The Journey Of 'The Lion King' From A "Shambles" To One Of The Biggest Movies Of All Time

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today's column, he discusses the 1994 film The Lion King.)

The date is November 12, 1993. People headed to their local multiplex on that Friday night to see Disney's latest live-action adventure, an adaptation of The Three Musketeers, but they likely walked out not thinking about a new cinematic take on Alexandre Dumas' yarn. They might instead have been more thrilled by one of the trailers in front of the film, for the studio's latest animated venture. This extended trailer wasn't even a standard-issue ad; it was a full four-minute scene, with no dialogue and a soaring song called "Circle of Life" blaring on the soundtrack as animals from the African plains bowed down before a lion cub who would one day be their king. 

The first trailer for The Lion King was goosebump-inducing and immediately unforgettable. It suggested that Walt Disney Animation Studios was about to top itself once more with a lushly detailed, colorful depiction of life in the African jungles. This single-scene trailer promised an epic adventure to be released just seven months later. Upon release in the summer of 1994, this animated epic would go onto become one of the biggest box-office successes of all time.

But in November of 1993, The Lion King was, as its own producer would later describe, "in a shambles". They were lucky to get it finished at all.

More to Do Than Can Ever Be Done

As was the case with other films of the Disney Renaissance, The Lion King first began life in the 1980s as production ramped up at Walt Disney Animation Studios. In the run-up to the release of Oliver & Company, executives Roy E. Disney, Peter Schneider, and Jeffrey Katzenberg began envisioning the next spate of titles the studio could release. In particular, the notion of a story about a lion cub struck Katzenberg's fancy. (Katzenberg has since acknowledged, via a behind-the-scenes documentary on the Blu-ray, that he pushed for elements in the story that reflected his own coming of age.) The coming-of-age idea, focusing squarely on an animal as it grows to become one of the most powerful creatures in its domain, had its roots as much in Katzenberg's own interest in wildlife as it did in Disney's initially scorned, but now-justifiably beloved 1942 classic Bambi. (That film was, in the 1940s, dinged by critics for being too naturalistic, a complaint that feels ironic to consider now.)

What became The Lion King was first called King of the Jungle, and was radically different at the outset. Per some of the behind-the-scenes Blu-ray featurettes, the earliest iterations of the story featured a battle between lions and baboons, the latter group led by the character who would eventually become Scar. In this version, Rafiki the mandrill was a cheetah, and the characters who turned into the gregarious Timon and Pumbaa were Simba's childhood friends. And, most importantly, King of the Jungle, then being helmed by George Scribner, the director of Oliver & Company, was not a musical.

But the doors were revolving frequently on the production of King of the Jungle. Scribner was given a co-director, Roger Allers (who had previously been the lead story artist on Beauty and the Beast), while producer Thomas Schumacher joined the project after production concluded on The Rescuers Down Under. Scribner's refusal to turn the story into a musical was largely what led to him being removed from the project and replaced with Rob Minkoff. (After Oliver, Scribner directed the Mickey Mouse short The Prince and the Pauper as well as the theme-park attraction Mickey's PhilharMagic. He received an "additional story material" credit on The Lion King.) Minkoff, who had directed two short films featuring Roger Rabbit, was joined by another major part of the success of Beauty and the Beast, Academy Award-nominated producer Don Hahn. 

Hahn saw in the current story of King of the Jungle something vastly more unfocused and muddled than what it should have been. Character motivations, types, and just about everything down to the title were changed. And yes, The Lion King would become a musical. But even with the eventual inclusion of lyricist Tim Rice, fresh off writing songs for Aladdin, and composer Elton John, The Lion King was a risk. As Hahn noted in an interview, "Doing a movie about Africa, doing a movie with no humans. A movie with Elton John, who hadn't really written a musical before. It was seen as an experiment."

Internally, there was extreme doubt about whether the experiment would pay off. Katzenberg reportedly said that he would get down on his knees in pleasure if the film made just $50 million at the box office. But it wasn't just executives who were skeptical. The story goes that animators fresh off the success of Aladdin were given two projects to choose from to work on next: either the film that would become The Lion King, or a star-crossed romance that also served as a retelling of how English settlers arrived in American and interacted with its natives. 

Almost every animator wanted to work on Pocahontas.

The Chance of a Lifetime

Doubts were strong among animators, those on the project and those who had sidestepped it, that the film that would be King was ever going to be worth a damn. For Brenda Chapman, the head of story, she was concerned that the story wasn't going to be any good. Burny Mattinson, one of the stalwarts from the 70s, reportedly told fellow animators that no one would ever see the movie.

