The Lion King

Possibly the definitive moments of classic Disney animated films are when the characters burst into song and that is certainly the case with The Lion King. The skittish Simba trilling I Just Can’t Wait To Be King, Timon and Pumba’s joyous Hakuna Matata, the awe-inspiring grandeur of Circle of Life, and of course the romantic Can You Feel The Love Tonight — all these melodies were composed by Elton John.

Elton and Tim Rice in publicity shot for The Lion King, 1991 Elton and Tim Rice in publicity shot for The Lion King, 1991

In 1991, Tim Rice was signed by Disney to write the lyrics for The Lion King, and they asked him who he would recommend to write the music. As he said later, “Elton was my first choice… I didn’t think they could get him, to be honest, but they did.” Together the pair wrote the soundtrack for the Disney film and, to this day, The Lion King remains the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ highest-grossing film. It’s also estimated to be the biggest-attended animated movie of the last 50 years.

Elton and Tim Rice had known each other for years and Elton had already written a song to a Rice lyric, Legal Boys, on the 1982 Jump Up album. Elton said that he jumped at the chance to write for The Lion King because he felt immediately connected to the story line and the team. He said, “This project was exciting and challenging because I had to write differently from what I would write for myself. I think that The Lion King is the funniest movie Disney has made since Jungle Book. In fact, I probably think it’s the funniest movie they’ve ever made.”

Composer/Arranger Hans Zimmer brought Elton and Tim Rice’s songs to life by adding African flavour, choral symphonies and filling them with the raw emotion that the film evokes. Zimmer recalls, “Elton was a very courageous man to just give me his demos and leave me to do whatever I wanted with them. I work like an animator, in a way. I do this sort of black and white sketch on a piano and then I start filling in the colours as I go along.”

At the 67th Annual Academy Awards in 1995, three John/Rice compositions from The Lion KingHakuna Matata, Circle of Life and Can You Feel The Love Tonight — were nominated for Best Song. Can You Feel The Love Tonight took the Oscar, and after receiving his trophy from Sylvester Stallone, an emotional Elton said, “I’d like to dedicate this award to my grandmother, Ivy Sewell. She died last week, and she was the one who sat me down at the piano when I was three and made me play. So I’m accepting this in her honour.”

Circle of Life has turned out to be the anthem of the film. It is a song that reminds us of the invaluable part that everyone, from tiny ant to mighty lion, plays in the greater scheme. Recently Elton has included in the set list for his Las Vegas show The Million Dollar Piano, where scenes from the film project across the enormous stage at The Colosseum with dramatic flair and intensity.

Background to the Film

The Lion King © Disney 1994The Lion King © Disney 1994

The Lion King as we now know it is the product of many years of thought, refinement, re-imagining and re-writing. Its germination began in the time dubbed as the Disney Renaissance, but unlike several other tales such as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, The Lion King was an original story. Story head Brenda Chapman said, “Writing an original story is definitely more challenging, because there is nothing to fall back on. The story changed quite a bit during the process. It was our job to make the main characters likable and sympathetic.” Screenwriter Irene Mechhi described the process of writing an animated feature as, “Writing in layers. You are constantly going back and putting another layer on.”

The team, along with directors Roger Allers and Robert Minkoff, were also attempting to create a story which at its crux is not a love story like other Disney classics Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid, but a story about the relationship between father and son. Minkoff said at the time, “It is just as crucial and interesting in its own way, but a real different subject and a change of pace from other Disney films.”

Initially, the saga was entitled King of the Jungle, but this was changed as the team realised that the African Savannah was the perfect setting for the epic. Story head Brenda Chapman found real inspiration during her research trip to Kenya. It enabled her to understand the relationship between the animals and their environment which translated into the script. It was in Kenya that she discovered the popular saying “Hakuna Matata,” one of the most iconic and oft-repeated slogans in the film, as well as Rafiki’s nonsense rhyme “Asante Sana. Squash Banana. We We Nugu. Mi mi Apana,” which originated as the nonsense chant her tour guide used to sing.

