reason why my mum was convinced to watch The Lion King was because she recognised that it took place in her homeland which is something that always stuck with me is her face lighting up at the sight of African wildlife. The movie has stunning uses of colour and shading which is made clear from the first ten seconds with that sunrise which starts ‘Circle of Life’. There is so much famous imagery that I can’t even begin to list them all. The stampede sequence, elephant graveyard, the sunlight beaming on Pride Rock, the baby Simba being held up for the whole Savannah to see and Simba climbing up the peak of Pride Rock in the rain. It’s all very striking and each is accompanied by a gorgeous musical score which escalates those images into some of the most inspiring pieces of animation that has ever been made.

The music in The Lion King is also incredible from that instantly memorable opening vocal from ‘Circle of Life’ which opens and closes the movie to make everything come full-circle. The upbeat ‘Can’t Wait to Be King’, the glamorously villainous ‘Be Prepared’ (which I hear isn’t in the live-action), the infectiously catchy ‘Hakuna Matata’ and last but certainly not least is the sweeping romantic ballad ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight?’

It’s truly hard to find the words to describe how influential The Lion King was and it’s a pinnacle that Disney has not managed to come close to touching since. There are definitely many movies worthy of high acclaim in Disney’s vault but to paraphrase a song: ‘The Lion King lives in you. It lives in me.’


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