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

The Lion King (1994) was first released in movie theaters when I was nine, which was the perfect age to experience this story. 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 & Pumbaa (1995 – 1999) TV series. And like so many others, I saw The Lion King remake in 2019. But even after all that, it’s time to return to the beginning.

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

What is The Lion King about? Keep reading for The Lion King (1994) Movie Review, which covers the coming-of-age story of Simba’s rise from cub to king…

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

What Is The Lion King About?

Skip this section if you don’t want to be spoiled for what happened in a movie that was released in 1994. Otherwise, keep reading for 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 a little cocky but eager to learn. When Mufasa is called away to handle 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 plans a takeover. In a deal with the hyenas and a haunting 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 Scar tells Mufasa about this, Mufasa rushes to his son’s aid. After saving Simba, Mufasa clings 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 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. 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 whether to 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 be killed by 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 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 into English and aired.

Simba, a Swahili word for lion, was considered as the name for the main character. Are there enough differences between Kimba the White Lion and The Lion King not to accuse Walt Disney of plagiarism? Either way, it is a fascinating case study for intellectual property law.

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 a 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 a 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 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 take back what is rightfully his. 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 (1996), but that is a discussion for another time.

Movie Review

The Lion King (1994) is a movie I have seen many times over the years. It’s catchy, bright, fun, and breezy. Animation and songs go well together, Disney movies being the primary example of this trend. Naturally, Disney wouldn’t be a successful studio if they didn’t deliver what their audience likes.

Studios do careful market research to ensure every element of their stories will have the broadest 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 their inner thoughts can be 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. Everyone involved in making 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.

Of all the animated movies 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 coming-of-age story weaved throughout. Simba has his moments alone, the pressures he seemingly has to handle by himself, but it turns out that he has a support team to ensure he reaches his potential and becomes all he is meant to be. He would have given up on his birthright if not for his friends’ support, which is also a powerful message.

You cannot succeed alone. You can only succeed with the help of others. And success is a two-way street. You must give support 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 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 captures the character’s growth, internal conflict, and depth. 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 also done excellent portrayals in live action, unsurprisingly lends an excellent regal quality to Mufasa and creates an impact so memorable 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.

Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa, respectively, have marvelous chemistry together. They were very believable as long-time friends. 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.

Rowan Atkinson, likely best known as the almost entirely 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, at least two movies, and two animated series, but that’s what you get with Mr. Bean, 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. It was the hyenas who attacked Scar with ferocity, something that was only depicted in shadows.

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

I give it four stars out of five. It’s not my favorite Disney animated movie, but it’s up there. My favorite Disney animated movie is Tarzan (1999), another coming-of-age story with a similar growing-up montage depicted during a song.

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Until next time,

James Barnett

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