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Monday, January 30, 2012

The Lion King

I often wondered if it would be easier if I had been born anything other than a human being.

Just picture it. Have you ever wanted to be some other species in the world? Maybe you would have rather been a dog, chasing tennis balls across a backyard. Maybe you would have liked to have been a blue jay or a robin, soaring across the sky. Maybe you would have been a giraffe, getting your lunch from some of the tallest trees in the world.

I have to admit, there were times in which I wished I could have been an animal instead of a human. I would have been almost any animal. A penguin. A dolphin. A mosquito.

(Actually, scratch that last one. Mosquitos spread malaria and West Nile disease, and live a grand total of just a few hours...that's kind of an empty existence.)

On the surface, it looks as if the animal kingdom has a rather sweet life going on. No responsibilities to get to work on time. No chores to do. Just making sure that you had enough to eat and a safe place to sleep. Really, what more could one want out of life?

I especially felt like that when I was a child. Having had some not so nice human experiences, there was a part of me that wished I could be an animal. Where I could basically come and go as I pleased, and where I could do whatever I wanted. Where I wouldn't ever feel sad again.

Of course, as an adult, I know that being an animal isn't nearly as great as I thought it would be. Not saying that sometime during my teen years, I moonlighted as my neighbour's dog, mind you...because that would just be weird. But, I think that being an animal has its share of hardships too.

For one, unless you happen to bump into a cannibal or Jaws, I really don't think that we humans have to worry too much about being eaten by another animal. But if you're an animal (particularly one near the bottom of the food chain), your life is a constant horror movie, where one false move means dinner for someone else. The main course being you.

Another thing that would be terrible about being an animal is the fact that if you were sick and needed help, it would be very difficult to communicate that to someone. I know before I had to put down my cat back in the summer of 2010, it was obvious to us that he was really sick, and wasn't going to recover. But we also didn't know what we could do to help take away his pain because he was unable to tell us what was wrong. That made it even more frustrating.

And being an animal means that you have to often go out on your own to find your food in the wild, rather than going down to the local No Frills, Price Chopper, Kroger, Whole Foods, or whatever grocery store is in your area. Which I suppose doesn't sound so bad, except that in the animal world, finding food can be harder, and more dangerous.

I guess in many ways, the movie I have selected for today's Monday Matinee (the last in a series of animated feature films for the month of January) touches on the idea of animals having similar struggles as humans do in terms of life. In many ways, our main character of the film starts off as a lion cub, eager to see the world, but reluctant to follow the rules or take responsibility for the huge title that he is destined to take on in his adult life. As the film progresses though, a tragedy and betrayal force our hero to grow up rather quickly, and realize that he has others to worry about besides himself.

Sounds kind of like a struggle that many humans themselves have to experience, doesn't it?

The subject for today is the 1994 movie “The Lion King”, the 32nd animated feature released by Disney.

First, before we get into the details of the plot, let's talk a little bit about the records that this film set when it was released on June 15, 1994. The movie holds the record for being the highest-grossing hand-drawn animated film ever, with a net profit of almost one BILLION dollars! It was also the highest grossing 2D film in the United States, and fourteenth highest grossing film overall. The movie ended up winning two Academy Awards for music, a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, and was accompanied by a soundtrack composed by Tim Rice and Elton John, with songs like the one directly below this paragraph.

ARTIST: Elton John
SONG: Circle Of Life
ALBUM: The Lion King Soundtrack
DATE RELEASED: August 9, 1994

The soundtrack's success inspired a Broadway musical to be produced. Opening for the first time in 1997, the musical would earn six Tony Awards, including the one for 'Best Musical'.

And to think that 'The Lion King' idea was planned out six years before it was released.

Back in 1988, Disney was promoting its then latest release Oliver & Company. On the European leg of the promotional tour were Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy E. Disney, and Peter Schneider. During this meeting, the three were brainstorming ideas for a new feature film, and the idea to have a film set in Africa came about. Katzenberg jumped on the idea, thinking that it was a good one, and producer Thomas Schumacher also wanted in on the project. In November of 1988, Thomas Disch (who wrote 'The Brave Little Toaster') planned out a story called 'King of the Kalahari', which was then turned into a script called 'King of the Beasts' by Linda Woolverton. However, the original version of the script was nothing like the version that people would see in theaters in 1994. I'll talk more about that towards the end of this entry.