The Story and the Animation

The story of The Lion King follows Simba, heir to the pride lands, on a journey of self-discovery. He grows into a cocky young cub, but is forced to grow up when his father Mufasa is killed by his villainous uncle Scar. Overcome with guilt over his father’s death, Simba flees the pride lands, only to meet the hilarious duo, warthog Pumba and meerkat Timon. They teach him valuable life lessons, and he eventually finds his true love and returns to rescue the pride, re-claim his rightful place and banish Scar forever.

The breathtaking animation in the film was borne from a desire to capture the true essence of the natural habitat. The animation team created what they called fantasy Africa, a vast canvas filled with natural weather and the movement of animals. The team also made a conscious decision to change the landscape depending on the point of view of the characters. For example during the scene where Simba sings I Just Can’t Wait to be King, the backdrop becomes more colourful, flamboyant and childish. As Art Director Andy Gaskill explained, “This is a lot more time-consuming to animate, but without the subtleties it wouldn’t be as special.”

The Lion King © Disney 1994The Lion King © Disney 1994

The Voices

The cast of voices in The Lion King would grace any red carpet. Rowan Atkinson was brought in as the pedantic Zazu, secretary bird to the King Mufasa. Matthew Broderick plays the cheeky Simba, and James Earl Jones the magnificent Mufasa. Whoopi Goldberg voices the detestable but daft hyena Shenzi, and Moira Kelly the adult Nala, the love of Simba’s life. Perhaps the most arresting voice is that of Jeremy Irons who plays one of Disney’s most infamous and memorable villains, Scar. Director Roger Allers has said of Jeremy Irons, “He would give us so many different interpretations that it became difficult for us to pick which was the best. He brings to the character an air of incredible intelligence, yet sort of twisted and dark. He was absolutely brilliant.”

Subsequent Projects

In 1998, a sequel entitled The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride was released, and 2005 brought the prequel/parallel The Lion King 1 1/2. In 2011, The Lion King was released in 3D to cater to a new generation of cinema audiences, earning £2.8 million in the opening weekend across the UK alone. However, undoubtedly the most successful spin-off from the original film is The Lion King stage musical.

The Lion King Onstage

The Lion King

The Lion King musical debuted on July 8, 1997, in Minneapolis, MN, at the Orpheum Theatre. It then premiered on Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theatre on November 13, and was an immediate hit, winning six Tony Awards, before moving to the Minskoff Theatre where it still resides, having played well over 5,000 performances.

The Lion King musical is directed and co-designed by Julie Taymor, who brought a vast array of disciplines to the production, drawing on her wide experience of various theatrical styles and cultures to tell the compelling tale of Simba, the young lion cub.

Much of the success of the theatre production lies in the use of African masks and puppets created by Julie Taymor and designer Micheal Curry. In the production the masks are worn traditionally above the actors’ faces which clearly represent the characters, yet allow the actors to make full use of their human emotions and expressions. The production also incorporates Bunraku puppetry, where a puppeteer visible to the audience controls a life-sized puppet on the stage. By leaving the puppeteers visible, much in the same way the actor’s faces are left visible, audiences can concentrate on the character as well as the skill of the puppeteer, allowing them a complete appreciation of the theatrical event.

International Success of the Stage Production

The Lion King is the fifth longest-running show in Broadway’s history, and in April 2012 it beat its rival, The Phantom of the Opera, to become the highest grossing show on Broadway of all time, with cumulative gross earnings hit $853.8 million US.

In the UK the show debuted in the Lyceum Theatre in the West End on October 19, 1999, and is still running as one of the most popular West End musicals. On September 13, 2011, the show celebrated its 5,000 performance by donating the sales of 5,000 tickets to charity.

More than 65 million people around the world have seen The Lion King, in 15 countries on five continents, and it has been translated into six languages. Besides its original productions in New York and London, The Lion King has been staged in Tokyo, Toronto, Los Angeles, Hamburg, Sapporo, Sydney, The Hague, Melbourne, Seoul, Paris, Honolulu, Johannesburg, Mexico City, Taipei, Las Vegas, Madrid and Singapore, and there are ongoing touring productions in both the US and UK. In 2013 the show will open in Brazil and Sydney, and there are also plans for a production in Russia.

Fifteen years after those tentative first shows in Minneapolis, The Lion King musical, featuring Elton John and Tim Rice’s glorious and magical songs, continues to enthrall audiences all over the world.