21 Things You Didn’t Know About The Lion King
First hitting screens in 1994, The Lion King quickly became one of the biggest hits in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios, and all these years later it remains as well-loved as ever. The movie follows Simba, young lion and heir to the throne of Pride Rock, as he struggles to take his rightful place as king following the death of his father Mufasa.
It’s a movie that has made audiences laugh, cry and gasp for generations – but did you know the following facts about The Lion King?
21. The infamous wildebeest stampede took three years to animate
The stampede is one of the most dramatic moments in The Lion King. Everyone remembers the first time they watched the heart-wrenching action unfold, as poor Simba and Mufasa get caught between the thundering hooves of hundreds of wildebeest. The sequence lasts about two and a half minutes, but it took the animators over three years to complete.
The detailing on each of the wildebeest alone meant that a crack team of Disney artists had to spend three years ensuring that the appearance and movement of each animal looked realistic. The Lion King was a huge undertaking overall: a team of 600 artists and technicians worked together to produce over one million drawings for the movie.
20. Disney’s best animators were sent to work on Pocahontas because executives thought that would be the bigger hit
The Lion King was in production at the same time as Pocahontas, and executives at Disney had very different ideas about which film would be more successful. Anticipating that Pocahontas would be the more successful of the two films, top brass sent most of the studio’s best animators to work on that rather than The Lion King.
While The Lion King was not hurt by the absence of these animators, Disney executives were very much mistaken about Pocahontas being the bigger hit. On release in 1994, The Lion King earned $763 million, becoming the second highest-earning film ever at the time, whilst 1995’s Pocahontas earned a still-impressive yet comparatively meagre $346 million.
19. An actual lion and cub were brought into the studio so animators could study their movements
The Lion King’s animators were treated to some amazing safari experiences by the studio, in order to ensure that the film’s animation accurately represented the beauty and wonder of the African savannah. To ensure the animators wanted got the movements and personalities of their lion characters just right, they were given a trip to Africa in order to watch the animals in their natural habitat.
Furthermore, a real lion and cub were also brought into the Disney studio so that animators could study their anatomy. Wildlife expert Jim Fowler (host of TV’s Wild Kingdom) brought the animals into the studio to act as real-life figure models, as well as other animals featured in The Lion King including a hornbill bird.
18. Be Prepared was inspired by real-life footage from Nazi Germany
Scar is the evil brother of Mufasa who ruthlessly plots to steal power from his sibling. He’s one of the greatest screen villains ever, which makes sense when you consider he was directly modelled on arguably the most infamous real-life villain of the 20th century: the leader of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler.
The dramatic ‘Be Prepared’ scene was directly inspired by footage from Nazi Germany, in which Hitler would regularly survey his goose-stepping soldiers. Scar observes his hyena ‘troops’ in exactly the same way that Hitler would stand on a podium and watch his armies walk by. The hyenas even turn to face Scar as they pass by and salute in exactly the same manner as Nazi troops from the 1930s.
17. The voice actors behind Timon and Pumbaa originally auditioned to play the hyenas
Timon and Pumbaa were the break out stars of The Lion King, the jolly warthog and the hilarious meerkat providing some much-needed comic relief. However, things could have been very different, as actors Nathan Lane (Timon) and Ernie Sabella (Pumbaa) originally auditioned play the hyenas.
Director Rob Minkoff explained that when Lane and Sabella arrived at their audition in New York, “They asked the casting director if they could audition together and they were hilarious as they read their lines, but they didn’t seem right for the hyenas. That’s when we thought, ‘What if we use them as Timon and Pumbaa?’ It was the perfect fit.”
16. Cheech and Chong were supposed to voice the hyenas
The makers of The Lion King originally wanted to get 80s comedy icons Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong onboard to voice the hyenas Banzai and Shenzi. However, Chong was unavailable so Whoopi Goldberg was added to the cast instead. Goldberg voiced Shenzi, while Marin played Banzai.
Cheech and Chong might not seem the most obvious actors to be hired for a family-friendly Disney movie. The duo are best known as pioneers of ‘stoner’ humour, which they explored in a series of comedy records and movies, including Cheech & Chong: Up in Smoke, Nice Dreams and Still Smokin’.
15. Most of the main characters have names taken from Swahili words
In order to boost the film’s authenticity to its African setting, many of the most prominent animals in the movie have Swahili words as names. Simba, Sarabi, Pumbaa and Rafiki are all Swahili words, and they mean (in order) lion, mirage, foolish and friend. Then there’s the famous phrase ‘Hakuna Matata,’ which as the film tells us means ‘no worries’ in Swahili.
