Walt Disney Studios has just released a computer-generated imagery (CGI) version of The Lion King, re-imagined from its classic animated film. Critics have been mixed in their reviews but the film has found the audience Disney would have expected, with the story of Mufasa and Simba already familiar to viewers since 1994. What is it about the original that makes it so endearing to viewers, and what is different in the new version?
The story: universal appeal
Set in Africa, The Lion King is about the cub Simba and his wise father, the King Mufasa, who is killed in a plot by his brother Scar. Blaming himself for his father’s death, Simba runs away, returns grown up and defeats his evil uncle Scar in battle — a narrative unmistakably influenced by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and adapted earlier in Osamu Tezuka’s 1960 anime series, Kimba the White Lion.
The triumph of good over evil has traditionally worked with all forms of popular culture, and Disney has thrived on it. In fact, some critics of the time felt the plot was too deep for younger viewers. It found a lasting child audience, nevertheless, because it told its story through animals.
If one discounts the Shakespearean influence, The Lion King (1994) is based on an original script. This makes it stand apart from most of Disney’s best known classics, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Bambi (1942) to Lady and the Tramp (1955), all of which were adaptations of fairy tales or contemporary children’s stories. As it turned out, The Lion King (1994) proved so popular that the film itself inspired further adaptations, including a Broadway musical.
The effort and the reward
The team behind the 1994 version, including directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, reportedly travelled to Kenya’s Hell Gate National Park to observe animals in their habitat. Wildlife expert Jim Fowler brought animals into the Disney studio to demonstrate their behaviour, according to press statements of the time. It took Disney animators more than two years to develop the over two-minute stampede scene leading to Mufasa’s death, one statement said.
The Lion King became the highest-grossing handmade animated feature, with box office collections of over $986 million. Counting all animated features, it is the eighth-highest grosser of all time. Among all films, its collections are the 42nd highest.
The 1994 film was followed by two sequels with a limited release (The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride and The Lion King One-and-a-Half), two television spin-offs (The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar and The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa) and three shorts (Find Out Why, Timon and Pumbaa’s Wild About Safety and It’s UnBungalievable). Find Out Why was an educational series that answered science questions for children; Wild About Safety taught children about safety in various circumstances; It’s UnBungalievable was a game show.
The Broadway musical, which released in 1997, had music by Elton John with lyrics by Tim Rice. The musical made some revisions to the story, and is still running in theatres — it is now the third longest-running Broadway musical.
Two video games are based on the film —The Lion King released in 1994 itself, followed by The Lion King: Simba’s Mighty Adventure in 2000.
2019 compared to 1994
The 2019 version is directed by Jon Favreau, who had previously made Disney’s The Jungle Book. The story of the 1994 original is replicated practically scene for scene, with CGI replacing animation.
While critics have differed in their reviews, most agree that it cannot surpass the original. But it was not meant to do so — this is clearly an effort to rebuild on an idea that has already been successful. As The New York Times wrote in its review, “The Lion King currently under review isn’t meant to replace or outdo [the original] but rather to multiply revenue streams and use a beloved property to show off some new tricks. A lot of people will go, expecting to like what they see, and for the most part they won’t be disappointed.”