The Lion King (1994)
“Life’s greatest adventure is finding your place in the Circle of Life.”
Director: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones
Synopsis: Tricked into thinking that he caused the death of his own father, a young lion cub flees and abandons his destiny as the future king.
The Lion King is one of those Disney movies that catches its audience young and holds them for life. Each generation’s children has a movie that defines their childhood, and those who were kids when The Lion King was first released in 1994 will be in their twenties now. They probably look back on it in the same way that my generation recalls, say, the first Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie and my father’s The Wizard of Oz. But as children, our critical faculties are still crude and unformed. We accept the illogical unquestioningly and are easily entertained — which is all we ask at that time in our lives. I suppose what I’m saying is that those beloved movies of our childhoods aren’t always as good as we remember them to be, and yet our nostalgic memories of previous viewings, while not perhaps blinding us to their shortcomings, make us a whole lot more forgiving of them.
Which is an apologetic way of saying I don’t really rate The Lion King.
The first Disney feature not to be adapted from an existing piece of literature, The Lion King follows the outline of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is a curious choice for a movie aimed at children, and as a result it has a much darker tone than other Disney flicks, despite the occasional diversion into comic asides and cheery sing-a-longs. It follows the fortunes of Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), a lion cub who is the only child of Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the Lion King and, by extension, king of the animal kingdom. However, Simba’s birth means that Scar (Jeremy Irons), his Uncle and previous heir to Mufasa’s throne, has now dropped down a rank, much to his annoyance. Simba’s idyllic childhood is shattered when his father dies attempting to save him from a stampeding herd of wildebeest. Scar plays on Simba’s guilt to persuade him to leave the pride, leaving the throne available to him. What Simba doesn’t realise is that not only was the stampede started by Scar, he also pushed Mufasa to his death.
Simba roams the plains, where he falls in with the obligatory comedy sidekicks, a meerkat called Timon (Nathan Lane) and a boar named Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). As comedy sidekicks go, Timon and Pumbaa are pretty tame. Their level of humour will appeal only to the youngest of kids — if, that is, the little darlings have summoned the courage to re-appear from behind their seats following a few surprisingly violent episodes.
A musical number bridges the passing of time and introduces us to the fully-grown Simba (now voiced by Matthew Broderick), who has now acquired the mane he was so desirous of as a cub. For some reason, Timon and Pumbaa haven’t aged at all during this time, leading us to assume that a diet of bugs and grubs defies the ageing process and produces healthy lions.
Anyway, Simba couldn’t have strayed too far from his home turf, because one day he runs into his childhood sweetheart Nala (Moira Kelly), who informs him that Scar has formed an alliance with the hyenas which has seen the near-destruction of the once healthy pride. Scar’s reign seems to have had an effect on the weather too, because what was once sunny and golden is now drizzly and overcast. Much soul-searching follows as Simba wrestles with his guilt, and in a scene that brought to mind Obi Wan Kenobi’s lessons to the young Luke Skywalker, the spirit of Mufasa tells Simba that he’s forgotten who he is, and that he must take his place in the Circle of Life (the lion community’s coping mechanism for slaying and consuming the animals who earlier crossed majestic plains to celebrate Simba’s birth).
Ok, facetiousness aside, having earlier declared my dislike for The Lion King in such a wretchedly apologetic tone, I suppose I’d better come up with some reasons. Well, first of all, there are no memorable characters. The closest we come to one is Jeremy Irons’ Scar, which is really a sort of exaggerated impression of George Sanders in full-on caddish mode. But even his dark charisma is depressingly shallow. There’s not enough deviousness, and not enough humour in his character. This preponderance of second-rate characters is down to a lacklustre script that smacks of ‘writing by committee’ and — guess what? — there are no less than 29 names attached to the writing of The Lion King in one capacity or another. 29! A general rule of thumb for those who don’t know: the more screenwriters there are on the credits, the more problems they probably had with the script. As I watched the movie I got the distinct impression that this committee sat down one afternoon with a long list of lion-related words that it was determined to somehow include in the script before knocking off time. Pride? Check. Mane/Main? Check. Lion’s share? Check. And so on. Finally, the music is as ordinary as the script. A couple of numbers rise above the mediocre in as much as they rattle around in the memory for a while, but most of them just sink without trace. Surprising, really, when you consider that the tunes were written by the usually reliable Elton John and Tim Rice.
So there you have it. I know I’m in the minority. I know most people reading this — if they even bothered to push on past the second paragraph — will think I’m a complete idiot who doesn’t know a thing about movies (they may well be right), but sometimes the blanket adoration of The Lion King gets just a little too much to take.
(Reviewed 8th April 2013)