The Lion King (1994) Movie Review — Simba’s Rise from Cub to King

A cultural phenomena all its own, “The Lion King” was first released in movie theaters back when I was nine years old. That turned out to be the perfect age to experience this story. Amazing that it’s already been twenty-six years since that summer. I watched the movie many times on video. I played the video game on Super Nintendo. I saw the sequel as well as the Timon and Pumbaa TV series. And like so many others, I saw the remake, too, in 2019. But even after all that, it’s time to go back to the beginning.

What was some of that lightning in a bottle captured way back when?

Keep reading for The Lion King (1994) Movie Review…

Writers, Directors, and Cast Credits

Genre: Animation / Musical / Family

Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton
along with dozens of other writers who helped with the story and additional story material
Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Starring the voices of
Matthew Broderick as Adult Simba, the lion who would be king
Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Young Simba
Jeremy Irons as Scar, the unrightful heir to the throne
Nathan Lane as Timon the Meerkat
Ernie Sabella as Pumbaa the Warthog
Rowan Atkinson as Zazu the Hornbill Bird
Robert Guillaume as Rafiki the Mandrill
Moira Kelly as Adult Nala
Niketa Calame as Young Nala
Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings as the main hyenas
and James Earl Jones as Mufasa

The 16 Story Beats of “The Lion King”

(quoted mostly verbatim from Blake Synder’s book “Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies” pages 259 – 261)

Opening Image: In a stunning sequence, the animals of the African plain gather to witness the arrival of Simba, son of King Mufasa (James Earl Jones). The “Circle of Life” is introduced as is the idea that as one generation passes away, it makes room for the next. The only lion not attending is the King’s brother, Scar (Jeremy Irons). When confronted by Mufasa’s bird domo, Zazu (Rowan Atkinson), Scar says, “As far as brains go, I’ve got the lion’s share. But when it comes to brute strength, I’m afraid I’m at the shallow end of the gene pool.” Scar is plotting to be king.

Theme Stated: As Simba enters young lionhood, his dad takes him on a trip around the kingdom. All this will be yours, Mufasa tells Young Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas). Mufasa adds, “There’s more to being King than getting your way all the time.”

Set-Up: Simba is wet behind the ears and a little cocky but eager to learn. When Mufasa is called away to handle poachers, the hyenas, Simba grabs his female ally, Young Nala (Niketa Calame), and takes her to the forbidden elephant graveyard. There they meet the hyenas (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings) and are about to be lunch until Mufasa shows up, saving the cubs. Mufasa is mad at Simba, which sets up the poor little guy’s undoing and his father’s death.

Catalyst: Scar now uses this incident to plan a takeover. In a deal with the hyenas and a haunting, Hitler-esque review of their marching ranks, Scar sets his coup d’etat in motion. Taking Simba to a dry wash, he tells Simba to wait for a surprise from his father.

Debate: What should Simba do? Will Scar’s plan work?

Break into Act Two: Suddenly, the thundering sound of a wildebeest stampede is heard. Simba is stranded in the middle of it. When Scars tells Mufasa about this, Mufasa rushes to his son’s aid. After saving Simba, Mufasa ends up clinging to the side of a cliff begging for help from Scar, who sends Mufasa falling to his death. Simba finds his dad’s body once the stampede has passed. Coming upon Simba, Scar tells the cub it was Simba’s fault that Mufasa is now dead. Simba runs, frightened by what might happen to him. Chased by the hyenas, Simba escapes, but Scar assumes the hyenas finished the job.

Fun and Games: Simba meets Timon the Meerkat (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa the Warthog (Ernie Sabella), outcasts who eat bugs. They befriend Simba. The fun of being away from his lion pride includes an idyllic life and singing “Hakuna Matata,” a Swahili phrase that translates as “There are no worries here.” The jolly song, which accompanies the fun and frolic of Simba with his pals, provides a therapeutic break from the responsibilities of being Mufasa’s son. It’s also a needed humbling for Simba to be among the common folk, but the break is only temporary.

B Story: Simba becomes an adult (Matthew Broderick), but he still hasn’t learned his lesson. Pumbaa is chased by a lioness who turns out to be the Adult Nala (Moira Kelly). Simba and the lioness, who was once his playmate, are reunited. In a romantic montage to the Elton John tune of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” they play, reacquaint, and fall in love.