It's not entirely uncommon to see this level of skepticism among animators, at least because it's not remotely uncommon for animated features to look radically different early in their multi-year development. It's become a commonality at studios like Pixar, for example, that what a story starts as is rarely what it concludes as. Films like Toy Story, WALL-E, and Finding Nemo are beloved in their final forms, but were radically rewritten, reconceived, and sometimes even recast throughout their years of production.

The Lion King had similar changes both in front of and behind the screen. In 2002, Matthew Broderick recounted in The New York Times upon The Lion King's IMAX re-release that holiday season that he'd been hired three years before the film's initial release, and would sporadically record dialogue for his part. The only time he ever recorded with another actor — even now, it's rare for actors to work in the same recording studio together for voice work in animated features — was with the actress who played the adult lioness Nala, an old friend and love interest for Broderick's lead, the grown lion Simba. Except he didn't record with Moira Kelly, who did play Nala in the finished product. He recorded with another, unnamed actress. Only at the film's premiere did Broderick realize his on-screen counterpart had a new love interest.

The film we know now as The Lion King only started coming together when Hahn joined the production; he worked with Chapman, Allers, Minkoff, and Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, the directing team behind Beauty and the Beast to streamline the film into something coherent and entertaining. The version of the story familiar to audiences worldwide, tracking the ascent of the lion cub Simba to the throne of Pride Rock, is what they ended up reworking further with two of the film's credited screenwriters, Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts. (Linda Woolverton of Beauty and the Beast is the other credited writer, but was reportedly only responsible for the earliest version of the story.) 

But the writing process took a long enough time, as it encompassed rewrites upon rewrites. As he described in Allan Neuwirth's book Makin' Toons, Andreas Deja, the supervising animator for the villainous Scar, was constantly, understandably flustered by the rewrites: "...you would animate a twenty-foot scene, and [then hear], 'Well, we just went over the reels and the dialogue has changed. You can keep half the scene, but the second half has to be re-animated.'"

Enemies Beware

Deja was one of many key animators on the project, tasked with bringing to life a character who would end up morphing somewhat thanks to his performer. Coming off his Academy Award victory as the accused-murderer socialite Claus Von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune, Jeremy Irons was cast to play Scar, the embittered and selfish brother to the king of the jungle, the powerful Mufasa (played by the owner of one of the most powerful and stentorian voices in the industry, James Earl Jones). Irons—reticent to work in animation so soon after vaulting to the top of the A-List—delivered a sly performance that is, along with Deja's masterful animation, what makes Scar such a devious villain. As Hahn recalled in The Los Angeles Times in advance of the film's release, sometimes Deja's animation would have to change based on the way Irons delivered a single word. 

In the brief calm before the storm when Scar and the hyenas manipulate a herd of wildebeest to stampede, thus murdering Mufasa, Scar tries to keep Simba placated on a rock (in the hopes that he too would be killed in the melee), explaining that Mufasa has something planned for him. "You know, a father-son...thing," the dry Scar drawls. Irons is the one who chose to leave a brief pause near the end of that line and barely spit out the word "thing" in disdain. It's a vocal choice that's visualized by Scar almost literally tossing the word out of his mouth with his paw, flinging it away dismissively at the thought of parent-son bonding. The character animation on Scar, especially, is very strong, often recalling Irons' work in films like Damage and Reversal. As Irons was working at the top of his game, so too was Deja (who was by this point known as a great animator of villains, having led the charge on both Gaston and Jafar).

That same article includes Hahn talking about one of the more notable elements of The Lion King: that it was the first film without the presence of mankind from Disney Animation in a long time. Prior to The Lion King, the last in-canon feature without the presence of man was Robin Hood in 1973, but even that had deliberately anthropomorphized animals in environments meant to replicate the trappings of mankind. You have to go as far back as the original Bambi for a film that doesn't feature on screen anything from the human world like buildings, or even doors. (Since The Lion King, only the officially-in-canon Dinosaur, which wasn't produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios itself, counts as an animated film with no human presence and little anthropomorphization.) 

It's a challenge that the animators were eventually able to capture with relish, but one that took time to iron out. "There are no props or costumes or sets so it's really limiting for the animators," Hahn said then. "I remember at the story meetings pulling out our hair, because there was no 'business'!...There were rocks and more rocks, and when you went over there, there was some grass."

As scary as that was, the 1993 trailer that went over like gangbusters was equally terrifying. Years later, Hahn would say, "The response was so effusive, it scared us. We thought, 'How's it ever going to live up to this? We've made a terrible mistake by starting the film at this level, because all we can do is go down!'" As much as the animation — which wasn't remotely photorealistic, even in the opening sequence — impressed audiences, the song "Circle of Life", performed by Carmen Twillie and a chorus led by Lebo M chanting African phrases, stood out thanks to the unique team behind its composition, Tim Rice and Elton John.

