Best Movies of All Time #150: The Lion King (1994)
Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff
Disney is the oldest of the major animation studios, and through their existence, they have had large swings back and forth in quality. The Lion King was the last great film released during their so-called Renaissance era. In the aftermath of Beauty and the Beast, Disney realized their animated films could gather up awards, causing them to split their team between the supposedly more talented artists and the lesser employees. The first group made the questionable Pocahontas. The second made The Lion King.
It’s the ultimate story of the method behind art. In trying to pinpoint a supposed quality, the team behind Pocahontas failed. They might have found the set-up behind their earlier works, but their attempts at following a strict formula fell flat on its face when it lacked the charisma found in The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. On the other side is The Lion King, which is admittedly a much more chaotic piece than its predecessors, but it also has a lot of art. The lack of stress in the production seemed to create a state where those behind the work simply set out to do what worked for them, and a much more natural production churned up better results.
The Lion King contains what is quite possibly Disney’s strongest cast of characters. The careless Simba transforms into a broken being, but he evolves into a savior. Scar is one of their best villains, in part due to his flaws. He’s not overly powerful like Ursula or Maleficent. He’s simply a manipulative man willing to kill his brother and betray his nephew for power. The downfall of the kingdom is directly linked to the fact that he’s not a strong man; Scar’s rise to power is an all-around negative, even for Scar himself. Timon and Pumbaa are some of Disney’s best comic relief. Even if the story isn’t caught up in complexities, it carries itself through one of the most likable casts in all of cinema.
Disney is known for their musical numbers, and few are as laden with hits as The Lion King. The film opens with a grand shot of the African plains as animals run to the iconic Pride Rock, all backed by “The Circle of Life,” a sweeping number that is absolutely chilling. “Be Prepared” is one of the best Disney villain songs, matched up with strange shots recalling images of Nazis, showing just the kind of man Scar is. “Hakuna Matata” is the theme song for a carefree life, while “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is a beautiful scene of romance. Every time a song begins, you know you’re in for a colorful ride. What makes the use of music stand out so much in The Lion King is that it’s all packed away in the first half. Once Simba makes his return, the upbeat atmosphere of the film fades away to one of the most somber acts Disney has produced.
The Lion King finds the perfect balance of what Disney does best. The musical sequences that made Disney’s name are at their best, but that is allowed to take a backseat to Disney’s other grand signature, setting up a memorable villain. It will be hard for Disney to ever make a traditional film of greater quality. It does everything a good animated film should, all without a rigid code to be followed.
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