Release Year: 1994
Genre: Adventure, Animation, Family
Director: Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
Life was different in 1994.
And we're not talking about incidentals like "there was no Internet" or "Brad Pitt was dating Gwyneth Paltrow." We're referring to the fact that the average Joe, circa 1994, would have had zero idea what "Hakuna Matata" meant, would maybe have felt kindly toward hyenas, and probably had very little idea about the social structure of lion prides.
But all of that changed with the release of The Lion King.
Part of the Second Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, The Lion King is an undisputed classic, a favorite of '90s kids (and their parents and children) everywhere. In addition to being set in Africa and gorgeously animated by a team of hyper-dedicated animators, The Lion King is a story of royal intrigue and power in the animal kingdom.
It's Hamlet with paws.
If you enjoy watching lions grapple with issues moral, political, and existential in nature (or just grapple with evil hyenas), then this is definitely the movie for you. This is also the movie for you if you like watching stupendously successful films: Simba & Co. nabbed a worldwide total of $987,483,777—and The Lion King remains the highest-grossing 2D animated feature in history.
Whether you love or loathe the Disney brand, there's no disputing that The Lion King's influence is as big as Mufasa's kingdom; this movie is known pretty much anywhere the sun shines. The film won three Golden Globes (Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical; Best Original Score – Motion Picture; and Best Original Song – Motion Picture, for Elton John's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight") and two Academy Awards (Best Original Score and Best Original Song). It even went on to inspire one of the longest-running musicals on Broadway.
Yup, The Lion King has cultural-icon status. It is to the '90s what Star Wars was to the '80s and Mean Girls was to the 2000s: a movie that seeped into the collective consciousness.
In fact, we're still having nightmares set in elephant graveyards.
For many of us, The Lion King isn't exactly the first title we think of when we think of "film studies." After all, what could all of those dusty VHSes in your basement possibly have to do with capital-S Serious stuff like academia and critical interpretation?
The answer is: plenty. The Lion King is more than a cartoon for 6-year-old kids to watch while stuffing their faces with popcorn and Milk Duds—although it's totally that, too. The Lion King is a sophisticated moral fable about family, power, and redemption.
For one thing, this movie for kiddos is based on perhaps the most famous (and most studied) Shakespeare play out there: Hamlet.
Both the Bard's masterpiece and ol' Walt's '90s smash hit follow the same trajectory: young prince loves his daddy, his daddy is killed by his uncle, young prince gets revenge on his uncle. Except Hamlet is way more depressing—and doesn't have nearly the same number of Elton John love songs.
It's not every day that you come across a Disney cartoon that has thematic roots in a great work of English literature, but then, The Lion King isn't just any old Disney cartoon. It's one of the most famous, an indisputable jewel in the Disney crown.
But, fun musical numbers and similarities to Hamlet aside, The Lion King manages to pack an effective dramatic punch in its own right. As a story about the enduring power of love and loyalty to family, this movie restored audiences' faith in the values of the mid-1990s.
The Lion King was released in 1994, three years after the end of America's involvement in the Persian Gulf War. The United States was at the peak of its military and industrial might, the economy was booming, and a new generation of Millennials was being born. It was a time of comfort and security, and many were eager to see that reflected in their entertainment.
And The Lion King did just that. This movie is about a super-idyllic kingdom that goes through a period of woe (boo, Scar) and bounces right back—just compare the Pride Lands with the narrow-minded town in Beauty and the Beast. It's about the importance of family over pretty much everything else—compare Simba's character arc to Ariel's decision to leave home in The Little Mermaid. It's about the just nature of an established government—Mufasa is unlike, say, the bumbling Sultan in Aladdin.
With everything looking peaceful at home, more and more Americans were content with messages like these. In many ways, The Lion King was a product of its time—which means that studying The Lion King ain't just about studying a movie about a farting warthog and his lion cub buddy. It's about studying America during the 1990s.
The controversy of the century erupted when it was discovered that Kimba the Lion, a 1960s Japanese anime, looked exactly like The Lion King. (Source)
Four separate actors were used to record Simba's voice: Matthew Broderick, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jason Weaver, and Joseph Williams. Broderick and Thomas did the speaking voices, and Weaver and Williams the singing voices. (Source)
Tim Rice and Elton John wrote a song that ended up getting animated and then cut from The Lion King. It's called "The Morning Report." (Source)
The Lion King Pride
A charming little fansite, especially for those looking to learn more about the voice actors who starred in the movie.
The Lion King Digital Online
The site contains info about both the film and the hit Broadway musical.
The Lion King on Broadway
The Lion King was adapted into an award-winning Broadway play, and it is epic and amazing.
The Lion King: Six New Adventures
A children's book series based on The Lion King.
The Lion King: The TV Series
More Lion King, more better.
The Lion King producers talk about the origins of the film.
Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, Directors of The Lion King
The directors talk shop.
The Lion King Cast Interview
The cast of The Lion King talks about the movie almost 20 years after its release.
Hell's Gate Trip
Actual footage of the producers' research trip to Kenya.
African Influence on The Lion King's Art
The production team explains how African wildlife and culture influenced the art of The Lion King.
The Stampede of Computer Animation
Here's the background on that computer-animated wildebeest stampede scene.
African Influence on Music
Info on how South African artist Lebo M influenced The Lion King score.
Lion King Scar Cosplay Makeup
Their makeup is on fleek.
The Entire Soundtrack from The Lion King
In case you've got some downtime and want to learn a little Swahili.
The Entire Soundtrack from The Lion King Broadway Musical
It's different in many ways—trust us.
The Original Concept Art for Simba and Mufasa
Original Concept Art for Zazu and Rafiki
Pretty similar, we'd say.
Original Concept Art for Scar
Scar looks bulked up.
Kimba and The Lion King Comparisons
Spot the similarities.