My Feature Favorites: The Lion King

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All images © 1994 Walt Disney Feature Animation.

After ripping ‘Igor‘ a new one when I reviewed it, I was asked in the comments what some of my all-time favorite animated films were (thanks Steph).

So why not make a series of posts about them?

In the Igor‘ review, I pointed out many of the things they did wrong. With these posts, I’ll point out what they did right. You’ve probably seen most of them, so no boring summary.

I’m just going to dig right in.

These are some of my all time favorite animated films. I’m not saying they are the all time greatest films ever made. They are MY choices and I have my reasons. That’s it. They are:

  • The Lion King (Disney, 1994)
  • The Iron Giant (Warner Bros., 1999)
  • Toy Story (Pixar, 1995)
  • Finding Nemo (Pixar, 2003)
  • South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (Paramount, 1999) (yeah, yeah, I know…)

I loved ‘Wall-E‘ but don’t want to put it on the list yet because it’s so new and I don’t have a DVD to watch and capture images yet. When I can, you’ll be getting my rave review of that movie.

And yes, as an ‘animation professional’ I know I’m supposed to say ‘Snow White‘, ‘Pinocchio‘, ‘Fantasia‘ and all those classics. But I’m going by what I’ve loved and watched the most.

So in that case, The Lion King kicks Snow White‘s ass.

I will start with The Lion King.

I’ve written about my love for this movie before. It’s a personal thing. I love this movie because I *love* lions (with a tattoo to prove it), there are no humans in it, was the reason I became an animator, was the first VHS tape I ever purchased and it started off as an ‘underdog’ film and ended up a blockbuster.

Here’s what it did right…besides the solid story and strong characters.

The opening. All quiet and dark, then into that great African music with the sunrise and all the animals gathering. Remember how I said ‘Igor‘ started by telling me a bunch of stuff and it needed to ease me into the story? That is how you ease people into a story. Yummy.

Voice casting. Yes, there are celebrities. But they were cast for their voice and not just their name. I mean, James Earl Jones! And Jeremy Irons is so great as Scar.

Pacing. There wasn’t too much story to tell. No jamming a bunch of stuff into it in the name of our assumed short attention spans. It took us on a journey and we stayed with it and we were never lost or confused by the story.

Use of visual repetition. It’s a good storytelling technique that works well with kid’s stories because it makes things easier to remember. They’re little ‘sign posts’. ‘Igor‘ lacked this.

For example: The image of Simba that Rafiki paints on his tree. He finishes it and adds the goo to the forehead as he did to baby Simba at the start of the film (which is another visual repetition).

When he thinks Simba is dead, he smears this drawing in despair.

And when he realizes Simba is still alive, he adds the mane to the drawing.

No words are needed here. The pictures tell the story.

Another example is when Nala jumps and pins Simba when they are cubs.

It’s just a fun piece of business that shows off some character traits. But then it serves as a great trigger for Simba (and the audience) to realize it was Nala chasing Pumba when they are adults. We remember it and we see it.

Igor‘ constantly used dialogue for these kinds of things. The equivalent would have been the young Simba to tell Nala “And don’t jump on me and pin me down today. You know that bugs me.” without showing it. Then we would have had to remember that piece of dialogue to ‘get it’ in the adult scene. Not nearly as effective, is it?

Fantastic use of 3D. This is how is should be. Use 3D when it makes sense and when it is most effective. When trying to draw it by hand would be impossible. To add in some dynamic camera movement. Crowd scenes.

A heard of stampeding wildebeasts. Still an amazing sequence.

The ‘Holy Sh*t’ reaction face. There’s a few of them in the film but this one says it all. No words needed.

Saddest death since Bambi’s mom. I still tear up. But I’m an over-sensitive suck.

Nice use of transitions. Using dissolves between these scenes in the ‘Hakuna Matata’ sequence show us, without a doubt, that the grown-up lion is in fact Simba. It’s simple, fun, visual and effective.

If it was presented in a different way, we may have paused for a second wondering, “Is that him or another lion?”. Don’t let your audience second guess important information (unless that’s part of the story, of course).

And this sequence of Simba returning home. Just music and two scenes super-imposed. I love it. There are lots of great transitions and camera work in this film.

The funny lines are backed up with visuals. One of the best lines “What do you want me to do? Dress in drag and do the hula?” was ad-libbed, very funny and essentially for the grown-ups.

Did it stop there? No! It went right into an equally funny sequence of Timon doing the hula dance. Fun for the kids (and for us) and the line wasn’t wasted. Everyone wins. Are you listening ‘Igor‘?

My favorite shot. This shot was when young Simba was about to be scolded by his father Mufasa. He’s walking towards him, looks down and sees this.

It said so much and is so simple.

Was it written in the script?


A story artist did it.

It’s these kinds of moments you should be striving for when you storyboard. They don’t have to be written for you. You can show the audience so much in a well chosen shot.

