On a plane ride from London to Paris for the European premiere of Oliver & Company, an idea for an animated feature was hatched. It would be a coming-of-age tale set in Africa, and it would involve lions.
By that fall, the first treatment for the project (then known as The King of the Kalahari, later King of the Jungle, finally The Lion King) by Tom Disch (who wrote the novel that The Brave Little Toaster was based on) had been submitted to the studio. “An animated map of Africa. As the camera spirals down over the dunes of the Sahara and the jungle of the Congo, the deep, creepy voice of SKOBI explains that the Dark Continent is made of many kingdoms, not only the deserts and the jungles but the broad veldts ruled by the king of beasts,” it began.
George Scribner, who had just finished work on Oliver and Company, was tapped to direct and, as Christopher Finch recounts in The Art of the Lion King, “By the time The Lion King went into production, the project had already generated enough script pages to fill a sizable cardboard carton.” Finch describes that at one point Simba had “a whole menagerie of childhood chums,” including another lion cub (named Mee-Too) and a bat-eared fox, all inside of a narrative framework that was “rooted in nature in much the same way that Bambi had been a half-century earlier.”
By the fall of 1990, there was a treatment making the rounds that involved a “war between lions and baboons,” Thomas Schumacher, then President of Walt Disney Animation Studios, recalls on The Lion King Diamond Edition Blu-ray. In this version, Rafiki was a cheetah, and Scar was the leader of the baboons. These early treatments were more serious with very little humor and a nature documentary approach.“I wanted to push it to be more naturalistic,” Scribner says in that same interview.
In November 1991, a group of animators and artists traveled to East Africa. The group included Director Roger Allers, who at that point was working with Scribner, story head Brenda Chapman, production designer Chris Sanders, Scribner, and visual development artist Lisa Keene. “What a day, when our guide brought us to the top of a bluff, and it was as if you could see forever,” Sanders recalls in The Art of The Lion King. “The air was clear and you looked out across valleys and mountains and canyons. It was all dappled with sunlight and shadow and you could take in so much at once that we could see five separate thunderstorms moving through the landscape at one time.” This trip had a huge effect on the production of the film: the group’s tour guide introduced them to the phrase “Hakuna Matata” (he also hummed “Asante sana squash banana,” a Swahili playground rhyme that Rafiki famously sings in the film). They were not only studying animals in their natural environments but also observing African art and culture, which manifested itself in the film in subtler ways, particularly in the “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” musical number largely conceptualized by Sanders. “The whole experience helped bring everything into focus and allowed us to visualize the enchanted, yet realistic Africa that we wanted as our setting,” Allers noted in The Art of The Lion King. “The movie wouldn’t have been the same without that trip.”
When the filmmakers returned from Africa Allers was paired with director Rob Minkoff, while Scribner consulted on the project. The more naturalistic version of the story began to evolve; it was more heightened now, colorful too. “The tone of that version was much more serious,” Allers remembers in the making-of documentary. When Minkoff was assigned to the project, he asked, “So we’re starting from scratch?” And they were. Allers and Minkoff looked to inspiration in classic westerns and American illustrators like Charles Marion Russell, Frederic Remington, N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, and J.C. Leyendecker), and quickly assembled a brain trust of creative collaborators that included Brenda Chapman, Don Hahn, Kirk Wise, and Gary Trousdale, who had just finished Beauty and the Beast. “The six participants sequestered themselves in a large room with reams of drawing paper and boxes full of push pins. The brainstorming session lasted two days,” Finch wrote. “Answers to many of the problems that had been facing the development team were thrashed out, and a firm outline of the film emerged.” Later on writers Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Roberts joined the team. According to Finch, “they were responsible for the verbal aspects of the story, and also contributed greatly to the development of all the principal characters.”
Meanwhile, animators at the studio were given a choice: They could either work on The Lion King or Pocahontas. Cheese-and-wine parties were held with artwork from Pocahontas on one side of the room, and sketches from The Lion King on the other.
Pocahontas was a very serious drama, the first time that Disney had made an animated film based on a true story, and was being shepherded by genius animators Eric Goldberg and Mike Gabriel. The Lion King, on the other hand, was completely untested–the first Disney animated film not based on source material–and something of an experiment. “Pretty much everybody at the studio decided they’d rather work on Pocahontas,” Minkoff said. So The Lion King team filled up with first-timers and animal enthusiasts. Andreas Deja, the ridiculously talented supervising animator of Scar, signed on because of his love of The Jungle Book and animator Milt Kahl’s work on that film. “We were terrified,” Minkoff said later.
Tony Award-winner Tim Rice had been involved with the project since early 1991. He was already at the studio doing work on Ron Clements and John Musker’s Aladdin and was initially invited to “make suggestions about how songs might be incorporated into The Lion King,” according to Finch. He soon joined the team as lyricist, on the condition that a suitable songwriter could be found. Rice tried to woo brilliant Swedish pop group ABBA, who had previously worked with him on the musical/concept album, Chess. They were busy with an opera and declined. Rice then suggested Elton John. In September 1991, Schumacher and Tim Rice called John and pitched the idea of The Lion King. According to Rice, the singer/songwriter was “enthusiastic and made a commitment to the movie virtually on the spot.” Composer Hans Zimmer also joined the team, oftentimes reworking the songs that John and Rice had submitted to fit into the larger score. For Zimmer, the material was deeply personal. “My father died when I was very young and I realized I had to deal with it in this movie,” Zimmer said in the behind-the-scenes documentary.
