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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #319: The Lion King

Disney’s “The Lion King” (1994), directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, is two spots ahead of “Aladdin” on Empire Magazine greatest movies list. It makes sense since  it has once again all the elements of the classic Disney animated movies: great hand-drawn animation, themes of good versus evil, comedy sidekicks, cute animals, musical numbers and father issues. The story line in “The Lion King” actually tries to be a bit deeper by borrowing elements from “Hamlet.” If you are going to have a Shakespearean villain, you might as well have him voiced by Jeremy Irons.

Since Disney has always been keen to market its product on every platform as soon as possible, the first I saw of this movie was in an illustrated book before the movie itself even came out. Then after watching the actual movie of course my brother and I ended up renting the game for Super Nintendo and my parents bought the soundtrack on audio cassette. These marketing guys really know their thing. Since I was the age of the target audience at the time it came out, I can’t deny they were marketing a good product. My family and I saw the movie in theatres in Québec and liked enough to ask for the VHS tape to watch on a loop once we moved to Chile. Throughout our many moves in the 90s, we ended up hauling a lot of videotapes.

The lion has been described as the king of the savannah and in a Disney movie they take that literally. King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) rules over the Pride Lands of Africa. When his son Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is born he is heralded as the future king of the land, much to the dismay of his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons), who has his eyes on the throne. While Mufasa is busy teaching his son the responsibilities of being a king and his whole circle of life philosophy, Scar is planning a coup.

Luring Simba in a gorge, he orders hyenas Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg), Banzai (Cheech Marin) and Ed (Jim Cummings) to cause a stampede of wildebeest. Mufasa rescues Simba, but dies in the gorge with a little help from Scar. After Scar convinces Simba his father died because of him, Simba flees the land with the hyenas on his tail. They abandon pursuit figuring he will die all alone in the savannah. That’s the problem with henchmen in movies: they never get the job done.

Simba does manage to survive thanks to two of Disney’s funniest comedy relief characters: meerkat Timon (Nathan Lane) and warthog Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) who rescue him from vultures. Seeing the advantage of befriending a lion, they take him home to their jungle to live under their own philosophy: Hakuna Matata, or “no worries.” So instead of growing up king of the jungle, Simba grows up with the equivalent of two hippies eating bugs and kicking back in the woods without a care in the world. Everything changes years later when the grown up Simba (Matthew Broderick) finds his childhood friend Nala (Moira Kelly) who tells him Scar has destroyed the kingdom by letting the hyenas run rampant. A vision of his father in the sky also reminds Simba of his rightful place in the land, so it’s time to go home and face the past.

The animation stands up even by today’s standards, the story is engaging throughout and Elton John wrote and performed some of the movie’s most memorable songs. As a child I enjoyed every minute and I imagine the adult audience did too as the humour works for all ages. Pumbaa even has a joke I did not understand until I saw Sydney Poitier in “In the Heat of the Night”: “The call me MR. PIG!”

Sadly there are also a number of controversies attached to the film, from the allegation the word “SEX” is at one point spelled out in the sky, to racial undertones because the hyenas are voiced by African-American and Latino actors who ruin the place once they are allowed in the kingdom. Talk about tainting a childhood memory. Can’t movies just be movies without all this politically correct bickering?

Whether or not there is any merit to the allegations, “The Lion King” is another Disney success story, spawning sequels, a Broadway play and even a TV spinoff for Timon and Pumbaa. Good for them, it’s nice to recognize the sidekicks. Just don’t call one of them a pig.    


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