Starting in 1989 and continuing for roughly a decade, Walt Disney Animation Studios experienced a second golden age. It is The Little Mermaid which began this resurgence, and the group of films put out over the course of the next 10 years include new classics like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Hercules, and Mulan. Perhaps though the zenith of this period is the 1994 release of The Lion King.
Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, The Lion King is the tale of a young lion named Simba who learns what it means to face up to his responsibilities and to do the right thing despite the presence of great adversity. It features five songs by Elton John and Tim Rice and for 88 minutes has anyone who watches it completely enthralled.
As stated, the story focuses itself on Simba, whom we first see as a newborn cub at the opening of the film. Simba (when young voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas and when older by Matthew Broderick) is the son of Sarabi (Madge Sinclair) and Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and heir to Mufasa’s pride. That makes him the target of his uncle, Scar (Jeremy Irons). Scar is, for a time, actually successful in driving away Simba and taking control of the pride before the film’s triumphant conclusion.
It is an absolutely classic, completely Shakespearian, tale of castle intrigue, but one made new and different and wonderful via its representation of animals. Mufasa isn’t just the leader of his pride, but rather of a whole kingdom with a huge number of varying creatures. A wise ruler, Mufasa treats everyone with respect (except those who would hurt him and his kingdom) and recognizes that he and his kingdom have a small place in the world for a small period of time. He is a ruler well aware that he is simply there to do his best and to provide the greatest advantage possible to those who follow him both now and in the future.
There are, quite naturally, a host of ancillary characters as well. These characters further expand the breadth of species present in the Pride Lands and some play an important role in the management of the kingdom – the film does a great job of giving this incredible diversity of characters an extended family feel. Mufasa is aided by his majordomo, a hornbill named Zazu (Rowan Atkinson), and a mandrill named Rafiki (Robert Guillaume) who handles the history/religion/mystical bits of the kingdom. There are also three spotted hyenas who help Scar try to take over (Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings provide the voices).
Unquestionably the most recognized and widely loved of the characters in the film are Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and Timon (Nathan Lane). Simba meets these two comic relief kooks (a warthog and meerkat respectively) during his time in exile and they teach him the way of hakuna matata. The catchiest, most memorable, song in the film, “Hakuna Matata,” we’re told, means no worries. Essentially, it says that when bad things happen you just move on and forget about it. While an easy concept to grasp and much loved, the song is one at odds with the rest of the film. Simba follows this way of life for years, the characters are the most comic and the most relatable to children, and yet it’s an idea that is completely wrong and which the film wholly repudiates before the final credits roll. But, for all its being entirely wrong, it is still front and center and one of the first things many people remember about the movie more than 15 years after its release.