Disney’s Roaring Success: The 30th Anniversary of “The Lion King”

Just before The Lion King debuted in June of 1994, master animator Andreas Deja, who brought the film’s iconic villain Scar to the screen, noted that what was missing from the story of The Lion King was what made it most unique. “There’s a total absence of humans,” Deja said. “They’re not even referred to; they simply don’t exist, and yet, it is about human problems.”

Thirty years later, this element of the film is one of the reasons why The Lion King continues to resonate with audiences.

The tale of a lion cub named Simba, forced into exile by his evil uncle Scar, who is obsessed with becoming King, was the major “event film” of the summer of 1994. In the film, Simba, separated from the pride and befriended by a warthog named Pumbaa and a meerkat named Timon, eventually realizes his responsibilities and returns to confront Scar and reclaim the Pride Rock as The Lion King.

When production started, The Lion King was initially entitled King of the Jungle and took over 600 artists more than three years to complete, under the supervision of directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn.

In a 2011 interview with Susan King for The Los Angeles Times article, “A ‘Lion’s’ Tale,” co-director Allers recalled how The Lion King provided promotions for many newer, younger artists at the studio: “I think it gave an opportunity for a lot of young animators who hadn’t had a chance to lead a character. So, they were fired up to do a good job – it was a quiet and, inclusive, and creative circle. Everyone was listened to.”

The artists traveled to Kenya during production to inspire the film’s setting. Additionally, teams from San Diego and Miami zoos brought animals, including lions, into the studio for the artists to study.

In a 1994 interview, Ruben Aquino, supervising animator for adult Simba, noted how this research helped provide detail and inform the characters’ movements in the film. “There’s a certain feline quality about the way they move, which is sort of graceful and very loose,” said Aquino. “You can see this in your typical house cat, but because lions are so much larger and so much heavier, there’s a difference in the way they carry their weight.”

This research, as well as music, played a large part in telling the story of The Lion King. For the film, Aladdin lyricist Tim Rice teamed up with one of the biggest names in pop music, Elton John. The songs that John and Rice crafted for The Lion King worked well in the story and became Top 40 hits, winning Oscars, Grammys, and Golden Globes.

The songs included two with titles that have become part of our lexicon: the opening “Circle of Life’ (performed in the film by singer Carmen Twillie) and “Hakuna Matata,” sung by Timon and Pumbaa with Simba (the voices of Nathan Lane, and Ernie Sabella along Jason Weaver, who performed young Simba’s singing voice, and Joseph Williams, adult Simba’s singing voice).

They are just part of the talented voice cast in The Lion King, which also included James Earl Jones as Mufasa, Matthew Broderick as Simba, Moira Kelly as Nala, Robert Guillaume as Rafiki, the mandrill, Jonathan Taylor Thomas as young Simba, Rowan Atkinson as Zazu the hornbill, Madge Sinclair as Sarabi and Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings as the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed.

Jeremy Irons voiced Scar, one of Disney’s most unforgettable villains. In 1994, Deja noted how much the actor informed the character’s performance.

“He surprises you with almost every sentence,” said Deja of Irons. “The way he would shape those words, it’s unexpected and very imaginative, and you close your eyes, and you just want to animate right now!”

Scar sets Simba’s hero’s journey in motion by planning the death of Mufasa during the wildebeest stampede sequence in The Lion King. This powerful scene still stays with multiple generations thirty years after the film’s debut.

“We were trying to test the boundaries of what was possible in an animated movie, a family movie, a Disney movie,” co-director Minkoff told writer Priscilla Frank for the 2019 Vulture article, “It Took a Disney Kingdom to Kill Cartoon Mufasa.”

The Lion King opened in limited release on June 15, 1994 (as “The Lion King Summer Spectacular,” which included a stage show) at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles and Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The film then went into wide release on June 24, 1994.

Its success at the box office eventually made The Lion King the highest-grossing animated film of all time, a title it held until Finding Nemo in 2003.

The film’s immense popularity translated into another realm in 1997, with The Lion King: The Broadway Musical. Like the film, the play shattered records, winning the Tony Award that year for Best Musical.

In 2019, Disney produced a photorealistic computer-animated remake of The Lion King, which broke previous box-office records, becoming the highest-grossing animated film of all time to that date.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, 1994’s The Lion King is that rare film that has gone beyond the screen, becoming part of the zeitgeist and continues to have an enduring legacy.

Reflecting on the success of The Lion King, producer Don Hahn, speaking on a documentary for the film’s release on DVD, said:

“No one, I don’t care who they are or what they say, sets out to make a worldwide event or something that influences culture. In fact, if you set out to do those things, you’d probably fail. All we have, as one of the great Disney animators, Eric Larsen, once said, is sincerity. It’s our gift to the audience. So, when you try to put that across, people feel that.”