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32: The Lion King

Dis­ney Renaissance

32 The Lion King: BCDB List of Disney Animated Films

And then comes the king…. The Lion King. Still the box office champ of all traditionally animated films, The Lion King was the thirty-second animated feature from Disney, and the first developed completely in-house.

Early Production

The idea came from a conversation between Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy E. Disney and Peter Schneider on a flight to Europe in 1988 to promote Oliver & Company. By November, Thomas Disch had written a treatment entitled King of the Kalahari, and then Linda Woolverton began a frantic year of writing drafts of the script, which at various times was titled King of the Beasts and then King of the Jungle.

Oliver & Company‘s George Scribner was brought in to direct, and he was soon joined by Roger Allers who in turn brought in Brenda Chapman as head of story.

One of the first ideas considered for The Lion King was the incorporation of African design motifs into the design of the film. Artists studied sculptures, fabrics, and decorations from many parts of Africa, and applied their interpretations to landscape, vegetation and other film elements.

Lion King in Africa

To capture the natural beauty and diversity of the African landscapes, several of the film makers traveled to Eastern Africa in the early stages of pre-production (November 1991) to observe the land firsthand, and photograph and sketch the land and its creatures for research. Several small concept studies by an artist named Hans Bacher were again reviewed by the team after their return from Africa. These drawings were found to encapsulate the balance of naturalism and stylization that the team had decided would define The Lion King. The backgrounds are unique in that, for the first time since Bambi (1942), they present nature in a pristine state, without the presence or artifacts of human beings.

As the story took a turn from a more documentary feel to a musical, Scribner decided to leave the project, and he was replaced by Rob Minkoff. With the move to the savannahs of Kenya as the setting, Jungle was dropped from the title, and the film became The Lion King.

As animators began to develop their characters, a group of wild animals was brought to the studio under the auspices of Jim Fowler, once co-host of the television series Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. An exhaustive series of drawing sessions were held featuring live models of meerkats, a baboon, a lion cub, two young adult lions and a fully-grown male and female lion. Since the characters were not anthropomorphized, all the animators had to learn to draw realistic four-legged animals, and the story and character development was done through usage of longer shots following the characters.

The Lion King employed more than 650 artists, animators and technicians over the course of its production. Work was split between the coasts, with Mark Henn animating young Simba in Florida while adult Simba was animated by Ruben A. Aquino, Andreas Deja did Scar, and Tony Fucile supervised Mufasa in Burbank. Nearly 20 minutes of the film, including the “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” sequence, were completed at the Disney-MGM Studios facility in Florida.

Film Release

Prior to its nationwide release, this film was shown at two theaters, El Capitan Theater in Hollywood and Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Despite the limited release, the film placed tenth at the box office, and the average of $793,377 per theater stands as the largest ever achieved during a weekend. Its first week in wide release the film brought in 41 million dollars. By the end of its theatrical run the film had earned over 300 million dollars making it the most commercially successful animated film.

While the comparisons to Hamlet are obvious and undeniable, there were also many allegations that Disney borrowed heavily from a 1960’s Japanese anime series Jungle Taitei (Kimba the White Lion) from Mushi Productions. In fact, voice actor Matthew Broderick initially thought that he was working on a remake of Kimba for Disney. The studios official response is that the similarities are all coincidental.

Controversy In Lion King

As with previous films, the Amer­i­can Life League protested a scene in which they saw something sexual. The scene in question is a night scene in which Simba collapses in exhaustion and exasperation to the veldt, and a cloud of dust is raised. As the dust swirls, it seems to form letters. Conservative activist Donald Wildmon contends that the dust spells out “SEX”,and that it was a subliminal message intended to promote sexual promiscuity (because Disney is so well known for secretly promoting sexual promiscuity). A much more logical explanation is that the dust spells out “SFX”, a common abbreviation in the film industry for Special eFfects. Hmmmm…

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