However, Hakuna Matata proved controversial when Disney successfully trademarked the phrase following the movie’s release. This move prompted protests, with Zimbabwean activist Shelton Mpala accusing the entertainment giant of stealing African culture with its trademarking of the Swahili language.
14. James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclaire previously played the king and queen in Coming To America
James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclaire were perfectly cast as Mufasa and Sarabi, Simba’s parents and the king and queen of Pride Rock (at the start of the movie at least). The chemistry between the two actors might have been so good because Jones and Sinclaire have previously appeared as an African king and queen together before.
1988 comedy Coming to America cast Jones and Sinclaire as King Jaffe Joffer and Queen Aoleon, monarchs of fictitious African nation Zamunda and parents of Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem. Sadly, Madge Sinclaire passed away a year after The Lion King was released, following a long struggle with leukemia.
13. Can You Feel The Love Tonight was almost cut from the movie
The Lion King is known and loved for its amazing soundtrack, from Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice. One particular favourite is the love song Can You Feel the Love Tonight, played as Simba and Nala begin to realise that they have feelings for one another. However, the track nearly didn’t feature at all in the final cut of the movie.
It was only re-inserted when Elton John saw the film before its general release and insisted on its inclusion. This turned out to be a smart move, as Can You Feel the Love Tonight was a big hit for John, as well as winning the Best Original Song Oscar, and the Grammy for Best Male Pop Performance.
12. Several characters were completely written out of the final script
Animated movies tend to go through plenty of revisions before hitting the screen, and The Lion King is no exception. Earlier drafts of the film’s screenplay featured a number of characters who wound up being cut before the film was completed. For one, Nala had a goofy younger brother named Mheetu, whom Simba was actually supposed to save from the terrifying wildebeest stampede.
Nala also had another friend named Bhati, who was imagined as a hilarious bat-eared fox. Other characters included Tesma, a mopey meerkat and relative of Timon, as well as a lizard called Iggy. The hyenas were also supposed to be very different animals, as the animators first envisaged them as African wild dogs (also known as cape hunting dogs).
11. The film was supposed to end with Scar throwing Simba off a cliff
Animators originally had a very dramatic ending in store for Simba. In what would have been a traumatic call back to Mufasa’s death at the hands of his brother Scar, Simba was also meant to be thrown off a cliff by his evil uncle. Thankfully, unlike his ill-fated father, the new young king would have survived.
Believing Simba dead, Scar would have declared “good night, sweet prince” (a nod to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one of the key influences behind the plot of The Lion King), before unwittingly being set on fire. Even though Simba would have lived, it was decided that this ending was a little bit too dark for a family-friendly animated movie.
10. Scar was supposed to follow a very different storyline
Scar, as we’ve established, was a nasty piece of work, and one of the best big screen bad guys of the 1990s. However, the character changed quite a bit between the original script and the finished product. At first, Scar was supposed to be a lone wandering lion who was in charge of a pack of vicious baboons (not hyenas).
In the same version, Rafiki was originally written as a cheetah while Timon and Pumbaa were always friends with Simba from the start of the movie. Additionally, the name of the film itself changed several times. Originally it was called King of Beasts or King of the Jungle, before the filmmakers realised lions don’t live in the jungle at all!
9. The opening scene originally had voiceover dialogue
The opening scene of The Lion King is one of the most iconic openings in film history. Everyone remembers seeing that African sun rise over the savannah for the first time while the music kicks in. However, the scene was originally supposed to feature voiceover dialogue that introduced each of the main characters to the audience.
Directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff decided to get rid of the script when they heard the final version of Circle of Life in action. The opening was so powerful that executives decided to use the scene as a trailer for the movie, leaving it completely untouched. This was the first time Disney made a trailer using a complete scene from the final cut of a film.
8. Hakuna Matata wasn’t in the first draft of the script
In a film with so many great songs, Hakuna Matata is yet another groovy number that kids everywhere probably drove their parents up the wall with throughout most of the 90s. But the song was never supposed to feature in the original script. Instead the writers had come up with a song about the joys of eating bugs entitled He’s Got it All Worked Out.
Director Minkoff explained: “We couldn’t convince everybody that making the entire song about eating bugs was a good idea. Soon after, the research team came back from their trip to Africa with the phrase ‘Hakuna Matata’. We talked about it in a meeting with Tim Rice—and that’s when the idea struck. I remember Tim saying, ‘Hmmm… Hakuna Matata. It’s a bit like Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.’ A song was born!”