The shots tell the story.

There’s so much more I could say about ‘The Lion King‘.

And I hear you.

“But they break into song!”

Meh…the songs work. Yes, ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ is a little cheesy, but it’s fun for the kids and is still catchy. I love the African musical score the best.

The only little thing that nags at me is this question:

Who is Nala’s father?

Think about it.

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23 thoughts on “My Feature Favorites: The Lion King

  1. Kelly

    If you really want to get into it. In Lion King II. Kovu, relation? Now come on. You can’t tell me that that is not Scar’s son. But then Simba’s daughter would be mating with Simba’s cousin….. that don’t sound good.
    Of course when you understand the structure of a pride it makes sense. But when you try to put it into human context it might not translate well to western society. Anywho, “The Lion King” is one of my favorites too. Scar rocks!!

  2. pat

    Nice choices! There’s lots of cool animation out there, but I don’t think a lot of animated features really go all the way. It’s such a demanding (and commercially constrained) medium… I think shorts are where the best stuff has usually been. A lot of the features seem stuck in the “animation genre”. Classic Disney? meh… admirable productions, but I can’t watch one without feeling spoon-fed- that’s not very likable. There’s been a lot since the Iron Giant but I think very few of them deserve to get called perfect movies. I think Wall-E should definitely go on the list. And pick a miyazaki film. Plenty of 1-off, long-format shorter things should qualify too… The Snowman, and some Aardman stuff.

  3. Friar

    I liked the Lion King…I’m just realizing (Wow). When was that? 15 years ago? (Now I feel OLD!)

    I liked the comedy relief best (Timon and Pumbaa). Did you remember their spin-off cartoon?

    It wasn’t half-bad, for a Saturday morning cartoon, actually.

    PS. My already-existing respect for you just gained a whole lot more points, after seeing South Park on your list! 🙂

  4. steph

    Yes, this is a little bizarre, but just looking at that saddest death since Bambi made a few immediate sobs escape and I couldn’t stop looking at the picture. Maybe it’s because these animated films have a habit of making me hugely emotional, ESPECIALLY animal ones. I too much prefer the ones that are all animals. (Well, I do have a soft spot for ones that aren’t, too, but they tend to be more entertaining than touching or deeply effective. I’m an animal person all the way, especially since having Lucy, our boxer, in our family.

    I totally loved this review! I don’t even know why, exactly — I mean, not that there is no reason or that it wasn’t good but that I can’t pinpoint what it is that made me love this post so much. The scenes you make your points with are great, though. Your points are great, too. Or maybe it’s that I could feel your love for the film and I remember my own. Maybe it’s that in a very short post you really told a great story. Maybe it’s evoked how I feel in general about watching animated films: a nostalgia and even homesickness for my family included. WEIRD. I don’t know!

    Let’s have more!

  5. Will

    Well reviewed, especially from a storyboard artist’s perspective.

    While not a death scene, Dumbo being rocked gently by his mother while she’s locked up is my number one animated sob moment.

    I think I see where you’re going with who Nala’s father is. Would that make Simba and Nala half-siblings? Same father, different mothers, right? Do I win a cookie?

  6. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    @ Will – Yes, you win a cookie. 🙂 It was just one of those things you think about later. So there’s only *one* male lion (and it couldn’t be Scar…unless Nala’s mom likes the bad boys) so it *had* to be Mufasa, right? Fun ‘picking of hairs’.

    I’m with you with Dumbo. Very touching! *sniff*

    @ Steph – I think we’re very alike in many ways. I’m super sensitive when it comes to animals (was bawling at Havi’s post yesterday). There will be more. Thanks for that great comment.

    @ Friar – The Timon and Pumba show was made here and I know a bunch of folks that worked on it . I *almost* did, but I was too fresh out of school. I was dying to work on it!! It was a good show.

    Yeah, the ‘animation elite’ will be on my ass about the South Park selection. But hey, it’s MY list! 🙂

    @ Pat – Thanks! Nice stuff on your site. Of course there could be more on the list, but I’ve kept it to five. Though I love Aardman stuff (the shorts are the best).

    And I just haven’t seen enough Miyazaki (shame on me) to have an opinion. Not the kind of stuff I’m usually drawn to. But I welcome anyone to give their own picks here!

    @ Kelly – I had the same thoughts/problem with Lion King II. How could that *not* be Scar’s son? Oh right…cause he’s dead…I dunno.

    Scar does indeed rock. Great ‘bad guy’.

  7. kasana

    Great stuff here again.
    Agree with you on saddest death sequence. I like when Simba says.. ” Help, somebody…Anybody…” these 3 words just penetrate direct into my heart.
    And entry of Scar in movie that is also very appealing.
    Just love this movie to the core.

    Thanks karen for the Awesome Post !