Work on the film began as early as 1991, and there was some upheaval during the initial months of planning, including having a director step down from the project amidst a conflict of interest (George Scribner left the project after clashing with Roger Allers over whether the film should be a musical), a title change, and a setting change (initially set in the jungle, it moved to the African savannah). In fact, a lot of the staff left the project early on to work on the feature 'Pocahontas', because they believed it was going to be the more successful of the two films.

How wrong they were.

By 1992, the staff had been put firmly in place, and the project moved along, with the script being rewritten to accommodate the theme of 'leaving childhood behind to face adult responsibilities'. 1993 was spent trying to get the cast together to record the voices for the characters.

Because the main character, Simba, was to be shown as both a child and as an adult, the production team realized that they would need two actors to play the role. Enter Jonathan Taylor Thomas as young Simba, and Matthew Broderick as adult Simba. Other actors cast included James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg, Moira Kelly, Rowan Atkinson, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Cheech Marin, Robert Guillaume, and Madge Sinclair, amongst others.

(TRIVIA: Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella originally auditioned for the roles of Zazu and a hyena respectively, but producers were so impressed by their chemistry together when they auditioned together that they ended up winning the roles of Timon and Pumbaa. And, when Cheech Marin won the role of one of the hyenas, his longtime comedic partner, Tommy Chong was asked to play the other hyena. Unfortunately, Tommy Chong was unavailable, so the role went to Whoopi Goldberg instead. The things you learn from DVD and video commentaries, eh?)

The project was finished in early 1994, and was released in theaters that June. And the rest as we say is history.

In “The Lion King”, the first scenes we see are of a group of animals gathering around Pride Rock, somewhere in the African savannah. It's a very special day at Pride Rock, for it is the day that the lion king and queen are about to become parents. Mufasa and Sarabi proudly show off their newborn son, Simba to the animals down below, and there is much celebration and joy to be seen. After all, Simba has become the heir to the throne. If anything should happen to Mufasa, Simba would become the new king of the land.

Not everybody was thrilled with Simba's birth though. Especially not a lion named Scar.

Scar was the brother of Mufasa, making him the uncle of Simba. And, with Simba being the direct heir of Mufasa, the chances of Scar taking over the kingdom at Pride Rock went down drastically. Having Simba around was Scar's worst case scenario.

Simba doesn't quite grasp the importance of being king, at first. And why should he? He was a kid back then, and didn't know how hard of a job being king of the lions was. Luckily, he had a very patient father who tried to teach him everything about the Pride Lands, as well as the responsibilities that came from being king. There's a shadowy place in the Pride Lands that is forbidden to enter, and Simba wanted to know why that was. But before Mufasa could tell him, Zazu, Mufasa's adviser, warns of an incoming hyena attack. Mufasa forces Simba to go home with Zazu while he stays behind to fend off the hyenas, leaving Simba to wonder what is so forbidden about the shadowy place.

It is here that Scar comes up with a rather dastardly plan. He tells Simba that the shadowy place is the site of an elephant graveyard, and Simba, always one to love exploring manages to convince his best friend, a female lion cub named Nala, to tag along. Sarabi sends Zazu along to keep an eye on both Simba and Nala, but the two cubs are too fast for Zazu to keep up. The two cubs eventually end up reaching the graveyard, and both of them are at first excited to see it.

That is until they discover the reason why the place was forbidden. They come across the hideout of the much-feared hyena pack, coming face to face with Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed. The three hyenas immediately give chase to the two scared cubs, and it seems as though they are in great danger. 

Fortunately, Mufasa is there to rescue the cubs in time, but Simba knew he was going to be in big trouble for disobeying his family. While Mufasa is very angry and disappointed, he realizes that he has a lot more to teach his son. So, the lessons continue, with Mufasa making a point to show Simba the sky filled with stars. Each star represented the kings of the past that watch over him, and that if he ever felt alone, he could always look at the stars to guide him.