Kings and Vagabonds

Rice had been brought onto the production of Aladdin after the untimely and tragic death of lyricist Howard Ashman; his work on "A Whole New World" netted him and composer Alan Menken the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Rice, in sticking with The Lion King, went to John to see if he'd be willing to join the production as the composer of a handful of songs. Though John was then, and still is, best associated for his exemplary pop music with lyricist Bernie Taupin, he agreed to work on the project despite some trepidation. As he described in Billboard in 1997, "I mean, I was sitting there at the piano and I was thinking, 'I'm writing a song about a fucking warthog; this is the end of my career! And I just burst out laughing."

John and Rice only did work on the handful of songs in the film, from Scar's ode to his future villainy, "Be Prepared"; to the tender ballad "Can You Feel The Love Tonight?", which nearly got stuck on the cutting-room floor. Hahn has talked about how, at one point, the ballad was removed from the film without anyone telling John or Rice; when the former realized as much at a screening, he was apoplectic, pointing out to Katzenberg that the problem wasn't the song, but "your dumb movie". 

It's at this point that it's worth acknowledging something: The Lion King, in spite of being one of the most fantastically successful films from the Walt Disney Company at the box office (both movie and Broadway theaters, that is), is not the studio's best work. The animation in the film is quite thrilling; 25 years later, the hand-drawn animation holds up exquisitely well, and the utilization of computer animation for the terrifying sequence in which the wildebeest herd stampede and inadvertently take out Mufasa is remarkable. The story, however, has a structure that both is reminiscent of its Renaissance-era predecessors and speaks to the disjointed storytelling process.

Talk About Your Fixer-Upper

The premise of the film apes Bambi as much as it's inspired by William Shakespeare's Hamlet: we watch the coming of age of an animal who will eventually become king of all he sees. Here, Simba begins his story as a much cockier kid (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas at the height of his fame on ABC's Home Improvement). The bombastic and colorful show-stopper "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" is both a bouncy musical number and a sign that the kid might need to be taken down a peg or two. Eventually, his kindly father is killed because Scar wants to amass power, and the nefarious lion guilts Simba into believing that it's he who is responsible for Mufasa's death. Simba then runs off only to be brought up by proxy by the comic-relief characters Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and Timon (Nathan Lane), living out the "Hakuna Matata" lifestyle until Simba's past comes calling after he's fully grown.

The Lion King, like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin before it, takes a little while longer to get to the turning point of its story than you might expect. There are many reasons why, just 18 months later, the arrival of a new animation studio with Pixar felt like a sea change. One standout reason is arguably that the 1995 feature Toy Story has an expertly constructed script, whereas a number of Disney animated films of the era have screenplays that seem to wait a while to get going, even if the overall picture is wonderful. It takes roughly half of The Little Mermaid for Ariel to a) trade her fins for legs and b) lose her voice. It takes just over a half-hour for Aladdin to meet the Genie. And here, we don't meet the adult Simba until halfway through the 88-minute runtime, seeing as Mufasa's death occurs after the half-hour mark.

The lumpiness of the script is more present here, in part because the emotional machination is a little tougher to buy. Scar's plans make sense, in that it's clear why he's planning what he's planning. His initial idea is scuttled, though, when Simba survives the stampede, thus making him resort to a Plan B, wherein he pins the blame (as kindly as he can — his viciousness isn't clear to young Simba) on Mufasa's death on the lion cub. That Simba would immediately accept that he has to run away from his problems, also, makes a modicum of sense. The problem of this emotional manipulation doesn't become clear until the finale: a grown Simba has returned to Pride Rock to dethrone Scar and take his rightful place as the new leader. In doing so, though, Scar realizes that not even a grown Nala is aware of Simba's "role" in his father's death. When Scar reveals as much, Simba's mother Sarabi is horrified, which only works if you move past the fact that no one would actually blame their son for the father's death in this manner.

It's just as well, since Simba immediately finds out what the audience has known for a while, that Scar literally dropped Mufasa to his death, and turns the tables. (There's no time in the fiery climax for anyone to ask questions or ponder the details of the Greek tragedy of this whole thing.) The Lion King mostly makes emotional sense, enough so that you're not constantly asking questions about the logic of the story. But as much as Irons and Broderick do their best to make the dialogue work, it all feels fairly ramshackle, the product of constant rewriting.

And yet, the odd balance of grandeur that's present in "Circle of Life" and elsewhere in The Lion King is well-balanced by a distinct, anachronistic sense of silliness. (As grim as Scar's rule over Pride Rock is, when he begs the imprisoned bird Zazu to not sing the Disney earworm "It's A Small World", it's a very weird yet somehow funny gag.) The mix of darkness and humor is a strange blend, but one that largely works. Even before Scar maneuvers events to kill his brother, he's a funny character, and the other characters have a distinct, lived-in sense, too. As impossible as it may be to consider, what makes The Lion King so entertaining even amidst its flaws is that it doesn't take itself too seriously.

