The Lion King Revisited

(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.’”

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