“Always On My Shelf” was originally a tagline that I came up with for my review of The Princess Bride as a way to express my love for that movie and explain that I’ve watched it throughout my entire life and have never been bored with it. However, I feel the phrase nicely sums up my feelings on classic movies that have been in my possession pretty much all of my life. So I will be using it as a catch-all term for older movies while using “New On My Shelf” for more current releases.
While I will eventually be reviewing movies that are directed more at an adult crowd, I thought it would be fitting for my second review with this tagline to be another film that was a childhood favorite. This particular movie was requested by my childhood self so often that I am sure my poor mother could recite the entire script from memory. And if you’re somebody like me who grew up in the 1990’s, you’ve probably had a similar experience as this was the most commercially successful animated movie of all time when it was released in theaters in 1994.
The Lion King is an epic Shakespearan adventure and political drama that is simplified in terms that children can understand. If that analysis seems far-fetched or pretentious than I suggest reading a plot synopsis of Hamlet. Or actually viewing the play. Regardless, The Lion King uses talking lions and other animals to play Shakespearean tropes and it does so very successful. The main character is a young lion prince named Simba who is eagerly dreaming of the day when he will become King of the Pridelands (Africa). His father King Mufasa, voiced by James Earl Jones, tries to teach him how to be a responsible king with mixed results.
This review is about to become very spoiler heavy, but honestly this film has existed for over two decades at this point and if you haven’t seen it then you really have nobody to blame but yourself. This isn’t some obscure cult hit like The Princess Bride, this is the Frozen of its time, a massive blockbuster feature that is considered to be a staple of childhood entertainment. So spoilers are just going to happen.
The villain of the movie is Mufasa’s jealous and conniving brother Scar, voiced by Jeremy Irons. Scar is one of the first bad guys that I remember having a lot of affection for because he was just so entertaining that I enjoyed having him on screen. He’s got a dry and sharp wit that is often self-depreciating and serves as a way to distract from what an intelligent schemer he is. He murders Mufasa in a scene that traumatized a generation of children and somehow convinces a heartbroken Simba that it is his fault and not Scar’s. Simba runs away from the Pridelands in a self-imposed banishment, surviving his treacherous uncle’s attempts to have him murdered by hyenas.
You know, I almost feel bad for including that picture. Isn’t it just soul crushing? How did I ever survive something like this?
Okay, so the young Simba runs away across a desert and nearly dies and then is rescued by a warthog named Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) and a meerkat named Timon (Nathan Lane). This duo serves as both comic relief and life guidance for Simba, who grows up (changing voice actors from Jonathan Taylor Thomas to Mathew Broderick) embracing their motto of “Hakuna Matata”. It means “No worries”. For the rest of your days.
I know you have that stuck in your head now. You’re welcome.
Anyway the rest of the movie is fairly predictable as Simba eventually gets convinced to return to the Pridelands and oust Scar as dictator. Not that this is easy mind you. It takes his childhood friend and romantic interest Nala (Moira Kelly), a baboon that fills the “wise old sage” trope named Rafiki (Robert Guillaume) and a visit from the lion afterlife by Mufasa to get him going. But he eventually goes back and embraces his destiny as the one true king and there’s this big fight and Scar gets eaten by hyenas and everyone else is happy.
The Lion King is honestly a difficult movie for me to review because it’s so tied into my childhood and I love every second of it like it is part of my family. I’m older now and I look at Simba and know he’s kind of a bland character that really needs to be kicked in the butt a bit too much to be a hero. That’s a problem. If I’m super honest, I have to admit that Elton John’s songs just don’t hold up to the work that Alan Menken and Howard Mashman did on earlier Disney movies like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. I also know that Beauty and the Beast is a far superior film all around. That’s the best Disney animated classic of all time.
But this movie is probably one I will always love and the one that will always be my sentimental favorite. I can’t help it. It was just so epic and fresh and honestly, there’s still no other animated film quite like it. I can’t think of a movie that feels quite the same way. It’s unique and I think that’s why it holds up. And while the protagonist is a bit on the bland side, the supporting cast is a huge ensemble of memorable, funny and lovable characters. Or characters you love to hate in the case of Scar.
The Lion King is a flawed classic. That’s about as objective as I’m going to get. But it is definitely a classic and if you haven’t seen it in a long time, I really encourage you to watch it again. It’s a film that deserves to be experienced again and again.
And if Disney ever releases this from their vault again you can be sure I’m never letting anybody else steal it. It’s staying on my shelf for good this time.