  8. Chris.K

    Great points! Until I read this post, I didn’t realize how much this movie was burned into my brain! I just remembered the first “How to Draw..” and “The Art of..” books I ever got were for The Lion King. The latter was especially amazing, chock full of awesome sketches and beautiful images– esp. that footprint… ; ]

    Speaking of lions (maybe a bit off subject because it’s not animation– still good!), I recommend “Pride of Baghdad”, a graphic novel. It touches a bit more about lion family structure.. but with a worldy/current events twist… i think you’d like it~

    Kudos to your top picks! Indeed i think classics deserve a nod, but there is a certain sophistication and relevance drawn out by some modern ones. Ideas that question things like ‘the purity of good and evil’ and stuff like that– not as apparent in Snow White.
    …Hey, and South Park rocks! I included it in a short presentation of the “History of Comedy” for a class once! yay : )


  9. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Thanks Chris!
    ‘The Art of the Lion King’ was the first one of its kind I bought too. So much great stuff in it. I’ll check out that graphic novel, thanks.

    My picks stem from the love of them and entertainment value. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
    Heck yeah, South Park rocks! 🙂

  10. t.sterling

    I really need to own this movie on DVD immediately. This movie and Aladdin are my all-time favorite movies that I grew up watching… and I’m still in shock these movies are as old as they are… which makes me feel older than I am. It’s scary.

    But just looking at those screen shots… especially the passed Mufasa… I started to feel that tear come on.

    I haven’t seen part 2, but I thought Lion King 1/2 was funny because I love Timon & Pumbaa. Thanks for the review.

  11. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Yes. Yes you do. Run to the story now! (If you can find it…has it been locked in some Disney vault?) 🙂

    I loved Aladdin too. Very high energy and lots of fun.

    My Iron Giant post is on it’s way soon.
    And word has it Kung Fu Panda is out on DVD November 9th. Yay!

  12. t.sterling

    It’s funny you mention that fault. I forget how or why I ended up looking into that, but I think I read that it has been placed back into the vault just recently. So I don’t have much hope unless I find it on Amazon (which is how I normally shop) or wait until 2010 or something.

    I remember now, I was watching Aladdin on YouTube. In parts. A bit annoying, but I needed my fix since I haven’t watched it for about 10 years. Makes me shudder just saying that.

    I’m interested in Kung Fu Panda, so I will run out and rent it first.

  13. Rachel B

    The Nala question bugged me for a while too… until I watched a lion documentary that seem to suggest that lionesses mating with rogue males is not entirely uncommon. And the reigning pride males, even if they were aware of the indiscretion, would probably not kill the cubs because there’s no way to know whose cub it is for sure. (Assuming that they even think about it that way)

    And thus, I was able to live with it. 😛

    But as for the actual film…

    The Lion King opened my eyes and is probably the reason I’m even looking into the animation industry in the first place. I was 8 when it came out (??!) and it just blew me away. My mom recently told me that she even noticed the difference in my reaction at the time. Thanks to the local library system, The Art of The Lion King was the first “artbook” I read. It’s where I realized that PEOPLE do this stuff. As a JOB.

    Now, I understand that the industry is not as romantic as I thought it was as a kid, but led me to majoring in animation (with a preference for animation/storyboarding) and I’m still loving it. I’ve read through several of your posts this evening and it’s been really inspiring. I still believe I’ve got a lot of ground to cover before I’m employable, but I’m in school yet and the more inspiration I can glean from whatever sources I can find, the better. Thanks for your help. 🙂

  14. Karen J Lloyd Post author

    Hi Rachel and welcome!

    8?? Gads I feel old…

    Thanks for the fun lion facts. It’s great to see the effects this movie had on you, even at that young age. I know if I had seen it as a kid I would have been obsessed with it then too (as I was as an adult).

    I love all those ‘Art of’ books. I have quite a few, though now I try to find them on sale! Pricey suckers.

    I wish you much luck in your career path and glad you found the blog. If you ever have any questions, just fire away. 🙂

  15. Elreydelleon

    Saying I’m a huge Lion King fanatic is an understatement. 🙂

    In my opinion it’s the greatest movie ever made. I absolutely love it!
    And yeah, I know the movie word for word.

    A note to all fans out there: Never be ashamed of your own interests.
    Another persons opinion shouldn’t have anything to do with your obsessions.

  16. Movies Forum :

    i think that Lion King should also be considered as one the best animated films on the market *

  17. Elreydelleon

    Anyone in their right mind should at least give TLK a once-over.
    Wow; one year since my comment…x XD

  18. Nina

    Oh my god, I never thought about that. Who is Nala’s father o.o? It took me five seconds to realize the truth.
    Anyway, the movie is still my favorite, and I know it word for word too^^. Watched yesterday again, and started crying at the “the-great-kings-of-the-past-are-watching-for-you” scene, because I knew Stampede scene was coming =/.
    Best Disney’s movie EVER.

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