Today! Because it hurt that my friends never stood downwind –
The Lion King (1994)
Directed by Rogers Allers and Rob Minkoff
Starring Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeremy Irons, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Cheech Marin, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Robert Guillaume
Even if it doesn’t have the most entries on this list, I often hold up 1994 as being possibly the best year ever for movies. The highs are just so high – and it kicks off with what was the top grossing animated movie ever for a very long time afterward. Coming on the heels of the superior The Little Mermaid/Beauty and the Beast combo and the funnier Aladdin, Disney crashed the summer and dominated with what is often accurately described as “Savanna Hamlet.” Home video was already well established by this point, however in the early ’90s you saw successful movies stay in theaters for lengthy runs, and I ended up seeing Lion King some five times at movie theaters and drive-ins across ’94 and ’95. This would stick around at least tied for Movie I Saw in Theaters Most for many, many years.
The songs are great, even if the plot can be a touch overbearing, as the tone swings wildly from heavy tragedy to light-hearted fart jokes. Weirdly, just as this epic run of Disney animation greatness seemed to be hitting its stride, it also ended with The Lion King. 1995 brought Pocahontas, signaling a clearly lost trajectory for the traditional arm of their cartoon house, as well as Pixar’s Toy Story, which was quite obviously the future. And while I might prefer some of these films, their next run of animated offerings (Hunchback, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan, etc.) fell a bit flat with audiences, critics, or both. It would be sixteen years before Disney had a non-Pixar film clear $200 million again, with Tangled in 2010. With re-releases, Lion King is still Disney’s top grossing animated movie, unadjusted, to this day.
Fun fact – I’ve seen a bunch of these folks in person, given the packed group of theater pros assembled to voice the lions and warthogs and whatnot – Matthew Broderick and Ernie Sabella both appeared in the Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1996, a show that our old high school theater director insisted on dragging everyone too, given that she was locked into a delusional fantasy relationship with Ferris Bueller himself. If you’re out there, Mrs. S, drop a line! Ask one of the nurses or jailers to bring you a phone! Digression aside, that production also included Jonathan Freeman, who played Jafar in Aladdin, creating an interesting live-action cross section of Disney voice actors. I’ve also caught Nathan Lane in person a bunch of times – in productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Broadway), The Addams Family (Chicago pre-Broadway tour), The Iceman Cometh (Goodman), and sitting in the audience at the AMC River East movie theater watching the Julianne Moore Oscar winner Still Alice. True story!
We’ve got another repeat actor on the list, so let’s spotlight that great comedienne, View host, Comic Relief legend, and EGOT winner (if you count daytime, as groused about by Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock), #398 Ghost‘s Whoopi Goldberg! If my glancing is correct, she appears in at least four more films on this list, and no, Pauly Shore is Dead is not one of them!
In addition to its Song and Score Oscars, and Best Picture – Comedy or Musical win at the Golden Globes, I think it warranted to give Lion King Best Sick Disneyland Burn, for its throwaway takedown of the It’s a Small World ride, as well as Best Cockeyed Hyena, for Ed.