Animation Cel-ebration
June 21, 2024 posted by Michael Lyons

Disney’s Roaring Success: The 30th Anniversary of “The Lion King”

Just before The Lion King debuted in June of 1994, master animator Andreas Deja, who brought the film’s iconic villain Scar to the screen, noted that what was missing from the story of The Lion King was what made it most unique. “There’s a total absence of humans,” Deja said. “They’re not even referred to; they simply don’t exist, and yet, it is about human problems.”

Thirty years later, this element of the film is one of the reasons why The Lion King continues to resonate with audiences.

The tale of a lion cub named Simba, forced into exile by his evil uncle Scar, who is obsessed with becoming King, was the major “event film” of the summer of 1994. In the film, Simba, separated from the pride and befriended by a warthog named Pumbaa and a meerkat named Timon, eventually realizes his responsibilities and returns to confront Scar and reclaim the Pride Rock as The Lion King.

When production started, The Lion King was initially entitled King of the Jungle and took over 600 artists more than three years to complete, under the supervision of directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn.

In a 2011 interview with Susan King for The Los Angeles Times article, “A ‘Lion’s’ Tale,” co-director Allers recalled how The Lion King provided promotions for many newer, younger artists at the studio: “I think it gave an opportunity for a lot of young animators who hadn’t had a chance to lead a character. So, they were fired up to do a good job – it was a quiet and, inclusive, and creative circle. Everyone was listened to.”

The artists traveled to Kenya during production to inspire the film’s setting. Additionally, teams from San Diego and Miami zoos brought animals, including lions, into the studio for the artists to study.

In a 1994 interview, Ruben Aquino, supervising animator for adult Simba, noted how this research helped provide detail and inform the characters’ movements in the film. “There’s a certain feline quality about the way they move, which is sort of graceful and very loose,” said Aquino. “You can see this in your typical house cat, but because lions are so much larger and so much heavier, there’s a difference in the way they carry their weight.”

This research, as well as music, played a large part in telling the story of The Lion King. For the film, Aladdin lyricist Tim Rice teamed up with one of the biggest names in pop music, Elton John. The songs that John and Rice crafted for The Lion King worked well in the story and became Top 40 hits, winning Oscars, Grammys, and Golden Globes.

The songs included two with titles that have become part of our lexicon: the opening “Circle of Life’ (performed in the film by singer Carmen Twillie) and “Hakuna Matata,” sung by Timon and Pumbaa with Simba (the voices of Nathan Lane, and Ernie Sabella along Jason Weaver, who performed young Simba’s singing voice, and Joseph Williams, adult Simba’s singing voice).

They are just part of the talented voice cast in The Lion King, which also included James Earl Jones as Mufasa, Matthew Broderick as Simba, Moira Kelly as Nala, Robert Guillaume as Rafiki, the mandrill, Jonathan Taylor Thomas as young Simba, Rowan Atkinson as Zazu the hornbill, Madge Sinclair as Sarabi and Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings as the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed.

Jeremy Irons voiced Scar, one of Disney’s most unforgettable villains. In 1994, Deja noted how much the actor informed the character’s performance.

“He surprises you with almost every sentence,” said Deja of Irons. “The way he would shape those words, it’s unexpected and very imaginative, and you close your eyes, and you just want to animate right now!”

Scar sets Simba’s hero’s journey in motion by planning the death of Mufasa during the wildebeest stampede sequence in The Lion King. This powerful scene still stays with multiple generations thirty years after the film’s debut.

“We were trying to test the boundaries of what was possible in an animated movie, a family movie, a Disney movie,” co-director Minkoff told writer Priscilla Frank for the 2019 Vulture article, “It Took a Disney Kingdom to Kill Cartoon Mufasa.”

The Lion King opened in limited release on June 15, 1994 (as “The Lion King Summer Spectacular,” which included a stage show) at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles and Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The film then went into wide release on June 24, 1994.

Its success at the box office eventually made The Lion King the highest-grossing animated film of all time, a title it held until Finding Nemo in 2003.

The film’s immense popularity translated into another realm in 1997, with The Lion King: The Broadway Musical. Like the film, the play shattered records, winning the Tony Award that year for Best Musical.

