90s Movie Challenge Week 20: The Lion King (1994)

It’s 90s time, again pals! You know, a wise king once said “Sometimes what’s left behind can grow better than the generation before” but an even wiser WGN writer also once said, “Circle of life? What a load of tosh! Remakes generally aren’t as good as the original.” (Who was that? Ed). Er. Me. (You’re fired. Although you are correct, Ed).

With that in mind, we present to you the first of a double-bill looking at two of Disney’s most well-loved Classics. This week, be prepared as Lou-Michel Thelier says “Hakuna Matata” and looks back to 1994 and Disney’s original and best version of The Lion King!

The Lion King is Disney’s best movie, without a doubt. No, you can’t argue otherwise and yes, I will die on this hill. Or a gorge. Falling straight into a stampede and – oh no the feelings are hitting me again. 

Okay, hyperbole aside, I stand by that opening statement. For me, The Lion King remains Disney’s best movie. Not just out of the animated selection, I mean their entire catalogue. Nothing else comes close. Quite simply, it’s a masterpiece and deserves every bit of praise I can throw its way. 

I don’t know precisely what age I was when I first saw the movie, or even if I saw it in the cinema (and if I didn’t, that was a mistake I corrected later in life when I went to see the 3D re-release in the early 2010s when 3D re-releases were still a thing. Yes, that included seeing The Phantom Menace. No, I don’t have any regrets). But I do know it was around the 4-6 age range, and the fact that it’s a movie that’s stayed with me for my entire life thus far. 

I turned 30 in February this year, and when I re-watched The Lion King for this whole 90s Movie Challenge, I still teared up at all the Big Moments. I think that’s a remarkable statement as to the staying power of this movie – as well as how powerful a formative experience movies can be. The only other movies to have stuck with me for a similar amount of time are Toy Story and the original Star Wars trilogy. 

The fact that The Lion King is one of my 4 available Letterboxd favourites – out of almost 1500 movies – speaks for itself.

Though, when I re-watched the movie for this challenge, it did strike me that the movie absolutely zips by in an astonishingly tight 89 minutes. When I was a child, the entire thing felt like this big, epic story spanning years. It felt mythic. It felt like one of those Great Stories passed down from generation to generation. And honestly? It still feels like that, except as an adult, I’m impressed that it manages to tell this grand tale of kings and treachery and love and responsibility with virtually no fat or excess to it. All the best moments still hit exactly as hard as they did all those years ago, but they’re contained in this expertly paced package that simply does what it needs to without bloat (something I, unfortunately, can’t say for the “live-action” remake). 

I think a large part of it comes down to the visuals (which, of course, it does. It’s an animated movie and its aesthetic is its lifeblood). When I talk about a mythical feeling, the aesthetic and visual style informs that feeling by a large amount. To put it simply, everything in The Lion King feels larger than life, presenting Africa with a huge sense of grandeur and visual splendour, as befits its story. 

I’d actually liken the visuals to Return of the King in that respect: the Pride Lands feel like a kingdom, presented as they are with verdant, rolling grasslands under an endless blue sky, all overseen by the spectacular edifice of Pride Rock. And of course, this was Disney in the mid 90s, smack bang in the middle of its second golden age, so naturally the actual animation is incredible. The animators actually went on research trips to Africa, as well as having actual, live lions brought into the studio so they could study their movement. Clearly, it paid off.

Hey, speaking of paying off (like that segue just didn’t), it’d be remiss of me to keep talking about this movie and not mention Hans Zimmer’s majestic score. Hans is one of my favourite composers, from Gladiator to The Dark Knight trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean, Man of Steel, Interstellar… but for me, The Lion King is a career-best for him. It’s an epic, emotional score that perfectly complements the visuals – as well as featuring some of Disney’s best-ever songs. I mean, Be Prepared has to be Disney’s best villain song (Scar is also easily one of Disney’s most enduring villains. I mean, it’s Jeremy Irons and his velvety rich voice, ferchrissakes), and Circle of Life is rightly iconic. The only song I’m not really a fan of is Can You Feel the Love Tonight – but that’s just because Elton John isn’t my thing.

So yeah, I think you get the point. For me, The Lion King is one of those movies that just sticks with you, and is equally affecting and enjoyable to watch as a jaded, 30-something-adult as it was to a less jaded, wide-eyed kid who hadn’t yet figured out the concept of a beloved character dying could be Terribly Sad. Like I said in my opening sentence: it really is Disney’s best movie: one of those once-in-a-generation masterpieces that means something special to so many people, and I’m pretty sure I’ll still be watching it many, many decades from now.

Long live the King.

Want much more than this provincial life? Well, in that case, be our guest and come back next week for a return visit from our chum CJ Dee as she tells us a tale as old as, well, 1991. That’s right – concluding our Disney double-bill, it’s Beauty and the Beast!

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