The Lion King's Directors Had To Fight Disney To Keep Disco Out Of The Movie

I've watched babies who have yet to speak their first words sit in front of a TV or an iPad and break into laughter as they watch cartoons. Every time, I ask myself: How are they laughing when they don't even understand what's going on? I wonder if I did the same as a toddler. I'm sure I did. For a long time, I claimed "The Mask" starring Jim Carrey as one of my favorite movies from my childhood but couldn't tell you the plot.

But one movie I know for sure I didn't do that to is "The Lion King." The 1994 Disney classic became one of my lifelong favorites the first time I saw it. I followed the plot seamlessly. A prince lion cub who can't wait to be king of the jungle gets spooked away by his jealous, evil uncle, who murders the king and takes the throne. The runaway lion meets new friends who teach him not to worry about the past, grows up, and learns he must return to save his kingdom from the evil uncle. Sounds simple enough ... and very "Hamlet"-esque, though my introduction to Shakespeare would come much later.

It wasn't just the simplistic plot that kept me engaged. The musical numbers and bits captivated me. Every piece of music felt authentic to its environment. But a popular disco song that almost found its way into the movie could have changed that.  

Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive, stayin' alive

In one memorable scene in "The Lion King," the young lion who's all grown-up now, Simba (voiced by Matthew Broderick), returns home to the Pride Lands of Africa with his friends — meerkat Timon (Nathan Lane), and warthog Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) — to dethrone the evil uncle, Scar (Jeremy Irons). But they spot the vicious hyenas protecting the king. "So, what's your plan for getting past those guys?" Timon asks Simba. "Live bait," Simba answers. "Good idea," Timon concludes before he quickly realizes he and Pumbaa are the live bait Simba has in mind.

Timon and Pumbaa proceed to do a hula dance in front of the hyenas and sing a song that begins, "If you're hungry for a hunk of fat and juicy meat, eat my buddy Pumbaa here 'cause he is a treat." It's a funny, original song that reflects the personalities of the characters singing it. But in an interview with The Shelf, co-director of "The Lion King" Rob Minkoff revealed that when he and co-director Roger Allers pitched the scene to Disney, the studio proposed they instead use the Bee Gees' hit "Stayin' Alive." 

Featured in the 1977 dance-drama "Saturday Night Fever," starring John Travolta, the track is considered one of the greatest songs of all time, definitely one of the greatest '70s songs. It embodies the disco era. And for that reason, Minkoff and Allers wanted no parts of the song in their movie. "You hear 'Stayin' Alive' and you're automatically going to think of John Travolta in 'Saturday Night Fever,'" Minkoff said. "It's so wrong because doing that in Africa with characters that wouldn't understand that reference if it was put in front of them just isn't going to work for the story."

Would Stayin' Alive have worked in The Lion King?

I don't think kids like myself would have immediately thought about John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever." I haven't even seen the movie by the time "The Lion King" hit theaters. I don't recall hearing "Stayin' Alive" on the radio, either. Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers were presented with an opportunity to introduce the iconic song to a new era of kids. Had they gone through with it, they would have created a clash of the generations as '90s kids would have grown up and fought with their parents over what movie "Stayin' Alive" truly belongs to ... Yeah, you're right, it's not that deep.

If Disney had its way, it wouldn't have been the last time the song made it into my one of my childhood favorites. Whenever I hear "Stayin' Alive," I flash back to a 1999 episode of "WWE Smackdown!" (Back then, it was called the WWF, but I digress.) The wrestler Mankind, who had built a reputation for putting his body on the line in the ring, was near retirement as injuries started to take a toll, so he began to develop a comedy shtick to stay in good graces with the fans. He formed a tag team called the Rock 'n' Sock Connection with a special wrestler who you may know as Dwayne Johnson. During this particular episode, The Rock and Mankind were scheduled to defend their tag team titles against The Undertaker and the Big Show in a buried alive match (for the non-wrestling fans out there, the match is exactly how it sounds). They cut a backstage promo taking trash about their opponents, and Mankind concluded by screaming into the camera in comedic fashion, "Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Buried alive! Buried alive!" So funny!

A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh

To piggyback off my earlier point about how "The Lion King" directors could have used "Stayin' Alive" to introduce kids to an oldie-but-goodie, I'm not sure if they realize it or not, but that's precisely what they did with another song featured in the movie. In another memorable scene — honestly, every scene is memorable — Timon and Pumbaa waltz through the jungle as they sing, "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight."

I was today years old when I found it was adapted from a 1939 South African song, Solomon Linda & The Evening Birds' "Mbube." The song was covered by many artists, including American band The Tokens, whose hit single "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" reached the top of the charts.

So why did Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers fight Disney to keep "Stayin' Alive" out of the movie because it oozes the dated disco fever but included a song with roots from the '30s? "['The Lion Sleeps Tonight'] fits the setting," Minkoff explained to The Shelf. "And if you listen to the lyrics, it can have that same kind of timeless connection to the story that's trying to be told there."

I agree, but to play devil's advocate. "Stayin' Alive" would have worked too in its proposed setting. The lyrics complemented the predicament Timon and Pumbaa found themselves in. Imagine them dancing and singing, "Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive, stayin' alive" while literally trying to avoid being eaten by the hyenas. That would have made you laugh, right?