Some Pop Music…
Do you find yourself deciding whether to watch the Lion King? Ask yourself this- how much do you like pop music?
In pop music there is a device called ‘the hook’. This is a line, melody, riff or performance, usually in the chorus that hooks the audience in to the rest of the song. Sometimes there are more than one hook like the huge hit Blurred Lines there are hooks in melody and even the hey, hey, hey’s at the beginning. How many of the fans even know what the words are to that song? There are a million examples of hooks.
The reason I mention hooks is it can certainly be used in movies as a way to draw people into the characters or story. Pixar loves hooks in all of their movies. They almost all start with a bold intro that draws you in and hooks you emotionally into the story. Think beginning of Up, Wall-e, Incredibles, Cars etc.
The Lion King is the best Disney use of hooks I can think of (although Tarzan and Tangled both use them very effectively and have a pop music feel). I don’t know if it is pop singer (yes, he’s pop not rock star) Elton John’s melodies but nearly every song, every scene in fact, has a strong hook. You have the one idea you are supposed to be getting from the scene or song and the rest is kind of non-essential.
Think of the difference between our intro to Lion King, Circle of Life, and the song Belle in Beauty and the Beast. In Belle there really isn’t a chorus. It’s just her singing about the poor provincial town and through the song we learn a ton about several characters and get the beginnings of the story laid out for us. In contrast, I couldn’t even tell you the rest of the words to Circle of Life besides ‘it’s the circle of life’. All we need to take away from the song is there are animals and a baby has been christened.
Does that mean it isn’t a good movie? No, I was actually quite blown away by it but I can also see how, just like some don’t like pop music for being contrived, people could feel manipulated and annoyed with The Lion King. And just like pop music can get a little grating after the 30th listen through The Lion King may not be a good choice for repeated viewings.
But I loved it! But I love pop music so go figure.
What’s interesting is after Aladdin the studio split into projects. Instead of all the top talent working on the next film together as had been done for a few years people could choose between Pocahontas or The Lion King, and surprisingly most picked Pocahontas feeling it was ‘more important’ of the two films.
Even Alan Menken moved over to Pocahontas, leaving The Lion King with kind of the Bad News Bears of Disney animation. Tim Rice had taken over for Howard Ashman on Aladdin and won the Oscar for Whole New World. Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers were first time directors, Thomas Disch had written the strange The Brave Little Toaster, Hans Zimmer had never done a score for animated film etc.
Elton John was recruited by Tim Rice and he had this pop music mentality from the start:
“Let’s do it for kids, because it’s just a great story” but most of Disney animated movies have a kind of Broadway score, and I said “Let’s not go for that, let’s go for a completely different feel and just write ultra-pop songs kids would like; then adults can go and see those movies and get just as much pleasure out of them” I mean, adults buy a lot of pop records” (Billboard, Oct 4, 1997)
You see! That’s why there are all those hooks!
They certainly spared no expense in their voice cast which also feels like pop celebrity type thing to do. We’ve got James Earl Jones, Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, teen king Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly (ala Cutting Edge fame), Nathan Lane, Rowan Atkinson, Cheech Marin and of course Whoopi Goldberg. It is definitely the most ‘famous’ Disney cast ever assembled and they do a terrific job with the material.
The Lion King was also the first original story (takes inspiration from the Bible and Hamlet but not straight adaptation) and first movie to use no humans (Bambi had the hunters).
Unlike Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast which took 2 years to execute, The Lion King took 6 years from initial concept to release date. It went through scores of animators and writers and from what I’ve read nobody was expecting it to be a big hit.
However, Disney marketing was brilliant, releasing the first 4 minutes instead of a trailer in November 1993 when only 1/3rd of the movie had been completed. The intro is such a great hook it did it’s job and producer Don Hahn was actually “afraid of not living up to the expectations raised by the preview”. They weren’t! Lion King is the highest grossing hand drawn film in history so it did pretty well for itself!
As I already mentioned we start off with a bang. A huge hook of The Circle of Life. It is a background song with African chanting and huge pan shots of baby Simba being presented (it’s basically a lion christening).
I can totally see why people saw this in 1993 and were counting down the days to see it in 1994 (1993 was a rare year with no annual Disney offering).
We then right away get another hook with the introduction to our villain, Scar.
The conversation between Mufasa and Scar kind of reminds me of the beginning of Sleeping Beauty. First of all both Scar and Maleficent have obvious villain names and they are dripping with disdain for all around them. It is very effective in drawing you into both characters and the story.
If anything the scene could have been longer. We also get the first Moses/Ramseys biblical reference. It probably goes without saying the voice work by James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons in the movie is perfect.
Then we lighten things up in our next section introduces us to the baby lions Simba and Nala and the hornbill bird Zazu. Zazu is voiced by Rowan Atkinson and it is a very funny performance and character. He’s a big nag but most of the time he is right to nag so it is funny.
Zazu’s nagging makes a nice comedic foil for ‘Can’t Wait to be King’ a song right out of a boy band pop album but I like it. I think it is fun.
Simba and Nala sneak away to see an elephant graveyard Scar had told Simba about earlier (practically every scene in the movie is prophetic of future scenes to come). The hyenas almost take out the cubs but Mufasa comes to the rescue and defeats them.
