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Disney Films

The Lion King

1994

One of the most successful animated films of all time, with box office receipts and merchandise revenue in the gazillions of dollars, The Lion King is considered by many critics and its countless fans as a pretty good flick. The story is very, very, very loosely based on Shakespeare's Hamlet (which is also about a "lyin' king"), with additional character design inspiration from Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bêt.

The film opens with a stunning overview of the African savannah, featuring zebras, lions eating zebras, and leaf-cutter ants (on vacation from another continent), beautifully rendered and accompanied by music. It's all quite visually pleasing, although it really has nothing at all to do with the plot.

Viewers are next treated to another stirring -- and this time more relevant -- scene in which the newborn son of Musafa, the lion king of the film's title (voiced by James Earl Ray), is, with great ceremony, presented to the lower half of the food chain. The newborn is Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Broderick Weaver Williams), a spunky young lion who just can't wait to be king and bend other creatures to his will. He is being presented to the other animals by the local mystic, a monkey named Rafiki (voiced by Benson). As Simba learns about the world Musafa rules, his father explains to him about the "circle of life" -- a philosophy that revolves around animals being happy to be eaten by lions because lions make the grass grow, or something like that.

A fly in the mix is Simba's uncle Scarface (voiced by Al Pacino), a refugee from the Cuban national zoo who wants to be king and won't let anyone stand in his way. Scarface arranges for Musafa to have "a little accident" and frames Simba for the whole thing. Simba -- young, confused, and half orphaned -- runs away, leaving Scar to become the lion king of the film's title.

In the jungle, Simba meets Timon and Pumbaa (voiced by Sesame Street's Burt and Ernie), a meerkat and warthog that live a care-free life. Their philosophy is hakuna matata (literally, "have a matata"), which seems to be just a fancy way of saying "whatever." The pair eat bugs -- a concept brought to Disney cartoons by Baloo in The Jungle Book and perpetuated by the Lost Boys in Peter Pan -- and proudly drag Disney films down into the muck where all other modern children's entertainment lives with the company's first jokes about passing gas.

Simba grows to adulthood with his new friends, and then one day they are discovered by a young lioness, Nala (voiced by Prince), who was one of Simba's childhood friends. The scene where Nala and Simba re-meet bares discussion, because it is the focus of some controversy. Certain conservative groups became very upset by this scene, because of what they believe was a subliminal bit of naughtiness secretly inserted by Disney animators. Look carefully at the scene where Nala grapples with Simba. First, she stares meaningfully into his eyes and licks her lips slowly. Then she jumps at him, knocks him to the ground and rolls on top of him, their skin pressed together. The song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" begins to play low in the background. "Tell me you don't want it," she says, referring to the kingship of the Pride Lands. "Or am I too much lioness for you?" Simba, grins slyly, rolls over until he is on top of Nala. Pause the video at this point and begin single-frame stepping through the scene. Simba and Nala's activity begins to kick up a lot of dust. Count fifteen frames from the first motion of the dust to where Simba just starts to arch his back. Now, look at the dust and you can see the outlines of some letters. There's definitely an "S" near the top of the screen, and most of an "X" near the bottom, with something in the middle that is probably an "E," an "F," or an upside-down "L." It's these letters -- spelling "S-E-X" or "S-F-X" or "S-L-Y" (upside down) that have people so upset.

Now back to the plot.

Nala convinces Simba to go back to the Pride Lands. Along with Timon and Pumbaa, they return to Simba's childhood home, only to discover that Scarface has ruined everything (he's ignored the circle of life, so the grass isn't growing, etc.)

Simba confronts the lion king and it is revealed that Scarface was behind Musafa's death and Simba's framing. A confrontation between the two contenders for the crown leads to the film's most favorite line: Scarface says, "You wanna [fight] with me? Okay. You wanna play rough? Okay. Say hello to my little friends!" At this point, Scarface reveals a huge pack of hyenas.

After a bloody battle, the hyenas and Scarface are defeated. Simba becomes the lion king of the film's title, and the result of his and Nala's adult re-meeting is born and introduced to the other animals with great ceremony, bringing the film full circle (of life, that is!)

The Lion King contains a number of songs, written by Elton John and Jerry Rice, that became big hits, both with moviegoers and, inexplicably, Norwegian fisherman. Some of the most popular were, "Circle of Life," "Hakuna Matata," "It's a Small World," and the tribute to the Boy Scouts, "Be Prepared." The film won multiple Academy Awards, including best song, best score, best group of songs, best soundtrack, best singing, best vocals, best documentary, and best group wildebeest nude scene. It also won a People's Choice award for best film of any kind anywhere at any time in the history of the world, and an MTV video music award for "Rafiki Raps."

Unable to stop from wringing every last cent from something popular, Disney produced several direct-to-video sequels to The Lion King, each of which did its best to taint the memory of the original. These included The Lion King II, The Lion King 1 1/2, The Lion King 2 2/3, and the strange Lion King/Alice in Wonderland hybrid, The Lion King 10/6 (in This Style). There was also an expanded, updated, reanimated, giant-screen IMAX version of The Lion King, the major differences from the original being its higher resolution, the addition of a new song ("Mourning Report," about dead zebras), and the retouching of the controversial re-meeting scene, so that the "S-E-X" (or whatever) letters that so upset the moral majority now clearly say "I LOVE JESUS."

The wildly successful Broadway stage version of The Lion King enjoyed a record-breaking run and led to a humorous spin-off, How to Succeed in the Pride Lands without Really Trying (in much the same way that the musical Annie led to the Vietnam-era political parody, Annie Get Your Gun).

Trivia: Originally, Simba's mother was going to be killed as well (by an off-screen gunshot after she announced that, "Man is in the Pride Lands"), but one of the lead writers canned the idea because he had a feeling that it was "derivative of something."


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