Disney's animated classic, The Lion King, was a test project for the famed film studio, according to one of its directors. The Lion King itself is as interesting as the history behind the project, which was tagged as a "B-type" production back when it in development, more than two decades ago. At the time, many veteran Disney artists opted to work on the more appealing and formulaic Pocahontas instead, leaving the studio's newbies to lead the charge on The Lion King. The end result, however, surprised everyone as the all-animal film set box office records and most importantly, continued Disney's long tradition of coming out with timeless animated stories.
Regarded as one of the best in terms of animated films, The Lion King's story was unique amidst other Disney hits. It does not have a single human character, which prompted the filmmakers to work extra hard to make sure the movie explores complex and grounded emotions through its narrative. Fortunately, the film worked quite well in that respect; be it Rafiki's words of wisdom or seeing Simba's exile and eventual return to Pride Rock, people related to the story. Still, one of the most impactful plot points in the film is the gut-wrenching death of Mufasa, which co-director Rob Minkoff has now revealed was a controversial decision, back when The Lion King was in production.
Sitting down with Collider in light of The Lion King's special re-release in digital HD and on Blu-ray, the movie's co-director talked about why elements such as Mufasa's death made the project an "experiment" back in the 1990s:
“It’s a studio institution, right? Because it’s not just a movie, it’s the Broadway stage show, it’s the sequels, and the new TV series… It goes on and on. So it’s interesting. One of the things [Lion King remake director Jon Favreau] said, which I found really fascinating, he said to me, “If we made this movie for the first time today, the studio never would have let us kill Mufasa the way we did.” Because it’s not in the first reel."
"So in a movie like Finding Nemo, mom gets killed, but it happens in the first scene, and then it becomes kind of a prologue, but we don’t have any emotional attachment. To actually kill as important a character as Mufasa is, in the middle of the movie, I mean literally in the third reel, is not typical. It’s just not what you do. You don’t necessarily do that. So we had, not by design, but by the fact that it wasn’t based on something, and it was kind of an original story, and nobody knew what the rules were. So we said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll try.'”
Mufasa's death is arguably one of the saddest Disney animated film moments ever. However, his tragic demise and the events that followed allowed The Lion King to tap into human emotions without including any actual human characters. Had Minkoff and his co-director Roger Allers decided to take that sequence out on the film, it is very likely that it would not have had the same emotional resonance that it had and still has with people, to this date.
The iconic death scene and the rest of The Lion King will return to the big screen in 2019, this time with Jon Favreau's CGI re-imagining of the classic tale. Donald Glover is tapped to play Simba, while Billy Eichner is voicing Timon, Seth Rogen is voicing Pumbaa, John Oliver is voicing Zazu and Chiwetel Ejiofor is voicing Scar. Meanwhile, James Earl Jones is set to reprise his role as Mufasa in Favreau's retelling.
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