As we approach the release of Jon Favreau’s highly-anticipated realistic CGI remake of The Lion King, we’re looking back on the original 1994 movie and how it’s lived up to it’s name, quickly becoming Disney animation royalty after its release.
Not only did The Lion King came out right in the middle of the Disney Renaissance of the 1990’s, it was the peak of that mountain of consecutive hits for Disney. It made over $700 million worldwide during it’s initial release, making it the highest-grossing Disney animated feature of that time (not adjusted for inflation) by a pretty decent margin (for reference, the second-highest grossing of that decade – Aladdin – made just over $500 million). It was also the highest-grossing film of 1994 and held the title of highest-grossing animated feature for 16 years until Toy Story 3 came along.
But this movie’s impact goes far beyond box office numbers. From being a breakthrough in animated fur design to spawning the longest-running Disney Broadway adaptation to date, this was one if not the defining Disney movie for a generation. But a lot of great Disney movies were released during the company’s “Renaissance” era. So, what is it about The Lion King that made it the biggest hit with arguably the largest impact to this day?
The Little Mermaid was the first movie of the Disney Renaissance and brought back the classic Disney musical style after its absence for a few decades. Beauty and the Beast took that formula and made it feel a bit “bigger” and more refined. Aladdin took it and turned it into a slick comedy with lots of inside jokes and sly humor. But The Lion King did it all. It was grand and epic but also goofy and silly. It took itself seriously, but not all the time. It had Mufasa’s solemn death scene as well as one in which two characters “dress in drag and do the hula”. And somehow it managed to pack all that drama, comedy, darkness, and heart in there without anything feeling forced.
While The Lion King may not be everybody’s #1 Disney movie, it’s one that offers something for pretty much everyone. Virtually every fan has at least one song or scene they can point to in this movie as an example of what they love about Disney. And that’s why it has reigned as the centerpiece of the Disney Renaissance for the past 25 years.