Sure, you’ve seen “The Lion King” dozens of times. You own the soundtrack and you’ve caught the Broadway show. Maybe you even had “Lion King” sheets and went to bed singing “Hakuna Matata.”
And what “Lion King” fan doesn’t know about the scene where stars supposedly spell out “SEX”? We bet there are still some things you didn’t know about the beloved Disney classic, which turns 20 on June 15.
1. When writer Irene Mecchi was hired, she was told that the story pitch was “‘Bambi in Africa’ meets ‘Hamlet,'” so she started calling it “Bamlet.”
2. Disney believed that “Pocahontas” (which came out in 1995) would be the bigger, more prestigious film and put all its key animators on it instead. Story artist Brenda Chapman (who went on to direct “Brave” and “The Prince of Egypt”) thought the story “wasn’t very good” and writer Burny Mattinson declared, “I don’t know who is going to want to watch that one.”
3. Pumbaa has the dubious distinction of being the first Disney character to fart.
4. Adult Simba’s mane was supposedly inspired by Jon Bon Jovi’s ’80s hair.
5. Tim Curry and Malcolm McDowell were both considered to voice Scar, the role that went (so perfectly) to Jeremy Irons.
6. Before James Earl Jones was hired to voice Mufasa, animators worked with Sean Connery in mind.
7. Patrick Stewart as Zazu? Disney didn’t make it so. The actor — along with Monty Python stars John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam — were all considered for the role of Zazu, until animators caught some episodes of “Mr. Bean” and settled on Rowan Atkinson.
8. “The Lion King” was going to be a Cheech & Chong reunion, with both comedians as hyenas, but Tommy Chong was unavailable. One of the hyenas became a female and the role went to Whoopi Goldberg.
9. In the “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” sequence, we see a pyramid of animals, including giant anteaters. Fine, except they’re native to South America, not Africa.
10. While the name of Nala’s mother (Sarafina) is never mentioned in the film, it is in the credits and was used in the trading cards given out at Burger King.
11. This was the first Disney cartoon to be dubbed into Zulu.
12. The film was titled “King of the Jungle,” until someone realized that lions don’t live in the jungle. The phrase still showed up on some Disney merchandise.
13. To further underscore Scar’s villainy, Disney put in subtle (and not-so-subtle) Nazi references, including having Scar’s army goosestep and having Scar address his troops from a high ledge, as Hitler would from a balcony. There is also supposedly a Swastika pattern on the rocks nearby.
(Speaking of… check out this nifty essay that compares “The Lion King” to “Thor.” (Namely, Loki = Scar and Thor = Simba)
14. At one point, Elton John and Tim Rice’s Oscar-winning love song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was a comical duet between Timon and Pumbaa! The composers smartly convinced the producers to have it sung between Simba and Nala instead.
15. Disney loves to pay homage to Disney: Notice the Mickey Mouse ears on a bug Timon grabs during the “Hakuna Matata” song and a speeded-up version of the Aloha Chant (from Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room) when Timon does his hula for the hyenas.
16. The Northridge earthquake struck just weeks before the film was set to be released. With the studio shut down, animators had to finish their work from home.
17. Although the similarities to the Japanese TV series “Kimba the White Lion” have been pointed out by many, Tezuka Productions opted not to sue. As an executive said, “we’re a small, weak company. It wouldn’t be worth it anyway … Disney’s lawyers are among the top twenty in the world!” According to another source, the head of the studio believed that the creator of “Kimba,” the late cartoonist Osamu Tezuka, would not have wanted to sue because he admired Disney. “They are not litigious people,” said Fred Ladd who produced the American version of “Kimba.” “They just let it go.”
18. Who knew hyenas were so controversial? One hyena researcher sued Disney studios for defamation of character, and another who had helped animators observe captive hyenas urged a boycott of the film. Some people also interpreted the hyenas as unflatteringly standing in for minorities (a la the crows in “Dumbo.”)
19. The two-and-a-half minute wildebeest stampede, one of the only computer-animated segments in the film, took more than two years to create.
20. The family of the South African guy who composed the 1939 song used in “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” sued Disney in 2004 for $1.6 million in royalties. Disney settled two years later for an undisclosed amount.
Photo courtesy Disney