The Lion King became a phenomenon by celebrating humankind’s brief trajectory through the cosmos.
Walt Disney Pictures produced two animated features in parallel during its early-‘90s zenith. One was seen as a marquee project, on which its elite talent clamored to work. The other was a curio, decidedly second-tier, of interest mostly to new animators and those who sought to create a world inhabited by four-legged characters. The former picture was Pocahontas, which, despite its merits, marked the end of the Disney Renaissance. The latter was The Lion King, a masterpiece that now hangs high in the studio’s gallery of two-dimensional greats, the apotheosis of hand-drawn animation (from Hollywood, at least. Japan’s Studio Ghibli carries the mantle to this day).
Disney discovered, early on, that its B-project was special. So, in an unprecedented move, it released the first few minutes of its 32nd animated film as a teaser trailer, while The Lion King was still in development, a year before its 1994 summer debut. Without a single line of dialogue, or even a hint about the film’s larger story, audiences responded with eagerness. Everyone, on both sides of the screen, understood that “The Circle of Life” sequence – with its glorious, almost painterly vistas; an overwhelming sense of majesty, as beasts of all varieties march and fly to the same destination; set to a song, about birth (and, by implication, death), that reaches skyward just as a baboon, high on a rock, holds a lion cub aloft, while the animal pilgrims below go nuts – heralded a capital-E Event. Those four minutes of splendor still induce goosebumps.
The Lion King was an instant sensation, a blockbuster whose enthusiastic audience included both children and adults back when animated pictures were only pitched at kids. The tragedy of Mufasa and the rise of his son Simba, from an exile to a monarch, held a broad appeal. Much of this was thanks to the film’s indelible songs (courtesy of Elton John and Tim Rice), its magnificent score (courtesy of Hans Zimmer), its fine vocal performances (courtesy of a sterling cast) and its gorgeous backdrop (courtesy of the Serengeti). But its tale was the star of the show, a storyline at once prototypical and new.
Though it borrows thematic elements from “Hamlet,” The Lion King was Disney’s first animated picture that didn’t rework a known legend from the ground up. Its tone, a high-wire act of high pathos and lowbrow gags, somehow coalesces into something transcendent. Tug at any of the individual threads – palace intrigue and regicide, the coming-of-age quest and the revenge fantasy, romance and comedy – and The Lion King unravels into a mound of yarn. But these narratives are woven so tight, it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. Simba’s trajectory holds them together in a knot of woe, laughter, and triumph.
The particulars of plot, entrancing as they are, fade if you take a step back and view The Lion King as an antecedent to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and its wild interlude, in particular. This film, this bundle of genres, this multi-faceted jewel, encapsulates life from its first breath to its final gasp. The setting is Africa, the cradle of mankind. And the natural order, the indisputable fact of mortality, is its thesis. Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but grief wields its own cruel weaponry. When Simba shouts heavenward at a cloud formation that may or may not be his dead father, he’s confronting first principles, the fact that those whom we love will, at some point, never return after they’re extinguished. Just as we, too, will someday be whisked away without notice.
Such is life. Like the round yellow sun that started this miracle, existence waxes and wanes in an unending loop. The Lion King became a phenomenon by celebrating humankind’s brief trajectory through the cosmos. That a human never enters a single frame makes The Lion King universal, a blanket that covers all things that grow, reproduce, and then perish. It’s a saga of being and nothingness, whose hero faces a faceless truth and confronts the void with a little help from his friends, and a few fart jokes.