'The Lion King' at 25: How the Disney classic was rescued from the jaws of defeat

All the main characters in The Lion King. (Disney)

Disney’s The Lion King is one of the world’s most beloved animation films.

In fact, in 2016, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

It was released 25 years ago on 15 June 1994 and despite it becoming the highest grossing traditionally animated film of all time - the combined total of all The Lion King properties, including the musical, is estimated to be more than $10 billion (£7.9 billion) - initially Disney was very skeptical about its success.

With a new live-action remake on the horizon, we look back at the original animation and how it changed from its original concept to make it the classic it is today.

The film

Disney animators said the first time they had heard about The Lion King was at a wine and cheese party, where two storyboards were placed in front of them, one for Pocahontas and the other for a story about a lion cub in the African wilds.

In the very first drafts, the film was going to be called King of the Jungle, but there is one slight flaw - lions don’t live in the jungle.

To get the right colour palette and landscape, the animators were sent to Africa. (Disney)
To get the right colour palette and landscape, the animators were sent to Africa. (Disney)

Most of Disney’s top animators went to work on Pocahontas, as this was considered to be the next great triumph, and directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers said they “had to scrape and beg people to join their production”, which eventually became full of first-timers and animal enthusiasts.

Several Disney animators went to Africa to study animal behaviour and interaction in the wild. A grown lion and a cub were also brought into the animation studio as models for anatomy and musculature.

Some of the major differences between the start and finished product were that Scar would raise Simba, Rafiki was a cheetah, and Timon and Pumbaa didn’t even exist.

The wildebeest scene only lasted around two to three minutes, but took more than two years to animate. (Disney)
The wildebeest scene only lasted around two to three minutes, but took more than two years to animate. (Disney)

Along with traditional animation techniques, computer animation was used in a few of the scenes, including the infamous wildebeest stampede scene.

That in particular was a remarkable blend of the two which took more than two years to complete. The creation of the scene involved writing a new computer program to govern the movements of the herd, so that the models would not crash into one another when they ran, mimicking the movements of an actual wildebeest herd.

Read more: Hear Beyoncé for first time as Nala in new Lion King teaser

Ultimately, more than 600 artists, animators and technicians contributed to The Lion King over its lengthy production schedule. More than one million drawings were created for the film, including 1,197 hand-painted backgrounds and 119,058 individually coloured frames of film.

The music

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - NOVEMBER 04:  Hans Zimmer attends the 22nd Annual Hollywood Film Awards held at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on November 4, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic,)
Hans Zimmer has composed for more than 140 films including Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean and Interstellar. (Getty)

Hans Zimmer was approached by Disney to score the film because of his previous work with The Power of One and A World Apart, both which are set in South Africa. This was his first score for an animated film, and originally he didn’t even want to do it.

It was only when he realised he could take his then 6-year-old daughter to the premiere that he finally relented.

Zimmer himself has repeatedly said how he had lost his father at a young age and therefore music was an escape for him.

In an interview with Kjersti Flaa, he said: “I kept saying to the Disney people, ‘all you want is a fairy princess musical, and I don’t like musicals’. And then I realised it wasn’t about fuzzy animals at all, it was about a son losing his father. So suddenly I’m sat in front of this cartoon, writing a requiem for my father.”

Lebo M, vocal solos and Sir Elton John during DVD Debut of Walt Disney Pictures' "The Lion King" - After Party at El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, California, United States. (Photo by Chris Polk/FilmMagic)
Lebo M and Sir Elton John during the DVD debut of The Lion King. (Getty)

South African artist Lebo M performed the now instantly recognisable opening lyrics of The Circle of Life. In keeping the sound as authentic as possible, the filmmakers incorporated many African singers.

The 90s was a turbulent time in African politics, with many conflicts and civil wars, and apartheid only came to an end a few weeks before the initial release of the film.

“We recorded the last two choirs two weeks before the election [of Nelson Mandela], and everything changed,” Zimmer said in an interview with the Independent. “The choirs didn’t want to go home because outside a war was raging, and the studio was sanity, the music was sanity. People just wanted to make music and not get killed.”

