Blast From the Past – The Lion King (1994)

It's kind of fortunate that baboons are among the primates with fully opposable thumbs.
It’s kind of fortunate that baboons are among the primates with fully opposable thumbs.

“The greatest adventure of all is finding our place in the circle of life.”

Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
Starring  Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Rowan Atkinson, Robert Guillaume, Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin

The young cub Simba is born to Mufasa (Jones), King of the Pridelands. While Simba is still a young, reckless cub, his father is killed by his brother Scar (Irons) with the aid of his hyaena minions (Goldberg, Marin) and flees into exile.

Taken in by shiftless slackers Timon (Lane) and Pumbaa (Sabella), Simba (growing up to be Broderick) becomes a lousy beatnik, until his childhood friend Nala (Kelly) and a magical baboon (Guillaume) instill a sense of pride that drives him to return to the shattered Pridelands and take back his rightful kingdom from Scar.

What’s wrong with it?

There are plenty of actor-singers out there, but the two lead lions both have separate singing voices. And one of them is played by Matthew Broderick, who revitalised his career in a musical.

The ecology makes no sense, but then again when the environment reacts to primogeniture, what can you expect?

The brutal lion fights are oddly bloodless for big cats making a concerted attempt to kill one another.

What’s right with it?

The animation is spectacular and the songs are pretty catchy.

The whole ‘step up and stop being a bachelor slob’ theme is actually a pretty good one.

How bad is it really?

The Lion King is a pretty good film, with some especially effective sequences and some hardcore darkness (such as the film’s villain being torn apart by his cohorts after his literal fall from power.)

The use of a pathetic fallacy to outline the failings of Scar’s regime was an idle shorthand that actually obfuscates his true weakness. It might have been good to see something other than divine wrath marring his reign.

Best bit (if such there is)?

The gorge stampede haunts the nightmares of a generation, and with good reason.

What’s up with…?

  • Holy shit, I had not realised how much Irons is channeling George Sanders’ Shere Khan from Disney’s The Jungle Book.
  • There can surely be few all-American productions with such a rosy view of the divine right of kings. Seriously; the Pridelands are like a socialist allegory of monarchy, in which the rich literally eat the poor, except that instead of a Swiftian satire, The Lion King presents a world in which this is not only universally accepted, it is also visibly good for the world as a whole. Scar’s disruption of the succession plunges the kingdom into a Wasteland until Simba returns, thus confirming the right of the rich to eat people as a mark of divine grace and not just a consequence of being bigger and stronger with pointier teeth.
  • The featured carnivore characters are all fully sentient and sapient creatures, as are a number of supporting herbivores, and all the herbivores of the Pridelands kneel to the king. So… why are the wildebeest driven by pure, raw instinct? Why can’t they talk?

Ratings

Production values – The animation holds up well, and the animals – with the exception perhaps of Timon – are animated as animals, not animal-shaped people. 1
Dialogue and performances – Points off for not hiring people to do their own singing, but the bulk of the cast are good, with Jones and Irons as standouts, and excellent support from Lane, Sabella and Guillaume. The dialogue is not always as good, and while not bad it is very, very human. There is no real sense that the characters are animals. 5
Plot and execution – It’s a pretty basic kind of hero’s journey, with Simba first fleeing his responsibility then returning to confront Scar (as the shadow of his father) and reconcile with Mufasa’s spirit. The goofy comic relief is kept in the goofy comic portion of the story, which is also impressive, and allows the dramatic parts to have a proper heft of peril. 6
Randomness – If Rafiki actually a monkey wizard? What is the status of magic in this world? 2
Waste of potential – There are a couple of weak plot points (especially relating to the collapse of the Pridelands purely because Scar sucks), but basically this holds up well. 3

Overall 17%

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