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The Lion King, king of the Disneys

The peak of Disney Studios' second golden age was reached in 1994, when The Lion King was released on the big screen. This cartoon recounting the adventures of Simba, betrayed by his uncle Scar who has taken his father Mufasa's place as King of the Animals, is considered to be one of the best of all time.

Disney's second golden age

The period 1937-1941 is considered to represent the Golden Age of the Walt Disney Studios. This is when they released their iconic feature films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi. After that, the engine began to hum along, releasing films of good quality but without ever finding the innovative and fantastic spirit of the aforementioned films.

Until the end of the 1980s. Under new management, and with the efforts of Roy Edward Disney (Walt Disney's nephew), the studios rediscovered their legendary inspiration and released hits such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. But they still needed to make their mark, and so they created their masterpiece, The Lion King.

Then, from 1995 onwards and the arrival of 3D animated films like Toy Story, Disney Studios fell back into the mechanical production of sequels and films that were okay but not very big. Pixar Studios took the lead.

The king of films?

The 1990s are reputed to be the most interesting years in American cinema. After the writers' revolt, the studios gave more control back to the writers, while applying the marketing techniques developed in the 1980s. The result was a series of cult films, from Batman and The Matrix to Total Recall, Terminator 2, Titanic, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Pulp Fiction, The Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Truman Show, Shawshank Redemption, Schindler's List and The Sixth Sense. It's impossible to name them all...

But it was in this avalanche of success that The Lion King stood out: this cartoon was the biggest commercial success of 1994 on the big screen. At the time, only Jurassic Park had grossed more. So the lion had to bow to the T-Rex.

According to the American Film Institute, The Lion King is ranked 4th in the animated films category, but above all the top modern film, ahead of Shrek, Toy Story and Finding Nemo. The podium is, of course, occupied by the Golden Age films already mentioned above.

A story worthy of Shakespeare

While the animation is excellent, the film owes its success above all to its dramatic, adventurous and funny script.

The hero is Simba, son of Mufasa, king of the animals of the African savannah. Mufasa educates his son and teaches him the balance of the cycle of life, dominated by the lions, surrounded by the wise mandrill Rafiki and the flying butler Zazou. But Mufasa's brother Scar is deeply jealous and hatches a plan to seize power. Allied with hyenas, he causes an accident in which he kills Mufasa and makes Simba believe that he is responsible. Simba goes into exile. He meets Timon the ferret and Pumbaa the warthog, two animals who enjoy the freedom of the wild. Simba grows up with them, until he meets Nala the lioness, his childhood friend, who reminds him of his destiny and his responsibilities. Since Scar took power, the savannah has become chaotic and hostile. Simba finally decides to return home, confront Scar and take back the throne.

As connoisseurs will have guessed, this is the basic plot of Hamlet, William Shakespeare's masterpiece. Combined with biblical elements (the story of Moses) and the appearance of Bambi, the result is a cult film.

To mark the occasion, Disney Studios have assembled a crack team around young directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff (the innovative spirit of youth): if the music is memorable, it's because it's by Hans Zimmer (Rain Man, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, Gladiator, Batman Begins, Pirates of the Caribbean, Interstellar, Dune...).

The original voice actors include Matthew Broderick (adult Simba), Jeremy Irons (Scar) and Moira Kelly (Nala). But there is also the legendary Darth Vader, James Earl Jones for the voice of Mufasa, and contributions from celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg and even Rowan Mister Bean Atkinson for the voice of Zazou, the bird.

After The Lion King

The film received sequels, but these were direct-to-video: The Lion King 2 and The Lion King Timon and Pumbaa. There was also The Lion King 1 and a half, a sort of prequel about Timon and Pumbaa, two particularly popular characters in the franchise.

We had to wait until 2019 to see our favourite lions back on the big screen with the remake in "real" images directed by Jon Favreau. The story is the same, but the voices have all changed, apart from Scar, who is still voiced by James Earl Jones and his dark side. To boost marketing, singer Beyoncé was hired to provide the voice of Nala.

Despite its huge commercial success, the 2019 film attracted a fair amount of criticism. It was criticised for a certain lack of originality compared to the original film, but also for using images of "real" animals that didn't suit their anthropomorphisation into talking characters in a story about conspiracies. A prequel is due to be released in 2024, focusing on the life and rise of Mufasa.

Find all our Lion King goodies in our geek shop.