For the songs and lyrics, Tim Rice was contacted, and initially he said he wanted ABBA to come on board with the project. However, after many phone calls they turned it down as they were busy with something else, so eventually he called Elton John, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Picture taken in 1974 in Stockholm shows the Swedish pop group Abba with its members (L-R) Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog and Bjorn Ulvaeus posing after winning the Swedish branch of the Eurovision Song Contest with their song "Waterloo". - Sweden's legendary disco group ABBA announced on April 27, 2018 that they have reunited to record two new songs, 35 years after their last single. The quartet split up in 1982 after dominating the disco scene for more than a decade with hits like "Waterloo", "Dancing Queen", "Mamma Mia" and "Super Trouper". (Photo by Olle LINDEBORG / TT News Agency / AFP) / Sweden OUT        (Photo credit should read OLLE LINDEBORG/AFP/Getty Images)
ABBA almost wrote the songs for The Lion King. (Getty)

The first song Rice wrote was Can You Feel the Love Tonight, and it’s inconceivable now to think of The Lion King without it being sung by Simba and Nala, but it could have been totally different if it went how the producers wanted it to.

Elton John said: “I wrote it to be sung by the two lion cubs who were in love. I was horrified when I heard it sung by the warthog, it was a shock.”

Luckily he was able to persuade the producers to have the lions sing it, and it went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song.

Voice actors

It took a while for the right voice actors to be found for the characters, and some people required a lot of persuasion.

Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella were originally cast as the hyenas Banzai and Shenzi (played by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin in the final film). The crew loved their performance and thought the duo would be even better as Timon and Pumbaa, who they eventually played.

Scar is often considered one of the best Disney villains. (Disney)
Scar is often considered to be one of the best Disney villains. (Disney)

Tim Curry and Malcolm McDowell were originally considered for the role of Scar, both were unavailable, and eventually it came to Jeremy Irons, who initially rejected it, ended up saying that he felt it was his first real villain.

In 1994 he gave an interview to The New York Times, where he said: “It is, of course, enormous fun playing villains, [but about Scar] I've played enigmatic characters, but never a character who glories in evil.”

Another actor who had to be convinced to do the voice over was Rowan Atkinson (Zazu). In an interview with PeopleTV, he said: “I didn’t want to do it, really, because voiceovers, voice work is something I generally had never done and never liked. I’m a visual artist, if I’m anything, and it seemed to be a pointless thing to do.”

The legacy

One of the main reasons it has endured is that there are multiple ways to enjoy it, from the film to the stage production.

The original was released right in the middle of Disney’s renaissance period, from 1989 to 1999, and despite it being a family friendly film, it also teaches children important life lessons and complex issues, such as death, grief, and the search for your true self.

The music is instantly recognisable and it is hard to find a song that will send chills up your spine quite like the opening of The Circle of Life can.

L-R Melina M'Poy (Nala) Gugwana Dlamini (Rafiki) and Johnathan Andrew Hume as (Simba) pictured at the launch of The Lion King musical at the Project arts centre in Dublin.   (Photo by Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images)
L-R Melina M'Poy (Nala) Gugwana Dlamini (Rafiki) and Johnathan Andrew Hume (Simba) pictured at the launch of The Lion King musical at the Project arts centre in Dublin. (Getty)

The theatre show, based on the film, is one of the longest running musicals in the world and has proven to be Disney’s biggest box office winner, having grossed nearly $8.1 billion (£6.4 billion) as of 2017.

According to the official website, over 100 million people worldwide have seen the musical and it has earned numerous awards and honours, including six Tony Awards, one for Best Musical and Best Direction of a Musical, making director Julie Taymor the first woman to earn such an honour.

There have been several straight-to-DVD sequels, such as The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, which tells the story of the next generation, and the surprise hit The Lion King ​1½, where the original film is narrated through the eyes of Timon and Pumbaa, and also multiple TV spin-offs, including The Lion Guard which is still ongoing.

The Lion King has been firmly embedded into pop culture, and with the new film it will hopefully bring the younger generation into its all-encompassing charm.

The Lion King will be released in UK cinemas on 19 July.