Length: 89 minutes
Release Date: June 24, 1994
Directed by: Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
Genre: Animation / Adventure / Drama
“The Lion King” succeeds, as so many other classic stories do, by transporting the audience to a faraway land while still developing characters that are familiar and comfortable for the audience. Additionally, as with most Disney films released from 2000 to 2008, during the “Disney Renaissance Period,” the film speaks to the entire audience. Instead of simply targeting young children, producer Don Hahn and directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff made a film that is entertaining for parents as well.
“The Lion King” is simultaneously a classic hero tale and a coming of age story. The plot centers around a young lion cub named Simba. Because Simba’s father, Mufasa, is the king of the jungle, Simba is in line to become the next king. This means that Mufasa’s brother, Scar, is no longer heir to the throne. Scar, being the classic antagonist, plots to kill the father and son so that he can become the new king. Scar conspires with the hyenas, kills Mufasa and nearly kills Simba. Scar blames Simba for Mufasa’s death, breaking young Simba’s heart even more. Simba ventures out on his own, crippled by his sadness and shame. Eventually, with the help of some friends he meets along the way, Simba returns home to challenge Scar and take his rightful place as king of the jungle.
Unlike many films with archetypal storylines, “The Lion King” does not feel recycled. This is due in large part to the unusual characters of the piece, which features lions, hyenas and meerkats, but it also comes from the actors’ vibrant performances. A brief glance at the cast, assembled by Brian Chavanne, shows that the film’s producers were serious about making a premiere film. “The Lion King” stars many Hollywood heavyweights, such as Mathew Broderick as mature Simba, James Earl Jones as the mighty Mufasa, and Jeremy Irons as Simba’s evil uncle, Scar. Funnyman Nathan Lane plays the wisecracking meerkat, Timon, while Ernie Sabella provides the voice for his partner in crime, Pumbaa. Jonathan Taylor Thomas provides the voice for young Simba, while Niketa Calame provides the voice for young Nala. Once grown up, Nala’s voice is acted by Moira Kelly.
As with most Disney films, “The Lion King” is stuffed with family-friendly comedy. While the entire ensemble elicits chuckles and laughs throughout the film, the bulk of the comedic heavy lifting is accomplished through Timon, the meerkat, and Pumbaa, the warthog. From their warm and fuzzy anthem, “Hakuna Matata” (no worries), to their slapstick antics, the two tickle the audience’s funny bone to great effect.
Compassion and Catharsis
Eventually, Simba returns home to face his problems, revealing the kind of integrity and bravery that ensures every member of the audience is rooting for him. While young audience members appreciate the courage necessary to face a scary, older foe, the adults appreciate Simba’s willingness to do the right thing, when he does not have to do so. Even upon reaching the end of his journey, and having the chance to give in to his anger and kill Scar, Simba has compassion. Simba listens to Scar’s story and attempts to blame the hyenas for his father’s death, ultimately deciding to let Scar live. At this point, some of the more cynical audience members may feel deprived of justice. After all, Scar killed Simba’s father and tried to kill him as well. It seems as though Scar is getting off easy, even though Simba banishes him from their homelands. The filmmakers rescue the audience here, as Scar tries to kill Simba, even after he was granted mercy. Simba prevails, pushing Scar off the cliff. Scar survives the fall, but the hyenas greet him with snarling teeth, and Scar ultimately dies. With these twists and turns, the filmmakers allow the audience to share in the vindication Simba feels, without feeling guilty about Scar’s death, because the hyenas, rather than Simba, actually killed him.
Above all else, “The Lion King” is an emotional journey that whisks the audience far away, to an unfamiliar world, only to return them 89 minutes later, feeling better for the journey. From the moment the audience meets Simba, they become emotionally invested in his journey. By the time he emerges as the victor, the audience has become so enmeshed in his adventure, the elation is personal. Most films that elicit this type of connection with its target audience are special. “The Lion King” transcends even this, as it connects with two completely different target audiences simultaneously.
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