Monday, October 10, 2011

The Making of 'The Lion King'

On the screen, a blazing yellow sun rose against a crimson sky, accompanied by a booming chant performed by South African singer/composer Lebo M.

"Nants' ingoyama bakithi baba!"

This was the moment it all came together, a moment when the creative team of The Lion King knew they had something special.

It was "The Circle of Life."

"The Circle of Life"
"When we finished the sequence and Hans Zimmer scored the music," says producer Don Hahn. "We watched it and were all amazed--even though it was our movie. Suddenly this little film about a lion cub became a much bigger epic."

Reaching that point of revelation was not an easy task. Disney's 32nd animated feature had been beset with obstacles, from story issues to the departure of one of its original directors. Before its release in June 1994, it even had to survive an earthquake, and all while being deemed the "B" project at the Walt Disney Studios. "Lion King was originally called King of the Jungle and was not well regarded around the studio," says co-director Rob Minkoff. "So when (studio head) Jeffrey Katzenberg announced that the studio would be split in two to make two films simultaneously, many of the top animators wanted to work on Pocahontas instead of The Lion King. Jeffrey had deemed Pocahontas the 'home run' and Lion King the 'risk.'"

Originally, George Scribner, who previously directed Oliver & Company, was assigned to co-direct The Lion King with Roger Allers. Early on in the production, they joined a team of artists that traveled to Africa to research the film. Hahn was not on the team--he was completing production on Beauty and the Beast at the time--but he recalls the impact Africa had on his studio mates. "(They) were blown away by the scope and scale of Africa. They came back with a load of images and a feeling for the land and color of the land that made it into the movie in many ways. There is an epic feeling to the landscape in Africa, that made the directors want to use it almost like another character in the film."

The Lion King directors Roger Allers (l.) and Rob Minkoff
The film makers came back home visually inspired and began in earnest to develop the story. "We wanted to do an animal picture based in a more natural setting," says Allers. "A story that dealt with the issue of taking on the responsibility of adulthood." What he and Scribner couldn't settle on, however, was what direction to approach it from. Scribner pressed for a documentary-like "Bambi in Africa" feel while Allers preferred a lighter and more accessible touch. Finding a middle ground only compromised both men's visions of the film. Tensions increased when Elton John was brought in to help write the songs, a move Scribner highly objected to. It wouldn't be long before Scribner was removed from the film and replaced by Minkoff, with the story development beginning anew.

Around that time, Hahn was assigned to produce The Lion King. As he recalls, "We sat in my office for two days with an amazing, small and mighty team of story artists that included Chris Sanders, Brenda Chapman and Beauty directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, and over those two days (we) wrote the complete outline for the film.There had been some amazing writers on the story, but those two days were an amazing time when the film came together in a big way."

The story was developing into a coming of age tale with highly dramatic overtones rooted in classic literature. Minkoff explains, "When we first pitched the revised outline of the movie to Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher, someone in the room announced that Hamlet was similar in its themes and relationships. Everyone responded favorably to the idea that we were doing something Shakespearean and so we continued to look for ways to model our film on that all time classic."

"We looked at a lot of coming of age stories," adds Hahn. "Especially bible stories like Moses or Joseph where a character is born into royalty and then is exiled and has to return to claim their kingdom. Those are ancient stories, stories of underdogs that we as an audience love to see when we go to the theater."

The Lion King wouldn't fly, however, being anchored solely to Biblical and Shakespearean themes, so a concerted effort was made to introduce lighter moments. "We found ourselves constantly re-balancing the film to make sure there were enough comic elements to lighten the mood after the tragedy of Mufasa's death," says Minkoff. "Timon and Pumbaa really came along at the right time to give the film a lift and make it a more satisfying whole."