Afterwards he has some very biblical sounding advice for his son:
The whole stars thing is kind of corny but those kinds of father son moments are usually like that and they do a good job establishing plot and a bond with little time spent together on screen.
Next we are back to our villain in the strongest song of the movie (and the only one actually sung by the voice talent). With the Nazi hyenas (who would have thought of that!) and the green boiler room atmosphere Be Prepared is one of the best villain songs. It is also nice to have another movie with a male villain because usually in Disney it is female.
The Hans Zimmer score is perfect. It brings emotional intensity into even rather trite scenes. I have it on my ipod and it is one of my favorites to listen to when I’m working. I love the choral and tribal elements. It reminds me a little of On Bald Mountain in Fantasia. Beautiful.
So Scar puts his dastardly plan into action tricking Simba into being in the path of a stampede. I remember seeing this scene and being blown away and it totally holds up. The computer graphics, music and sound effects are stunning.
Mufasa has died and Scar becomes the master manipulator. Some people don’t like that Simba runs away but if you listen Scar doesn’t actually say anything which isn’t true. Mufasa would be alive if Simba wasn’t in that gorge. The King is gone and it wasn’t supposed to happen. And remember Simba is little, the lion equivalent of a toddler who would be easy to manipulate. So it is no wonder he is scared and runs away.
I like the heart in these segments. Yes is it pulling at our heart strings pretty heavily but it’s all been so epic it works. Plus, his Dad has just died. If there was ever time for an over the top cry that is it.
So Simba runs away and that’s where we get to the charming but admittedly weaker section of the movie. In a lush jungle Simba meets Timon and Pumba who agree to teach him a new way to live. (It’s actually an interesting thought study for kids. It’s a softer version of what is presented with Pleasure Island in Pinocchio. Timon and Pumba believe in being happy and only living for yourself, for what pleases you, just like the boys at the island were only concerned with having fun and sinning.
And it is here we get probably the most famous song from the movie (so the kid pop thing totally worked out). I am not a big fan of potty humor so it was never my favorite but it is catchy no doubt about it.
Simba grows up in the song and we can assume has completely bought into the lifestyle of Timon and Pumba, basically forgetting his other life.
Then he meets Nala, his cub girlfriend, and she tells him how much they need him. He refuses and to me it makes sense. Most of his life has been spent living a hakuna matata lifestyle so why would he want to go back to all that hurt?
We then get a forgettable musical number Can You Feel the Love (won the Oscar. They loved those syrupy romance ballads in the 90s). It’s also a background vocal and the scene could be cut out no problem. Some people hate the comedic intro they decided to use but as I’m not a big fan of the song I don’t really care about that.
Then he meets Rafiki, the wise but silly monkey, and this scene is just masterful storytelling. It is epic and subtle and anyone who has grieved can relate to all of the emotions involved.
The past hurts but we can learn from it. That is a great lesson for all of us. How tempting is it to take the path of least resistance but sometimes in so doing we are denying who we are what makes us special.
So Simba arrives at Pride Rock to find it like the elephant graveyard of earlier. No food, everything gray and wasted away. Simba confronts Scar and again he is very good at saying the truth but not being truthful. He tells all of the lions that Simba is the reason why Mufasa is gone which Simba cannot deny.
The other lions do not support Simba at first but can you blame them? He’s been gone all this time, abandoning them. They are under the rule of a dictator who will use any such assertions against them and Simba has just said he is responsible for Mufasa’s death. Why should they think otherwise? In fact, they have every right to be upset and unforgiving of him.
It is only when Scar admits he was the one who is responsible for Mufasa’s murder that they come to Simba’s defense. Again, to me this makes total sense and is probably the way I would behave if confronted with similar betrayals, accusations and knowledge. Yes, you learn from the past and move on but people need a decent enough time to absorb new information. Even Simba wasn’t ready to accept the change in one conversation with Nala.
I was 13 when The Lion King came out so I was just starting to get into the ‘cartoons are for kids’ phase and so I liked Lion King but it wasn’t the transcendent experience Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were. But, I can totally see how if you were 8-10 when it came out it would be huge.
Unlike Aladdin which really made the entire film for adults and kids, The Lion King has segments like Hakuna Matata and Just Can’t Wait which are geared to literally hook kids into them. I find them cheerful and fun but what moves me is the dramatic sections that probably bore kids (but I don’t think so much so they won’t enjoy the movie).
The score makes the movie. It is perfect. The songs are mostly good pop songs and I like them.
The animation is beautiful with segments reverting from the lush 2D animation to geographic tribal motifs. The stampede is still impressive from all angles and Scar is a great villain with a great villain song. All in all it is a very satisfying movie to watch. I really found myself moved and excited by it. (I probably hadn’t seen it in 15 years before yesterday despite owning the score. That’s how much I love the score!).
If I was going to be a little critical it would be the middle section lags a little bit and when push comes to shove I do like Broadway music better than pop music. It’s kind of amazing it was made into such a great Broadway musical given it was trying to not be Broadway but that wouldn’t have happened without the creative vision of Julie Taymor. When I saw Lion King in New York I said it was like watching a living painting. The music wasn’t the standout although it was fine.
So maybe The Lion King isn’t perfect but it has tons to like and a message I’m still pondering after all these years. Plus, some catchy songs and visuals that draw you in. I loved it!
Overall Score- A