The Lion King is a Disney classic that, in the summer of 1994, broke box office records and won widespread critical accolades (not to mention two Academy Awards). It instantly captured the zeitgeist and in the years since, with its many sequels and spin-offs (the latest, a television series called The Lion Guard premieres next month on Disney Channel), has rarely let go. There’s something primal and powerful about the story of a lion (Matthew Broderick) who rekindles his self confidence and returns to his home to take his place as rightful ruler, which has kept it so relevant over 20 years later.
But as we all know, the process of crafting an animated classic is often a difficult one, with as many dead-ends as triumphs. And The Lion King is no different. In the spirit of the legendary creative process at Walt Disney Animation Studios, here are five versions of The Lion King that you never saw.
The Version Called King of the Jungle
The original treatment, credited to Tom Disch, was called King of the Kalahari and began with a prologue featuring “an animated map of Africa” and narration by a vulture named Skobi. (A scanned version of the first page features a note that says “November ’88, idea at lunch.”) By January 1990, a new version of the screenplay had been completed. This version was called King of the Jungle and was written by J.T. Allen. Later that year, a second draft, this time credited to Allen and Rain Man screenwriter Ron Bass, maintaining the King of the Jungle title. The name stuck through 1992. Eventually the title was changed since the setting was not the jungle but the savannah.
The Version Directed by George Scribner
Originally, George Scribner, who directed the similarly animal-filled Oliver & Company and now works with Walt Disney Imagineering, consulting on major projects like Shanghai Disneyland, was tapped to helm the film. But after several months of development and an insightful research trip to Africa, Scribner left the project. Scribner was looking to do a more straightforward, documentary-style film. Rob Minkoff, who would team up with co-director Roger Allers, took over from Scribner. It’s important to note how much Scribner contributed to the eventual film, from most of the main characters to many of the chief creative positions, establishing the fundamental tone and look of the film.
The Version That Wasn’t a Musical
As described above, the original version of The Lion King had an earthier approach to the material, which executive producer Thomas Schumacher recently (while publicizing the Australian opening of the stage play) described as “an animated National Geographic special.” And it’s true – from 1988 to 1993, the project was developed as a more dramatic non-musical. By 1993, though, the feeling had changed, with Tim Rice and Elton John being brought in to produce songs that would supplement Hans Zimmer’s original score.
The Version Where Mufasa Sings
During the sequence where Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is teaching Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) there was originally a song, sung by Mufasa called “To Be King.” The brief (clocking in at a minute and 45 seconds), regal song, has Mufasa and Zazu telling Simba that, “To be king is a huge obligation, it’s not just a license for fun.” (Of course Zazu chimes in with witty asides.) While the song eventually made its way into the supplemental materials of the Blu-ray disc, it was deleted from the film because the song didn’t suit Jones’ singing voice. It’s still fun to see Mufasa despense some royal wisdom via catchy, show-stopping tune.
The Version That Was Even More Shakespearean
It’s no secret that The Lion King, while technically the first original Walt Disney Animated film, borrowed liberally from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Co-writer Irene Mecchi said that the film was originally described as “Bambi in Africa with Hamlet thrown in.” Roger Allers says that the parallels became clearer and clearer as the film was developed and Scar went from being a “rogue lion” to part of the royal family. Mecchi says that it’s also Hamlet-like in its mixture of tragedy and comedy. This connection ran even deeper at one point, when, during the stampede, Scar (Jeremy Irons) would whisper in Mufasa’s ear, “Goodnight sweet prince.”