Walt Disney Pictures
The Lion King was produced by Walt Disney Pictures, the mother of all animation-centric production companies. Disney is known around the world for its high-quality animation and big-budget features.
The Happiest Brand on Earth
From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Frozen, Disney has always specialized in family-oriented features. This means that the production company tends to go light on the violence, sex, emotional conflict, and other "adult" themes and heap on the candy and rainbows instead. The formula works: generations of kids grew up watching Disney musicals, singing Disney songs, and loyally purchasing Disney merchandise.
For Disney, the candy and rainbows frequently come at the cost of realism. There's even a term for it: "Disneyfied." Example: "This remake of Jaws was completely Disneyfied. Instead of getting eaten, everyone is going swimming with the shark."
Characters who should by all accounts be dead—or, at least, severely injured—spring back to life in Disney films, frequently with smiles on their faces and songs in their hearts. Somehow, love and fun always prevail.
With its utter lack of blood (even in Mufasa's death scene), its catchy musical numbers, and its unflagging optimism, The Lion King fits the Disney mold perfectly. It's no coincidence that this film remains one of Disney's 10 highest-grossing animated features of all time.
But The Lion King had a rather troubled beginning. All Disney movies are produced, developed, written, and directed by committee, which means there are many creative minds at work at once (and a lot of potential for clashing).
The idea for The Lion King was born on a plane to London in 1988 when studio executives Jeffrey Katzenberg and Peter Schneider were chatting it up with Roy Disney, longtime corporate mogul and nephew of His Highness Walt Disney. The three men wanted to make a movie set in Africa starring a bunch of rowdy lions. Katzenberg loved the idea and took the reins, incorporating elements from his background in politics—he helped with John Lindsay's successful New York City mayoral campaign in the mid-1960s—as well as coming-of-age themes.
In November 1988, Thomas Disch, the guy who wrote the book The Brave Little Toaster, wrote a treatment of the Katzenberg-Disney-Schneider concept called King of the Kalahari. Then, acclaimed screenwriter Linda Woolverton took over, retooling Disch's script several times over the course of a year. At the end of this agonizing process, Woolverton and the producers had something that, according to one producer, looked a lot like "an animated National Geographic special."
Trouble in Paradise
After six months of story development and production work on a project tentatively titled King of the Jungle, director George Scribner decided to leave the dream team. Why? He'd originally wanted to make an animated nature film and clashed with the producers' decision to turn the film into a musical.
After Scribner quit, the project underwent a major upheaval. Producer Don Hahn, basically Disney royalty because of his production work on the recent hit Beauty and the Beast, joined the team and initiated a regime change. According to Hahn, the film lacked a clear theme. After establishing the main theme as "leaving childhood and facing up to the realities of the world," the script was retooled again, which resulted in changes to the setting and many of the main ideas. The title was changed from King of the Jungle to The Lion King, reflecting the fact that the Pride Lands would be in a savanna instead of the jungle.
During the final retooling, the creative team decided to pull from Shakespeare's Hamlet for inspiration. A few additional screenwriters were brought in to fix up the remaining emotional problems in the script and write some comic levity for Timon and Pumbaa. And after all that, the animators were finally able to begin work on the project. Pre-production only took four years—no biggie.