I was surprised to see that The Lion King, directed Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, had snuck into contention on the top 100 list. My surprise fell short of shock, but I raised my eyebrows a bit that this particular children’s movie was the one to make the cut. I always thought Beauty and the Beast was considered the critical darling of this era of Disney animation, or maybe Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs because of its popularity on release, or possibly Toy Story because of how it represents a radically altered medium both technically and narratively. But then I had a small flashback to 1994, when I was six years old, and so eager to see The Lion King that when we got to the front of the ticket line and learned the screening was sold out, I had a full blown emotion breakdown. It’s unusually vivid for that point in my life, a rare POV flashback when I can perfectly picture watching the theater grow further away over my Dad’s shoulder as tears billowed out. As we walked back to the car, we passed a sobbing boy being carried by his mother back to their car for the same reason, and it’s possible I added this detail as an adult, but I feel a faint memory of our parents acknowledging our common devastation.
That raw feeling was disappointment based on the trailer alone, so I guess maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised to see that this movie holds a special importance for others as well. The Lion King has proven to be an enduring cultural touch point eighteen years later. The theatrical adaptation has had a thirteen year run on Broadway and traveled through six continents, there was a remake of the film released a few years ago, and a few months after that Queen Beyoncé dropped Black is King on Disney+ which uses audio clips from the original film and contains direct references throughout, along with Black Panther.
This is a story that has captured many hearts and continues to raise its stock as a modern classic. It helps that the film was a rare original story line for the annual animation Disney release, which typically relied upon adapting classic children’s tales borrowed from around the world. There are obvious traces of Hamlet in the story, including its very own Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Timon and Pumba, but the kidification helps the tale resonate on a different frequency than Shakespeare. The setting and accessibility of the characters combine to possess our emotions thanks to the salty sweet balance of joyous musical numbers and a delicate, unflinching, touch applied to exploring deep human feelings.
The Lion King is driven by a classic tragedy / Game of Thrones style set up to the narrative, but the soul of Simba’s journey is reckoning with the unwarranted guilt and shame he carries as a result of his father’s death. This puts a lot of faith in children to empathize with mature emotions. The most common children’s story trope of powerlessness is apparent, but pivotal moment in this story comes when Simba chooses to accept responsibility, and reclaim his birthright to save the pride. This trifecta of audience engagement on visual, emotional, and psychological levels, is the same methodology Pixar would eventually incorporate into their game changing original stories, striking gold with not only Toy Story, but Up, Wall-e, or Inside Out to name just a few. At first, when Pixar was an independent studio, just eight years old when Lion King was released, it felt like it could be the great Disney killer. The movies weren’t musical, but they tapped the same well of emotional and psychological captivation that Disney had mined for decades. It was only natural that when the Pixar began to peak, and Disney was starting to slump, the mothership absorbed the upstart.
So what is it that makes Disney such a staunch presence in the lives of varied demographics across the globe? It’s possible Mickey Mouse is our most internationally recognizable cultural export (not researched). In our ever expanding polarized national existence, how can a company manage to span such gaping divide? They have Gay Pride days at Disney world but an embarrassing lack of diverse characters — a trend that is only now beginning to shift as a result of changing demands from audiences. They have had some grotesque moments in their political history, including Walt Disney’s antisemitism and blatantly racist releases like the infamous Song of the South. And yet, they also brought Hamilton into homes across the country during the peak of the recent social justice movement, and were the distributors of Black is King during the same period.
This is only to say that Disney has a concrete foothold on many of our childhoods, and they are perhaps the best example of how an organization can survive almost anything when it’s armed with nostalgia and nimble enough to evolve with changing tastes and remain relevant. They’re best work comes when they play with the full deck, and harmonize the psychological, emotional, and playful components of their stories. The production studio rarely misses, but it’s recent hits show they’ve found ways to further this refine this formula. Encanto explores similar themes and has a healthy 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Soul released in 2020 by Disney Pixar, pushes it even further into a metaphysical realm that dares to lead kids into pondering the nature life and death, is even fresher with 95%. The Lion King (arguably) established this trajectory by elevating the ceiling the expectations of children’s media, and because of that, I am grateful to the film’s creators for trusting the audience’s capacity to take that leap.