The Great ’90s Animated Film Project: “The Lion King” (1994)

The Swan Princess,
The Hunchback of Notre Dame,
The Prince of Egypt,
Quest for Camelot,
The Iron Giant
The King and I

The final post of The Great ’90s Animated Film Project happened accidentally as “The Lion King” aired on Saturday night on ABC Family. Having not seen it in a while, I curled up on the loveseat of my mother’s house and my cat, Polo, joined me shortly afterward.

For the few of you that might not know of “The Lion King”‘s plot, the film follows a tribe of lions headed by Mufasa (JAMES EARL JONES) and he and his wife Sarabi have just had a male cub named Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas as young Simba, Matthew Broderick as adult Simba). This means that Mufasa’s brother Scar (a terrific performance by Jeremy Irons) is angry because he isn’t next in line. He then kills Mufasa, convince Simba that he’s the reason the king is dead. Simba is then presumed dead, but then raised by a warthog named Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and a meercat named Timon (Nathan Lane) before he can take his place in the world again.

Oddly enough “The Lion King” seems to be the one animated film from this period that Disney made that doesn’t hold up well with time. One of the main problems is the structure because if “The Lion King” is treated as a work in three acts, it has a huge problem with having a third act that only serves the purpose of introducing us to the characters of Timon and Pumbaa, whose only real purposes are to be annoying sidekicks and save Simba from death after exile. If you skip over that act, there really doesn’t seem to much lost in the film.

The reason why “The Lion King” is included in this project is because it is apparently based off of “Hamlet,” but very loosely. Additionally, there are some influences of Greek tragedy as we see Scar in many ways seem to be a tragic hero who ultimately ends up falling after usurping Mufasa.

Which brings me to another problem with the movie: Simba is the least interesting protagonist to ever appear in a Disney movie. After being kicked out of the Pride Lands, he pretty much behaves like an apathetic teenager. This means that the antagonist, Scar, is a much more interesting character, although this is probably helped by Irons’ terrific vocal performance. What is more interesting is that the film shows that Scar’s decision to disrupt the balance in the Pride Lands by killing Mufasa results in a disruption of the ecosystem by the hyenas having free range over hunting. Although this really wasn’t a concept I understood until watching “The Wild Thornberrys,” the filmmakers decided to show the environmental impact of this change in leadership.

Scar suffers from massive hubris as his belief that he would be a better king than Mufasa simply because he isn’t Mufasa. Perhaps its sibling rivalry or another psychological motivation, but the film really doesn’t seem to delve deep into why Scar wants the job other than that he feels he’s more fit to be king than either Mufasa or Simba and it would reward his hyena minions. Additionally, the fact that Scar possesses minions so that much of the blood doesn’t end up on his minions makes him one of the more terrifying villans in films during this time period, not to mention that he manipulates Simba psychologically to force his nephew to leave the Pride Lands.

This brings us to the Cute Little Animal Character Sidekick: Timon and Pumbaa. Shortly after they showed up on the screen, Polo left his spot on my stomach to sleep on a pillow. The duo is obnoxious and clearly serve the purpose to make the film less terrifying for children, as well as raise Simba while he’s out of the Pride Lands. (It seems as though they’re on the outskirts of the Pride Lands.) The film could work quite well without the characters and could be replaced by, say, a lion that raises Simba. Timon and Pumbaa might seem enjoyable while a child, but adulthood makes them seem annoying.

The film does feature a terrific score by Hans Zimmer, Tim Rice and Elton John, which actually does stand up to this day, which might be why the Broadway musical has lasted so long, other than spectacle.

But unfortunately, “The Lion King” is one of the few films that does not seem to improve with time, particularly as an adult. If anything can be learned from this project, the inclusion of a cute sidekick can often severely drag down an animated film, particularly one that strives for greatness.