7. The production was disrupted by the 1994 Northridge earthquake
When the Northridge earthquake hit California in 1994, this nearly ruined production of The Lion King. Disney Studios in Burbank, California was forced to shut down after the earthquake wreaked havoc in the surrounding area. This just so happened to be at the same time that animators were trying to finish work on the film.
Happily, while production was indeed disrupted, they were able to get work completed. The animators were forced to keep drawing the final scenes from their homes instead. In recent years since the Covid-19 lockdown, it’s safe to assume that many other film industry professionals have had to follow a similar work schedule.
6. It’s the biggest-selling home video of all time
The Lion King wound up becoming the biggest-selling home video of all time. On the first day of the video’s release it sold 4.5 million tapes, and in total it’s estimated that over 55 million copies were purchased before the video era ended. In the years since, The Lion King is estimated to have sold over 11 million DVD copies in the US alone.
Disney were big hitters on home video. Other titles in the top 10 all-time highest selling videos include their other animated classics Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas and Cinderella, as well as the first Disney-Pixar film, Toy Story. The only non-Disney movies to make the top 10 are Titanic, Independence Day and Jurassic Park.
5. Matthew Broderick thought he was signing on to the remake of a Japanese anime show
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off icon Matthew Broderick provides the voice of adult Simba, taking over the role from Jonathan Taylor Thomas at the end of the Hakuna Matata montage. Curiously, it seems that Broderick was a little uncertain about what he’d signed on to lend his vocals to, as he didn’t realise The Lion King was an all-new story created specifically for the film.
When Broderick first signed on to voice Simba, he thought he was participating in a remake of a Japanese anime from the 1960s entitled Kimba the White Lion. Despite the presence of lions and the almost identical names of the lead protagonists, Disney have always insisted this was mere coincidence and deny that The Lion King in any way derives from Kimba the White Lion.
4. Tim Rice went through 15 different versions of the lyrics for Can You Feel The Love Tonight
As the lyricist on all the songs featured on The Lion King soundtrack, Tim Rice really did have his hands full with The Lion King. He went through several different versions of Can You Feel The Love Tonight, and once revealed that he composed 15 different sets of lyrics for the track – only to ultimately go with the first version of the song he came up with!
All of that hard work paid off in the end for Rice though. As well as winning Rice plenty of awards, The Lion King soundtrack proved to be a huge seller, going multi-platinum in several countries. On top of which, the songs are also included in the hugely successful stage musical adaptation of the film, which has been running since the late 90s.
3. Most of the film’s landscapes are directly based on a national park in Kenya
As we mentioned earlier, The Lion King’s animation team got to go on research trips to Africa, to see not only the wildlife but the landscape. One of the most beautiful places that they visited was the Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya, which has often been described as one of the most stunning locations on planet Earth.
The park made such an impression on the animators during their November 1991 visit that they decided to base the entire film around its landscape. Only one important aspect of the African savannah is not based on Hell’s Gate – and that is Pride Rock itself, which was actually designed by a Disney animator back in Burbank, California, who hadn’t been to visit the national park.
2. That ‘rude word’ written into the movie was all a big misunderstanding
In one scene that comes midway through the film, a melancholy Simba gazes up at the night sky. As he lays down with a thud, Simba kicks up a cloud of dust, which appears to spell out ‘SEX’. Or does it? Not according to ex-Disney animator Tom Sito, who says the cloud is much more innocent than that.
“It doesn’t say SEX. It says special effects. It’s SFX,” Sito states, insisting it was a simple call out to the animation team all along. But that’s not the only example of Disney supposedly having a bit of fun behind the scenes, as there are plenty of other instances of rude imagery being snuck into one of the studio’s animated features without the top brass noticing.
1. It’s one of the few animated films to win a Golden Globe for Best Picture
As well as winning Oscars and Golden Globes for its music, The Lion King is one of the few animated films to ever win the honour of a Golden Globe for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy. Toy Story 2 later landed the same award, leading to the introduction of a Best Animated Feature award at both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards.
These accolades come on top of The Lion King being the highest-grossing Disney Animation film of all time. Subsequent re-releases of the film bumped up its overall takings to just over $1 billion, which was a record until the release of Frozen in 2013, which made $1.28 billion; this record in turn was broken by 2019’s Frozen II, which earned $1.45 billion.