At the same time, Scar is annoyed that his first plan didn't work out so well, so he decides to team up with the hyenas to step it up a couple of notches. After making a promise to the hyenas that together they would take over the Pride Lands, Scar orders them to stampede a large group of wildebeest into a gorge, where Simba happens to be in the hopes of eliminating the only thing standing in his way of being king. Mufasa once again comes to Simba's aid and rescues him. 

But when Mufasa ends up getting trapped himself, he calls out to Scar to help him. Scar cruelly throws Mufasa right into the middle of the stampede, where he is killed. When Simba comes across Mufasa's body, he is absolutely devastated, especially after Scar's vicious lie, telling Simba that HE was to blame for Mufasa dying. Scar tells Simba that he should run away, and not come back, for nobody would understand. And Simba, being young and impressionable (and the fact that he just lost a parent) decides to take Scar's advice. This leaves Scar in a perfect position, telling everybody that both Mufasa and Simba perished in the attack and that he will become the new king.

Enter the hyena population. The presence of the hyenas, as well as Scar's tyrannical rule causes the once proud Pride Rock to lose some of its pride, turning it into a land where food and water are scarce, and where happiness is replaced with misery.

Simba, on the other hand, is rescued and adopted by a meercat named Timon, and a warthog named Pumbaa. Simba forges a strong friendship with both of them, and from them he learns some new lessons. He learns how to enjoy life again since the death of his father, and he also learns a new motto.

Hakuna worries.

And for the next few years of Simba's life, he lived without worry and without fear, his old life merely a shadow in what he was. And I'm sure that he probably would have forgotten about it entirely had it not been for the fact that a face from his past would come back into his life.

When a lioness comes across Timon and Pumbaa, Simba manages to save their lives by fending her off...not realizing at first that the lioness was his childhood friend, Nala. Long story short, the two reunite, end up reestablishing their friendship, which soon turns into romantic feelings. Nala and Simba fall madly in love with each other, and it seems as though Simba's life is complete. But when Nala tries to convince Simba to come back home, Simba refuses. Despite pleas from Nala, saying that the Pride Lands have gotten much worse since he left, Simba won't go back, for he is too ashamed to return, still blaming himself for his father's death. There was no way that he could change what happened, so why would he go back now?

It takes the wise words of a dear friend of Mufasa to change Simba's mind. Rafiki, the mandrill who helped present Simba in front of the crowd at Pride Rock the very day he was born, reintroduces himself to Simba, telling him that he knows that he was Mufasa's son. While Simba is still stubborn, and won't go back, this doesn't faze Rafiki one bit. He takes Simba to a nearby pond, tells him to look into the reflection in the water, and tell him what he sees. Watch what happens below.

So, after talking with the spirit of Mufasa, Simba realizes what he must do. With Nala, Timon, and Pumbaa by his side, Simba returns to Pride Rock in hopes of getting rid of Scar and the hyenas for good, while avenging the death of his father.

And, that's all I'm going to say about this movie. Come on, you know that I never reveal movie endings. You should be used to it by now.

But, I loved 'The Lion King'. It had such a great message about not running away from your responsibilities and facing your fears. I imagine that Simba must have been so conflicted having to go back home and facing all the people who he thought blamed him for his own father's death. Especially since the belief he held was perpetrated by a cruel fabrication, courtesy of the heartless Scar. The fact that he did make the choice to set things right shows a lot of courage, and I think we all could learn a thing or two from Simba.

It also taught us the power of friendship, as Simba's loyalty towards Nala, Timon, and Pumbaa outweighed anything else. It was even more important to him than being king. And, as Scar would find out towards the end of the film, sometimes betraying the wrong people could lead to disasterous consequences.

But Scar was a meanie, so who cares about him!

In the end of it all, 'The Lion King' was probably one of Disney's finest example of a good vs. evil story.  Yet, it was also a wonderful coming of age story, with Simba growing up before our eyes, and maturing into a lion king that any parent would be proud of.

I bet somewhere up there, Mufasa was smiling down on his son on that final confrontation.

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