#54: The Lion King (1994)

When and how did I watch this?

January 19th, 2017, on DVD.

Had I seen this film already?

Yes.  The first time I saw it was projected onto a gym wall during a rainy day in middle school P.E. class.

What did I know about the movie before watching it?

This is easily my favorite Disney film, and the capstone to a streak of incredible animated features (Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast) that took Disney out of a slump. While it carries high nostalgic value for me, I’m also aware of how widespread of an impact it had on pop culture. Every fast food kids’ meal featured a character; the soundtrack was on every family’s CD shelf; hakuna matata became something people used colloquially. I had the movie on VHS — when searching for this film, I discovered many people still do — and I watched it relentlessly after purchasing it.

What do I know about it now?

The film begins with Elton John singing, “Hnhaaaaa…” and a reddish-gold sunrise is shown pushing up at the horizon. It might make you giggle reading that, but what strikes you is its natural beauty and symbolism: the sun rising, the signet of a new day, the birth of light on earth. The African-styled verses begin as an overture while the animals gleefully hurry to Pride Rock to see the king.  All is well. Of course, there’s darkness subsequently, and despite the film’s obvious children’s appeal, there is a deadly seriousness to it.  Darkness and death reign beneath the surface; the protagonist Scar (Irons) is morbidly terrifying, willing to kill beyond primal motives, him and his hyena henchmen living in an above-ground graveyard of old meals, deceiving the naive and consuming the weak. On the other side, we have Mufasa (Earl Jones), a hardy leader who tells his son Simba (Taylor Thomas), “Everything the light touches is ours.”  The light is important; in the realm of darkness, evil is in charge.  This is nothing new, but it’s a truth that prevails throughout the film, from cover to cover. Another symbolic moment occurs toward the end, as the now-adult Simba, finally vanquishing evil and re-establishing his rightful place on the throne, ascends to the top of Pride Rock: we get a quick cut to a horned skull — you can presume a wildebeest, which bears significance on its own — being washed away with the rain, which had just put out a huge fire, symbolizing the passing of death into a new life.  The darkness dissipates, the sun rises, and we cycle into the opening song again, Simba, family and friends standing triumphantly as the animal kingdom rejoices. Why is this film so thick, so deep, compared to other Disney releases? First of all, unlike many other animated features, it’s an original. It’s also a thumb at the Pocahontas animators and film production crew, being the favored project. But with that in mind, the film takes itself seriously. The animation is absolute perfection; the story flows without a hitch, and the cinematography resembles live action (blur/focus transitions, zooms on faces of terror, heavy action sequences). Sure it has its silly moments, but we seem to forget about those in the end as Simba’s child is revealed, and we’re cutting onions as the closing title card slams the door shut.

What are some themes in the film?

Life, pride, destiny, fate, death, politics

Did this affect me personally?

I started crying before they even showed baby Simba.

Why is this ranked #54?

Why isn’t it ranked in the top ten?  This is unquestionably one of the greatest films ever made. It’s here because of nostalgic value, most likely, but it’s also the highest animated Disney release on the IMDb Top 250 (Inside Out is a fluky #52 on my list, and has since dropped tremendously). Some of the reasons above (widespread popularity, pop culture impact) are also factors. I think the level of care and the visuals in the film make it memorable to an entire generation of folks.

Did my wife watch/like it?

Yes, and my daughter got to stay up and watch it as well.  =)

Would I watch it again?

Yes! I don’t own it on digital media.  It’s time to pick up this one.

Would I recommend it to a friend?

Everyone has seen this film. And if you haven’t, shame on you.

Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

Yes, and it should be taken more seriously.  The Lion King is not featured on the AFI 100, which is a farce, because Toy Story somehow earned a spot. Beauty and the Beast even earned a nod in the musicals category.  Meanwhile, the IMDb Top 250 voters got it right.  Who isn’t moved by the opening sequence, the perilous escape from the elephant graveyard, the terrible death of Mufasa, and the triumphant return of the king? This is the best Disney movie ever made, and will likely remain so for generations.

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