In 2019, Disney produced a photorealistic computer-animated remake of The Lion King, which broke previous box-office records, becoming the highest-grossing animated film of all time to that date.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, 1994’s The Lion King is that rare film that has gone beyond the screen, becoming part of the zeitgeist and continues to have an enduring legacy.

Reflecting on the success of The Lion King, producer Don Hahn, speaking on a documentary for the film’s release on DVD, said:

“No one, I don’t care who they are or what they say, sets out to make a worldwide event or something that influences culture. In fact, if you set out to do those things, you’d probably fail. All we have, as one of the great Disney animators, Eric Larsen, once said, is sincerity. It’s our gift to the audience. So, when you try to put that across, people feel that.”


  • Yes, “The Lion King” is a great movie. No one disputes that. But Disney’s self-congratulatory hype surrounding the film, in particular the spurious claim that it was based on “an original story”, put me off from the very beginning.

    I was in my early thirties when “The Lion King” came out. So, too, were many of the hundreds of artists who worked on it. Like me, they would have loved cartoons when they were growing up and taken every opportunity to watch them. And yet we’re expected to believe that all of these artists, every last one of them, somehow missed out on an imported animated series from Japan called “Kimba the White Lion”.

    “Kimba” was by no means an obscure show familiar to only a handful of anime geeks. It had been commissioned by NBC from Mushi Productions, Japan’s leading animation studio, specifically for the American market. It aired every single weekday after school for years and years. The idea that it would be completely unknown to a generation of animators who grew up during that time, and were so devoted to the medium that they made it their life’s work, is simply not credible.

    The list of similarities between “Kimba” and “The Lion King” is long and well known, and it would be tiresome to repeat it here. Of course there are differences, and there’s no question that Disney improved on the source material. That’s not the point. The point is that Disney has consistently denied that “Kimba” had any influence on the making of “The Lion King” whatsoever, when the opposite is obvious to anyone at all familiar with the original series.

    Instead, we’re given a cock-and-bull story about how the idea for the film originated in a meeting with Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy E. Disney and Peter Schneider. Ah, yes! The top executives, the most fecund creative minds in any company, renowned for their willingness to give credit to underlings and outsiders when it’s due. No Disney artist has ever claimed otherwise; but as a former president of the United States has repeatedly pointed out, non-disclosure agreements are very common in business — all the more so when intellectual property is at stake.

    Osamu Tezuka’s estate and production company opted not to take legal action against Disney, as any American company would have done, citing the artist’s great reverence and respect for Walt Disney and his studio. It’s sad that Disney has failed to show the tiniest fraction of that esteem in return. Since Tezuka’s estate long ago waived any claim to royalties from “The Lion King”, there is no reason for Disney to continue to perpetuate its bald-faced lie about its “original” story after thirty years.

    “All we have is sincerity….” Excuse me while I go find a bucket.

    • Rolling my eyes with that comment. I was hoping we weren’t going through with this. I’m thinking this situation may be a coincidence, perhaps in the lines of the controversy with “Rhapsody Rabbit” and “The Cat’s Concerto”.

      • If “Kimba” and “The Lion King” had been developed contemporaneously and premiered just months apart like those two piano recital cartoons, you might have a point.

    • Guess it’s time to post this yet again.

      • While I agree it is an impressive video that makes a good case that the similarities between Kimba and TLK have been overstated and presented disingenuously, or simply ignorantly, it does not, as so many assume, categorically disprove that there was any influence, and does concede that even if they were completely innocent the corporate side of Disney went a pretty bad way about protesting their innocence. Mr. Sucks here was not alive in the 60s and 70s when Kimba was popular and may or may not remember the original release/hype around The Lion King (I don’t really myself, although I was in the target audience so I guess I just wasn’t paying attention). What we have in this video is one perspective, what we’re getting with a lot of these comments is another. If people who lived through both Kimba and Simba thought something was up in 1994 to me that says something. Nothing conclusive, but something, and I think it’s at least worth listening to them.

