*. Hamlet on the savannah? Yes, and explicitly so. According to co-director Rob Minkoff in an interview in Oprah magazine they wanted to tap into a familiar story as an anchor seeing as this was Disney’s first animated feature that told an original story. At least that’s what I read in Oprah. But wasn’t The Aristocats an original story? I don’t know.
*. In any event, the Hamlet part — a prince’s father is killed by a usurping uncle, setting in motion a revenge plot — is an archetype going back quite a ways. Set’s murder of his brother Osiris, whose son Horus then gets revenge on Set, may be the oldest version. Step-fathers are as wicked as step-mothers in myth and fairy tales.
*. To all of which we might say that there have been Shakespeare adaptations less faithful to their source or inspiration. And the script here was apparently reworked so many times by so many different hands (there are 29 writing credits!) that I’d be surprised if they’d managed much more than what they eventually got in.
*. There are other, looser, connections to Hamlet. Scar spreading a forged process of Mufasa’s death and then sending Simba into exile. Simba being visited by his father’s “ghost.” There was even an alternate ending that had Scar killing Simba and then saying “Goodnight, sweet prince” before dying himself. But that would have been too tragic for kids in the ’90s.
*. In the few animated children’s films I’ve reviewed here I’ve made it clear that I’m not the target demographic for such entertainment so I’m probably not the best judge of it. So I’ll just make some comments on the highs and the lows and leave it at that.
*. It’s short. 88 minutes. For some reason I thought it was going to be longer. But there’s no padding or subplots. Just everything moving along quickly to get where you know it’s going.
*. Some of the music is pretty good. Three of the five nominations for Best Song at the 67th Academy Awards were from this movie (all of them with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice). This may be a record. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” won, and it’s great. The sly courtship going on between Simba and Nala when it plays is also pretty daring for Disney. “I Can’t Wait to Be King” is another good number, which plays through a Fantasia-style jungle romp. The rest of the tunes were just so-so though, with “Hakuna Matata” being particularly uninspired. It should have been a real show-stopper of a hummable number and it’s anything but.
*. Jeremy Irons naturally steals all his scenes as Scar. Because Hollywood villains often have British accents. Why the brother of James Earl Jones would have a British accent is all part of the Disney magic I guess.
*. Is a political critique necessary? I have to admit being a bit taken aback at monarchy and the divine right of kings being so wholeheartedly endorsed. Not only all of nature submits to the authority of Mufasa and Simba, but God himself shines down in a beam of light like God the Father blessing Simba as the Son in which he is well pleased. Meanwhile, the food chain is presented as a medieval great chain of being.
*. Of course we don’t see the lions actually preying on anything but grubs while the hyenas only eat carrion dressed up like deli cuts. Instead, all the animals that lions eat bow down and dance for the kings of the jungle, who they can only pray will be enlightened monarchs. It doesn’t seem very modern. Meaning post-1688 or thereabouts.
*. The animation is very traditional, and I thought a bit dull. The adult lions in particular didn’t strike me as very effectively drawn. Even Scar with his black mane, green eyes, and eponymous marking looks dull compared to Shere Khan from The Jungle Book. And the climactic fight on top of Mount Doom was surprisingly uninspired. They even slowed the action down at one point, which I thought a very poor decision.
*. Apparently it was considered to be less of a prestige project than Pocahontas and some in the animation team didn’t have high hopes for it because, as one declared, “the story wasn’t very good.” But it turned into a gargantuan hit, becoming what was then the second-highest grossing movie of all time. It took a while for Disney to follow up though, waiting until 2019 to release a CGI version that didn’t impress critics as much but still did over a billion in box office.
*. I look at it as being decent kids’ entertainment, marking the peak of what’s been called the Disney Renaissance. Personally, I prefer it to the more “kidult” fare of Pixar, and I think I would have enjoyed it more as a kid too. Its massive success and subsequent cultural prominence is a bit mysterious to me though, unless it can just be ascribed to how hungry the public is for such traditional, inoffensive family fare.