Midpoint: Timon and Pumbaa lament the loss of their friend to a girl. Simba’s joy at being reunited with Nala turns serious. He has run away from his responsibilities, and Scar has become king, allowing the pride lands to wither away.

Bad Guys Close In: Nala tells Simba he’s the pride land’s only hope, but he won’t accept the responsibility, so they argue and separate. Is Simba going to assume the leadership role of king as his father intended?

All is Lost: Simba encounters the mystical mandrill, Rafiki (Robert Guillaume), who was present at his birth and has been the soothsayer and Simba’s silent mentor all along. Rafiki shows Simba his father is still alive … in Simba. “He lives in you,” Rafiki tells the king’s son. Mufasa’s ghost appears in the clouds and warns Simba to “Remember who you are.”

Dark Night of the Soul: Simba must decide if he should return and face his past.

Break into Act Three: Pushed by Rafiki and supported by Nala, Timon, and Pumbaa, Simba says, “I’m going back.” And Timon says, “If it’s important to you, we’re with you ’til the end.”

Finale: Simba returns to the pride lands and finds his homeland, once a lush veldt, is now a burned out ruin. Scar and the hyenas have run the kingdom into the ground. Scar says, “I’m the king. I can do whatever I want!” When Simba challenges Scar, Scar calls him a murderer, and Simba takes responsibility for his father’s death. Then Scar reveals that he was there when Mufasa died and was in fact the one who was responsible. A battle breaks out, and Scar and Simba have their showdown. In the end, Simba triumphs, and Scar is left to the mercy of the hyenas he betrayed only moments before while begging for mercy from Simba.

Final Image: Simba takes his place atop Pride Rock and finally lets out a deep adult roar. In a time lapse, we see the pride lands have recovered and flourished under Simba’s rule. He and Nala, now king and queen, are surrounded by friends, and they now have their own lion cub. A new chapter in the “Circle of Life” has begun.

Kimba or Simba?

From 1950 – 1953, “The Jungle Emperor” was published in Japan as a manga (comic book) series. It was adapted and aired as a 52 episode anime (animated) series starting in 1965. The series detailed the story of “Kimba the White Lion,” the title of the series in North America where it was translated to English and aired.

Interestingly enough, Simba, which is a Swahili word for lion, was considered as the name for the main character. There are enough differences between “Kimba the White Lion” and “The Lion King” not to accuse Walt Disney of plagiarism, but it is a fascinating case study for intellectual property law nonetheless.

The similarities between the two properties include but are not limited to:
1. lion cub destined to be king (Kimba / Simba)
2. father who died in treacherous circumstances (Caesar / Mufasa)
3. annoying, busybody bird (Pauly / Zazu)
4. wise but eccentric mandrill (Dan’l / Rafiki)
5. cute girlfriend cub (Kitty / Nala)
6. villainous hyenas who are always trying to take over
7. name similarity (Kimba / Simba)
8. evil Japanese lion, Claw, with one eye versus evil Disney lion, Scar, with scar over one eye
9. Kimba / Simba looks up to see the ghost of his father in the clouds
10. heroic pose of Kimba / Simba on jutting rock
11. Kimba / Simba growing up away from home and having to return to claim the throne
12. two friends that help raise Kimba / Simba becoming his best friends and in a sense, his surrogate parents as well

From what I have read, it does appear that Disney was in talks to buy the rights to Kimba. This was when production of “The Lion King” was already well underway. When those talks fell through, Disney denied any knowledge of “Kimba the White Lion” and continued production of “The Lion King” in hopes of recouping the money that had already been spent. Still, the least they could have done was have an “Inspired By” credit to acknowledge one of their main influences for the story.

But instead Disney publicly said that they were doing an animal version of Hamlet. The Hamlet connection makes sense. The king is killed by his brother who takes the throne while the main character, the rightful heir, ponders what to do and is visited by his father’s ghost who tells him to man up and take back what is rightfully his. Except The Lion King has a happy ending, something Disney makes sure to include whenever they do an adaptation. Case in point: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but that is a discussion for another time.

