Disney animated features had two great periods: the “classic” films in the decade that began with the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the “renaissance” movies in the decade that began with 1989’s The Little Mermaid. Supervised by Jeffrey Katzenberg before he left to form DreamWorks, these latter films revived Walt’s formula of comedy, heart and hummable songs. The blockbuster of the renaissance phase was this majestic epic, which added the element of high melodrama. Not since Bambi had so much been at stake in a Disney tale. There are kingdoms to be sundered, deaths to be atoned for. The father of a prince is killed, his conniving uncle seizes the throne, and the father’s ghost instructs him to seek honorable revenge. Put it another way: a boy leaves home, escapes responsibility with some genially irresponsible friends, then returns to face society’s obligations. On the grasslands of Africa, Hamlet met Huckleberry Finn.
With Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane and Cheech Marin lending their vocal talents to the enterprise, and with a sheaf of hit tunes (“Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” “Hakuna Matata” and the Oscar-winning “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”) by Elton John and Tim Rice, The Lion King proved to be one of the seismic smashes of the past 20 years; in real dollars, only Avatar, Titanic and The Phantom Menace have topped it. Yet the film was also the beginning of the end of traditional, hand-drawn animation. Subsequent Disney features like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were more ambitious but less successful at the box office. And a year after The Lion King, along came Pixar’s Toy Story. The first full-length film made on computers showed audiences a new look, technology and attitude. Within a decade, 3-D animation had almost totally replaced 2-D, and The Lion King would find its most lasting popular appeal as a Broadway puppet show.