"Hakuna Matata"
That lift was epitomized in the song "Hakuna Matata," where the sly meerkat and goodhearted warthog introduce the exiled Simba to their no-worries lifestyle. It, along with "The Circle of Life" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?," became one of The Lion King's signature tunes, the product of a hugely successful--if unlikely--teaming of songwriter Elton John, lyricist Tim Rice (who just completed writing songs with Alan Menken for Disney's Aladdin) and composer Hans Zimmer. "Elton and Tim's songs help(ed) tell the story with humor and heart," says Allers, "while Hans' brilliant score and arrangements--along with Lebo M's choral work--gave it its scale, drama, and placed it in Africa."

"It was Tim who suggested Elton for the job," adds Minkoff. "Me, Don and Roger wanted Hans based on his work in The Power of One, whose score also featured Lebo M. Their collaboration on the score and musical elements really brought the story to life and gave it its enduring power."

So confident were they of the music's strength, the film makers decided to go out on a limb once the opening sequence was completed. As Hahn recalls, "We took a risk and sent 'Circle of Life' out to theaters as a trailer for the film six months before the film came out and it was a huge hit. Back at the studio we were still struggling with the story but at least we knew we had a great opening and if we could elevate the rest of the film to that level, we'd have something."

In addition to the powerful music and now promising story, The Lion King boasted  an impressive voice cast that included Matthew Broderick as the adult Simba, Jeremy Irons ("a gentleman and a brilliant actor," says Allers) as Simba's evil uncle Scar and Robert Guillaume ("his laugh was so amazing," recalls Minkoff) as the slightly crazed shaman Rafiki. Most memorable, though, was James Earl Jones as the fierce but wise Mufasa (a role that, surprisingly enough, Sean Connery was briefly considered for).

James Earl Jones
"James Earl Jones has one of the most incredible voices in the history of film," explains Minkoff. "Getting to work with him, especially being such a big fan of Star Wars, was an amazing experience. Watching him warming up his voice before a session was remarkable." Allers makes the same observation. "The very first time we had James in to record, before doing his first lines he proceeded to clear his throat. The strength and resonance of his 'harrrunfs' practically blew us off our chairs in the recording booth! That man IS a lion!"

Shortly after the "Circle of Life" trailer began appearing in theaters, The Lion King experienced its biggest setback yet, one that threatened to impact its June 1994 release date. Early on the morning of January 17, a 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck outside Los Angeles. The Northridge quake would devastate the area, killing dozens and causing approximately $20 billion in damage. As Hahn recalls, "The studio had to be shut down. For a few weeks we were driving drawings to animator's homes around Southern California and making the film in garages and on kitchen tables. The crew was amazing. They were dealing with the stress of a major earthquake while finishing the film."

Rising to the challenge, the production team managed to complete the film on time for its world premiere on June 15 and its U.S. wide release on June 24. Despite being Disney's "B" film, it still arrived with high expectations. "We were fourth in a succession of modern Disney animated classics," says Minkoff. "First it was Little Mermaid, then Beauty and The Beast and finally Aladdin. They were all tough acts to follow. We only hoped we would be compared favorably and not disappoint the Disney fans that had been growing with each new hit."

The Lion King did not disappoint.

Received with nearly universal acclaim by audiences and critics alike, it made over $300 million in its initial domestic release. It would go on to win two Academy Awards, one for Hans Zimmer's score and the other for the John/Rice tune "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"

The Lion King producer Don Hahn and friends
And, 17 years later, it still resonated with audiences, raking in an additional $85 million in the U.S. during its 3D re-release this fall. But, was 3D the reason people flocked back to theaters?  Or, perhaps they were just nostalgic for hand-drawn animation. Hahn--who gives high praise to The Lion King's 3D conversion--doesn't quite think so. "Story, story, story!" he exclaims. "Nobody goes to the theater just to see a technique. The Lion King is a great story and that's why it's come back with such a roar."

Allers shares in that sentiment. "It's the balance of humor and drama and the resonance of its themes. The issues of life and death, and loss. The responsibilities of leadership and finding one's place in life."

The Lion King is now available on home video in Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D.

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