Movie Review

The Lion King is one of those movies that I have seen many times over the years. It’s catchy. It’s bright, fun, and breezy. There’s something about animation and songs that go well together, Disney movies being the primary example of this trend. Of course, Disney wouldn’t be a successful studio if they didn’t deliver what their audience likes.

Studios do careful market research to make sure that every element of their stories will have the widest possible appeal. For example, this is why sympathetic characters are given large eyes and villainous characters are given smaller eyes. The audience is meant to make rapid judgments based on character appearances, wardrobe, lighting, music, sound effects, editing, dialogue, and lack of dialogue. Ah, the mechanics of storytelling.

The visual medium doesn’t have the luxury of a book where characters can be developed gradually and have their inner thoughts expressed. Instead, in the case of a movie, everything has to be set in motion and typically carried out in two hours or less.

Time flies while watching The Lion King. It seems shorter than it really is. That’s because everyone involved in the making of the movie was at the top of their game. The animation is crisp, detailed, and flows naturally. The music and songs complement each other and move the story along swiftly. Some of the songs still echo in my head many years later.

It is an unforgettable story, one that I can’t help but gush over. Of all the animated movies that I watched during my formative years, I might have watched this one the most. The father / son plot is always a strong draw as is the overall coming of age story weaved throughout. Simba has his moments alone, the pressures that he seemingly has to handle by myself, but it turns out that he has a support team all his own to make sure that he reaches his potential and becomes all that he is meant to be. He would have given up on his birthright if not for the support of his friends, and that is also a powerful message.

You cannot succeed alone. You can only succeed with the help of others. Of course, success is a two way street. You must give support in order to receive it, but Simba learns the lesson of mutual respect and assistance. He grows into the king that he was always meant to be.

As Adult Simba, Matthew Broderick gives my favorite of any of his performances. It’s interesting that, to my knowledge, Broderick has not found a role in live action to match the strength and diversity found here. He really captures the growth, internal conflict, and depth of the character. The Lion King wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without such a well-rounded performance.

James Earl Jones, an actor best known for his voice work though he has done excellent portrayals in live action as well, unsurprisingly lends a great regal quality to Mufasa and creates an impact so indelible in a short amount of time that the full force of Mufasa’s death is felt when that moment arrives and through the rest of the movie as well. Mufasa’s presence is sorely missed until that all too brief moment when he appears in the clouds to his now fully grown son and tells him to “Remember who you are.” I could not imagine anyone else in the role. It’s hard to believe that James Earl Jones is now eighty-nine years old. The man seems ageless.

Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa, respectively, have marvellous chemistry together. They were very believable as long time friends. It’s not surprising that Timon and Pumbaa became the breakout characters of The Lion King franchise, getting their own TV series and becoming the main characters in the second direct to video Lion King sequel.

Scar was another in a long line of effeminate Disney villains. Many villains throughout various media are characterized as effeminate because, among other reasons, it creates a contrast with the hero or heroine of the story who is decidedly heterosexual nearly every single time. Zazu’s remark about Scar, “There’s one in every family,” mostly went over my head when I was younger.

Rowan Atkinson, surely best known as the almost completely silent Mr. Bean, does a great job as one of the comic relief characters. I can never get enough of his distinctive voice. He has seemingly more lines as Zazu than he ever had as Mr. Bean even though Mr. Bean had a live action TV series, two movies, and two animated series, but that’s what you get with a character who is so silent he is almost a mime.

Final Thoughts

Scar begging Simba for mercy at the end and not getting any was a neat parallel with Mufasa begging Scar for mercy and receiving death instead. In both cases, mercy was withheld, and death was the result. Scar got his comeuppance by being on the receiving end the second time around. Granted, in Scar’s case, it was not Simba who delivered the final judgment. That was the hyenas who attacked Scar with ferocity. Thankfully, that was only depicted in shadows.

The Lion King can be a dark movie at times, but that makes the happy moments all the more meaningful. Just like in life, the dark periods make the good times that much more enjoyable.

4 stars out of 5. Not my favorite Disney animated movie, but it’s up there. As for my favourite Disney animated movie, that would be Tarzan, interestingly enough another coming of age story and with a similar growing up montage, which is depicted during a song.

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Until next time,

James Barnett

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