You Have No Idea

The final product arrived in mid-June of 1994, and became a worldwide phenomenon. While it couldn't claim the title of highest-grossing film of the year, as Aladdin did in 1992, that's only because The Lion King opened a few weeks before the similar phenom Forrest Gump. But the animated film opened with nearly $41 million, the highest opening weekend for any Disney feature to date. Its overall domestic take, from its first release, was over $310 million. Combining its other releases, in both IMAX and 3-D, the movie has grossed nearly $425 million domestically.

There were, and continue to be, some controversies associated with the film, from its depiction of violence – unlike in Bambi, you get a pretty clear sense of Mufasa being killed – to its presentation of racial stereotypes with hyenas voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin. Its most particular scandal, at least to animation buffs, surrounds a claim of plagiarism. The Japanese animated show Kimba the White Lion from the 1960s is not remotely as popular as The Lion King is, but a number of elements of the show (down to the obviously similar-sounding name of the lead character, also a lion) led some critics to wonder if Disney had just pilfered another source for its big hit. 

Allers and Minkoff have both publicly said they had no knowledge of Kimba before The Lion King was released. But some of the animators did admit having watched the show, even if there was no conscious copying on their part. And the controversy made its way, in sly form, into The Simpsons a year later, as a Lion King riff included a Mufasa-like character saying "Kimba" instead of "Simba".

That controversy aside (as well as a just moderately rapturous critical reaction), The Lion King was an unavoidable force of nature throughout the 1990s. At the Oscars, it was unsurprisingly dominant with four nominations – three for its songs (winning for "Can You Feel the Love Tonight") and one for its score by Hans Zimmer. (Fun fact: Zimmer's win for this film is the only Oscar he's ever gotten. Though he's made many memorable scores since, his richly detailed, epic work here is among his very finest compositions.) And after the success of Beauty and the Beast on stage, The Lion King became the next Broadway-bound Disney title. Amazingly enough, Schumacher and theatrical director Julie Taymor were able to reinvent the story so that a film with no humans could turn into a stage show with only humans, telling the same story without really telling the same story.

No Worries

That, of course, brings us to the summer of 2019, when the notion of telling this story all over again is hard to ignore. This is thanks to the recent release of...The Lion King, a computer-animated remake (or a "virtual production" or a "photo-real movie" depending on which PR line you read from Disney's marketing machine) that tells the story of the 1994 film, often down to using the same dialogue and, in one case, literally casting the same actor. Jon Favreau's film, utilizing much of the same technology and style as his remake of The Jungle Book, is bad in ways that only serve to heighten what makes the animated film works.

The Lion King (1994) is deliberately not a photorealistic production. The animals never look like the real thing, because they're never supposed to. The film's fourth-wall-breaking jokes (such as Timon stopping Pumbaa from saying the word "farted", looking at the camera and snapping, "Pumbaa! Not in front of the kids!") enhance the unreal qualities of its story. So too do the musical sequences, as they indulge in colorful fantasias and, in the case of "Be Prepared", deliberately fascistic imagery recalling Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. What makes The Lion King (1994) special is that it is not tethered to the real world, even without the presence of humans.

The presence of humans is unavoidable in the new film, because no matter how real-looking the animals on screen are when they're walking around, the sense of off-screen manipulation is present. And the decision to make the animals look like real animals is misguided because it misses so much about why the original film is so charming. As mentioned above, the character animation for Scar, or Mufasa, or young Simba, or Rafiki is so distinct; just as the celebrity performers bring personality to their work, so too did the countless animators who worked on each facial movement, each eyebrow raise, each slump, each pounce, and each attack. The personality of The Lion King is absent, except when the new versions of Timon and Pumbaa are on screen, and that's entirely thanks to boisterous voice work by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. 

But The Lion King endures. The animated film, that is. The hand-drawn animated film, that is. Hindsight being 20/20, we can laugh at how everyone from animators to executives saw the film as a surefire flop when it ended up as the exact opposite. And we can laugh at how animators preferred working on a film that would engender vastly more controversy when it opened the following summer. 

All that said, The Lion King has a strangely timeless quality in its treatment of the vast expanses of Africa, married with a relatable story about a kid destined for greatness but unable to grapple with it until it's almost too late. For all the film's storytelling hiccups (some of which the 2019 remake attempts to fix, only serving to highlight how smoothly the original moved past those hiccups), its mix of bombast and flash, of high drama and low humor, was a peak for Disney.

And it's a peak that the studio would not be able to match again in the Renaissance, though they wouldn't realize it for years.

***

Next Time: Travel just around the riverbend with a Native American princess.