A quarter-century ago, The Lion King cemented Walt Disney Studio’s comeback and, along with it, animation’s place as an enduring blockbuster genre.
But now, with the strategically timed live-action remake looming so largely on the horizon, it’s virtually impossible to reflect on The Lion King’s 25th Anniversary without drawing direct comparisons to the forthcoming remake.
Walt Disney’s 32nd feature-length animated film certainly deserves its own accounting, especially as it stands so superior to the promos for the latest photo-real CGI carbon copy foisted upon us by Disney and its shareholders. Indeed, the 2019 inevitable blockbuster is simply one more addition to what may be the richest legacy of any film from Disney’s 1990s renaissance.
The Lion King stands apart from its Disney vault companions in so many ways, perhaps chief among them that, for the first time in Disney Animation history, its story wasn’t based on a previous fable, book, or real-life event. Inspired by Hamlet though it may be, The Lion King was and remains Disney’s only original animated musical (although it’s since been joined by the mostly-live action original Enchanted and the animated non-musical Wreck-It Ralph).
It took other risks as well, such as breaking from the Princess-driven template that had fueled Disney’s rejuvenated brand, while also becoming the first entry of the modern era to not have multiple Oscar-winner Alan Menken compose the music for the film’s songs and score, instead gambling that Elton John’s pop sensibilities could translate into the musical genre with the requisite power it demanded, in a way that would stand alongside Disney’s standards.
The intrigue of these bold steps came on the wave of Disney’s new creative peak, one that had crescendoed in an unprecedented popular streak set by The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Along with the Disney brand it sparked a rebirth of animation itself, a genre that had been relegated for decades as niche box office kidde fare.
The Lion King then cashed in on that brand reputation with a then-record opening weekend for an animated feature of $41 million (plus roughly $2 million from a limited release debut the weekend prior), more than doubling Aladdin’s record of $19 million.
The Lion King went on to earn the brand trust that had boosted its bow, becoming the first animated film to top $300 million in its initial theatrical run. The Lion King was more than a bona fide hit; it had become a cultural landmark.
Co-directed by Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers, The Lion King was the culmination of Animation Chief Jeffrey Katzenberg’s creative ambitions, delivering an animated feature that was also a legitimate epic. This grandeur was evident from the jump in the now-iconic “Circle of Life” opening, one that still elicits chills on every viewing, and then matched with sequences like the wildebeest stampede.
That scope was inventively contrasted with visually-abstract musical numbers, ones that popped with vibrant color and energy (“I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”, “Be Prepared”, and more), something the live-action Lion King will likely struggle to find a creative equivalent for.
Simply put, there is an artistry to animation that live action can’t match, a beauty that live action diminishes, especially when it comes to anthropomorphizing animals and rendering the lush nature they live in.
Watch trailers for the 1994 and 2019 versions side-by-side and the choice is clear: the original Lion King comes alive in a way that the “live” version simply can’t, and allows animals to emotionally move us in a way that only the genre can, because the quality of its animation truly is capital-A Art and not an artificial deep-fake facsimile. (Plus, which one do you think kids will want to keep going back to?)
Animation amplified The Lion King’s mythic qualities. It allowed freedom to craft facial expressions that matched the vitality of the musical genre, and made room to take full advantage of spectacular voice performances from James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, and Nathan Lane (who would go on to re-team with Simba-voice Matthew Broderick in, of all things, one of the most wildly successful musical comedies of all time, The Producers, in yet another ripple effect from film’s far-reaching impact).
The efficacy of this fundamental animation principle can also be seen (albeit in a different form) in the biggest success to come from The Lion King’s legacy: the history-making Broadway musical that’s still roaring strong after two decades.
Utilizing puppetry rather than human costumes, stage director and designer Julie Taymor stuck to the same core aesthetic thesis that makes animation so uniquely effective for the screen. Puppetry is animation’s true live-action counterpart (not deceptive CGI) as it helps to maximize a story’s musical and mythical qualities.
The new Lion King will no doubt be a hit, but only because of what the original gives and imbues into it, and not just the artistry but also its ideas. The Lion King has now been around long enough to actually play counter to our popular notions of fulfillment.
The follow-your-dreams-and-bliss YOLO culture of today is, in essence, Hakuna Matata, a me-centric narcissism that The Lion King wisely challenges, showing instead the virtue and necessity of sacrifice for — and responsibility to — the tribe. The land. To our circle of life.
In many ways, as a culture and society, we’ve forgotten that, and that’s what makes Mufasa’s call to Simba (“Remember who you are!”) more resonant than ever. It’s a message made even more potent by composer Hans Zimmer‘s tribal-spiritual score.
The best thing about the live-action remake will be the novelty comparison it provides, further validating animation as the true art form that it is. Indeed, 25 years from now, the original animated Lion King (along with its inventive, inspired stage adaption) will be the one that endures.