As the music for the film solidified, so did the story. Shakespearean and biblical overtones were introduced. The film that Roy O. Disney had described as being about “knowing who you are and being true to yourself” was becoming more sophisticated. And the musicians were adding much to the story, as well. “Writing for an animated film is not that different from writing for a stage musical,” Rice said in The Art of the Lion King. “You’re still writing the best lyrics you can that will help establish character and advance the plot. Like me, the story people keep on making changes until they get things right. You can do that in animation because everything is drawn, so changing a scene doesn’t involve ordering half a million dollars’ worth of props. I’m very comfortable working that way.”
The actors that were cast in the film affected it, too. Deja was hugely influenced by the look of Jeremy Irons, who voiced Scar, and Ruben Aquino, who animated adult Simba, initially thought that Simba should have a man “that looked like Jon Bon Jovi.” After Matthew Broderick was cast, Simba’s mane became smoother, less wild. Famously, Ernie Sabella had auditioned for a hyena, and Nathan Lane was up for the role of feathered advisor Zazu, but after they ran into each other at the audition, decided to do one together as a pair of hyenas. The filmmakers loved their comic energy so much that they cast them as Timon and Pumbaa.
Animals were brought into the studio under the auspices of Jim Fowler, co-host of popular nature program Wild Kingdom, echoing the technique Walt employed while making Bambi. Additionally, locomotion and anatomy expert Stuart Sumida conducted lectures on animal movement, behavior, and skeletal structure.
Looking back on the film, it’s easy to take for granted just how much of a breakthrough the The Lion King was. Firstly, on a narrative level, it was incredibly complex and psychological. Deja remembered working on a scene between Scar and Simba and realizing that this was a movie “about things that hadn’t been tackled in animation before.” The tonal balancing act was unbelievable; in The Lion King, sequences of grave importance are sandwiched next to moments purely concerned with a hula-dancing meerkat. And both come across beautifully. When they started the film, animators worried about the lack of props–the characters had nothing to lean on, both figuratively, and literally. But the lack of physical objects led to stronger performances. In fact, the film was also a technical trailblazer. There were a number of camera moves and techniques that were borrowed from the filmmakers’ love of David Lean epics, things like the dramatic rack focus in the “Circle of Life” number, or the 360 camera move during the film’s climax. This was stuff that had never been attempted in animation before. The wildebeest stampede, for example, was as cutting-edge as computer generated imagery got back then, requiring special coding to be written before it could be integrated into the movie seamlessly.
In the spirit of experimentation, things were attempted and discarded. Mufasa had a song called “King of the Wild,” where he explained to Simba the delicate balance of the land, and at one point a reprise of “Be Prepared” followed Mufasa’s death with Scar attempting to woo Nala (it wound up in the stage play as “The Madness of King Scar”). There were additional verses in “Hakuna Matata” explaining Timon’s outcast status, and an entirely different version of the song called “Warthog Rhapsody.” The Shakespearean overtones became undertones; at one point, when Scar dropped Mufasa into the wildebeest stampede, he cooed, “Goodnight sweet prince.” At another juncture, an executive suggested that Timon and Pumbaa’s hula song be replaced with “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees.
Originally, Timon and Pumbaa sang “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” as kind of a parody. Minkoff and Allers were trying desperately to figure out how to fit the song into the movie (on the DVD commentary track, they guess that Rice wrote the lyrics “18 times”) and came upon the idea to have it be a jokey satire. But a test screening in Atlanta, which Elton John attended (he was living there at the time), proved problematic. John confessed that he had joined the production because he wanted to write a big romantic Disney song and urged them to figure out a way of incorporating the song without lampooning it. They did. Another screening revealed that the audience really loved the mystic baboon character, Rafiki, and so connective scenes were implemented to give him a greater presence.
There were victories during the production, as well, like when Chris Sanders cracked the sequence where Mufasa’s ghost visits Simba and encourages him to carry on. Not only did this sequence make it into the film virtually unchanged but it also inspired the movie’s iconic poster art.
Six months before The Lion King was due in theaters, a theatrical teaser trailer ran. It began with red text on a black background: “Next summer, Walt Disney Pictures will present its newest animated feature. What follows is the opening song that begins the story.” And then they ran “Circle of Life” in its entirety. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it. The sequence was modeled largely after the paintings of artist Hans Bacher, staged by Andy Gaskill,and actualized brilliantly by Dan St. Pierre’s layout department. After The Lion King title card, that simple black-on-red font returned: “To be continued, June 1994.” It was impossible to watch that trailer and not get excited. It promised something new, bold, and highly emotional. And the public’s response energized the crew.
And then the Northridge earthquake, which registered a 6.7 on the moment magnitude scale, hit the San Fernando Valley, where The Lion King was being produced. It was devastating. Nobody could get to work. Highways crumbled like breadsticks. This hugely important movie, the follow-up to such smashes as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, was being completed in peoples’ garages. Some animators were camped out in the studio. But everybody rallied and they got the movie done, on time, to rapturous reviews. Even a natural disaster couldn’t slow down the production.
“In the early phases, when the basic decisions were being made, Roger and I worked together a great deal,” Minkoff explained in The Art of The Lion King. “As the movie went into production, we began to concentrate on our own sequences. Then, when the movie began to come together as a whole, we found ourselves operating in tandem again.”
However they did it, it worked. The Lion King is a wonderfully told story, rooted in real emotion, and exhibiting unlimited artistic exuberance, that made its way through a number of creative detours and an honest-to-goodness natural disaster. It was a film that would ultimately capture the imagination of the entire world, and still inspires new creative endeavors to this day. It broke box office records and obliterated audience expectations, eventually becoming the highest grossing traditionally animated film of all time (a title it still holds, after more than 20 years). It has inspired Broadway musicals, Disney Parks attractions, several television spin-offs, and more merchandise than you can imagine. But everything after The Lion King is another story altogether. That’s the Circle of Life, after all.