        • In other words, jump to the conclusion that it was based on Kimba…. Yeah, jumping to conclusion always is the right solution………

          • Nope, that’s very much not what I’m saying. I’m saying don’t jump to either conclusion.

  • By the way, the animator quoted was Eric Larson, not “Larsen”.

  • You know, I think Mr. Groh has a very good point. I’ve occasionally wondered about the connection, if any, between “Kimba the White Lion” and “The Lion King.” He’s absolutely right when he writes that “Kimba was by no means an obscure show…” I watched it.

    “Based on an original story,” my foot.

    • I remember seeing this as a kid when it came out. A quite memorable animated film. When it came out on VHS, I kept rewinding to the meeting with Rafiki as it was so powerful along with the showdown ending.

    • But I don’t think it was as noticeable or as popular as “Astro Boy” and “Kimba” may have been below the radar considering the other cartoon shows it was up against.

      • If you were a kid when “The Lion King” came out, then it means you weren’t around in the 1960s, but I assure you that “Kimba” was not below anyone’s “radar”. It had a much longer run in syndication than “Astro Boy” because it was in colour. There weren’t many TV stations then, and even in big metropolitan areas only one or two of them would show cartoons in the afternoon. If you watched cartoons after school in the late ‘60s, you were bound to see “Kimba”.

      • If you watched The Lion King as a child of the 80’s –
        you cannot use the popularity of Kimba in the 90s as comparison.

        Kimba The White Lion premiered in the late 60s.
        In my area, the show received an annual rerun every year for over 10 years.
        Then like 99% of shows they gradually fade away.

        The people who worked on The Lion King were mostly of an age that grew up in that era.
        And if you choose animation as a career, then it is highly likely they were familiar with the animated shows of their lifetimes which influenced their career decision.

        Rafiki is almost a carbon copy, the hyenas, the father son relationship.. I could go on.

        And in the case of the overrated Lion King (i.e. if you have never seen the series of Kimba: not just 1 episode on youtube!)
        – it really shows.

        • If anyone from “The Lion King” claimed it was based on Kimba, I’ll believe it. Otherwise, I don’t.

          • “If anyone from “The Lion King” claimed it was based on Kimba” ….
            they’d likely get sued for libel !

          • I meant confirmed.

  • The claim that it is based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet is also not entirely accurate. While the story does involve the death of a king at the hands of a treacherous brother, that is about where the resemblance ends. Simba is not conflicted over whether or not to exact revenge at the prompting of his father’s ghost. His dilemma is overcoming a sense of guilt that has been imposed on him by the true murderer.

    That said, the story’s impact is very powerful. Probably not since Bambi has a Disney film explored the death of a beloved parent, and unlike the former where the loss is quickly swept under the carpet in a barrage of springtime celebration, the Lion King probes the effects of Mufasa’s death on those left behind, particularly on Simba, for whom the moment is a profound turning point in the development of his character. It is really at this point where the film becomes more than a Disney animated feature and transforms to a study of deep-seated grief. And unlike many of its predecessors, this film does not attempt fully to resolve the emotions aroused by its central event. Yes, the ending shows that life goes on, but the lingering sense of loss does not evaporate completely. It is perhaps no coincidence that the villain’s name is Scar, because the emotional scar that he inflicts continues to resonate and is not entirely wiped away by his passing.

  • Kimba and The Lion King is not the only example. How about The Thief and the Cobbler and Aladdin?

    • Yeah, that’s a bit of a long stretch there.

    • That’s not a valid comparison, Pete. Those two movies were based on ancient folk tales. Neither claimed to be an original story.

  • As a fan of both Kimba the White Lion and The Lion King, I don’t think I can add anything new to the discussion surrounding the controversy. I will say, however that they both have their major differences in terms of the main storytelling themes. Kimba dealt with the relationship between humans and animals living in harmony whereas The Lion King was specifically about Simba’s growth journey from living a carefree, but meaningless life to coming to terms with his past and accepting his responsibilities as the king.
    Controversies aside, it doesn’t take away what a masterpiece of a film The Lion King is. Even so, my dad, who is not a huge animation fan tells me to this day, of all the animated movies he’s seen, it’s the one that resonates with him the most.

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