Set in an imaginary place in Africa, The Lion King is a coming of age story with a lion cub as the protagonist and which was produced both as a Disney animated feature film in 1994 and a Broadway and West End stage musical. Consciously modeled on the stories of Joseph and Moses from the Bible and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Lion King was the first of the Disney animated features to be based on a story developed particularly for the film, rather than based on an existing story or an adaptation of one.
The Story of The Lion King
The story of The Lion King begins with the presentation of the newly born heir to the current king of the beasts, the lion Mustafa, who rules over the Pride Lands of Africa with his Queen, Sarabi. The new cub, Simba, displaces Mufasa’s younger brother Scar as heir to the throne, and Scar — in league with the lions’ enemies, the hyenas — plots the death of his brother and his nephew in order to secure it.
As Simba grows, his father introduces him to the kingdom and teaches him about the environmental balance between creatures and the Earth, called the “Circle of Life.” On a tour of their domain, threatening hyenas are spotted, and Simba is sent home. Home without his father, Simba is open to Scar’s coercion, and Scar convinces Simba to go to the elephant graveyard, a spot that Mufasa had made off limits to his son, having sent the hyenas ahead to trap and kill the cub. Simba travels with his best friend, a female cub named Nala, and fortunately Mufasa rescues them from the hyenas. Scar is angry and disappointed by his failure, and works to secure the hyenas cooperation and loyalty by promising them that when he is king, they will never be hungry.
Scar’s next attempt involves luring Simba into a secluded spot, where the hyenas prompt a wildebeest stampede in Simba’s direction. Scar calls Mufasa to rescue Simba, which he does, but the king is left too weak to pull himself to safety, and Scar insures that he falls to his death. Simba, seeing the fall, but not Scar’s role in it, blames himself for his father’s death, a view which Scar encourages, suggesting he flee into a self-imposed exile. Simba does, in fact, run away, and Scar sends the hyenas after him to kill him, but they only pretend to carry out their mission, and let Simba escape, while reporting success to Scar, who then claims the throne and proceeds to destroy the lions’ domain.
Having grown up in the care of a meerkat and warthog — Timon and Pumbaa — Simba is persuaded to return home. He challenges Scar, who tells the pride that Mufasa’s death was Simba’s fault. Trapped at the edge of a cliff, in a similar situation to Mufasa, Simba’s apparently imminent death leads Scar to confess to murdering Mufasa. Anger gives Simba the strength to propel himself over the edge of the cliff and tackle Scar, and a battle ensues between lions and hyenas. Scar seeks mercy by scapegoating the hyenas, who overhear him, and Simba orders Scar into exile. Pretending to obey, Scar turns and attacks Simba, who manages to knock him over a cliff, where the hyenas find and finish him off.
A reconciliation takes place with Simba claiming his place as “the Lion King,” with Nala as his queen. The movie ends with the presentation of their first cub, heir to Simba, bringing the story back to the beginning, as the circle of life continues.
The Film and the Musical
In its time, The Lion King movie was the highest grossing animated film ever. It was only eclipsed nearly ten years later by Finding Nemo. The film — with lyrics by Tim Rice, songs composed by Elton John, and a score by Hans Zimmer with Lebo M and his African Choir — won two Academy Awards for Best Music, Original Score and Best Music, Original Song. It won the same awards from the Golden Globes, as well as Best Motion Picture, Comedy/Musical, and was nominated for — but did not win — three Grammy Awards.
The stage musical of The Lion King, based on the film opened in 1997 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and has been produced, not only in the United States, but also in Canada, Europe, South Africa, Australia, Korea, and Taiwan. The Lion King musical won six Tony Awards including Best Music, as well as eight Drama Desk Awards.