25 Surprising Facts About The Lion King

Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

With Jon Favreau's live-action edition of The Lion King getting ready to make its way into theaters, we're looking back at the 1994 Disney film that started it all. Here are 25 things you might not have known about the animated masterpiece that had you in tears 25 years ago.

1. The Lion King wasn't always The Lion King.

The Lion King went through a few different titles, including The King of the Kalahari and King of the Jungle. "When I first started work on The Lion King, the movie was called King Of The Jungle,” producer Don Hahn said.

"King Of The Jungle was a metaphor for this allegorical story about human behavior," Hahn continued. "We were thinking about the idea of how it’s a jungle out there and Simba has to exist in this jungle. However, there was no jungle in our story; they’re out on a savannah. But then we threw that out because we wanted to focus on a simple story about a lion king. At that stage we thought, ‘Why not call it The Lion King?'"

2. One of the screenwriters dubbed it Bamblet.

Screenwriter Irene Mecchi said in “The Making of The Lion King” that the idea for the movie was first presented to her as “Hamlet in Africa with Bambi thrown in, so Bamblet.”

3. The Lion King's opening scene changed once the directors heard "Circle of Life."

According to "The Making of The Lion King” featurette, the animated film's original opening scene featured a dialogue introducing most of the main characters. But directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff scrapped it when they heard the final version of “Circle of Life.”

The "Circle of Life"-filled opening scene was so powerful that it was used as a trailer for the film. It marked the first time Disney had ever made a trailer using a complete scene.

4. The animals, and their relationships to one another, were different in earlier versions of the script.

The Lion King's original script featured Scar as a lone lion, unrelated to Simba, who was in charge of a pack of vicious baboons. In this version, Rafiki was written as a cheetah and Timon and Pumbaa were both friends with Simba from the start.

5. The Lion King was the first Disney movie to feature an original storyline.

The Lion King has long been billed as the first Disney animated film to feature a completely original storyline—that is, one that was not an adaptation of a preexisting story. (Though there are some individuals who dispute this claim, saying that the story took inspiration from both Hamlet and Kimba, The White Lion, an animated series from the 1960s.)

6. Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella auditioned to play hyenas.

Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella in The Lion King (1994)
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, who voiced Timon and Pumbaa, respectively, originally auditioned to be hyenas. "They came to an audition in New York and they bumped into each other in the lobby, which is when they discovered they were both auditioning for the roles of hyenas," director Rob Minkoff said. "They asked the casting director if they could audition together and they were hilarious as they read their lines, but they didn’t seem right for the hyenas. That’s when we thought, ‘What if we use them as Timon and Pumbaa?’ It was the perfect fit."

7. At one point, The Lion King was going to feature a Cheech and Chong reunion.

Cheech Marin and Whoopi Goldberg were eventually cast as the hyenas, but the original idea was to cast Marin opposite his former partner in comedy crime, Tommy Chong.

"We had a really tough time finding the right voices for the hyenas in the movie," Minkoff said. "Gary Trousdale, one of the directors of Beauty and the Beast, helped us out in the early stages of development and he created an entire storyboard of the hyenas as if they were played by Cheech and Chong. It was hilarious, but Cheech and Chong weren’t working together at the time. We heard that Whoopi Goldberg was interested in the film and when we asked her if she’d like to voice a hyena she said, ‘Yeah, great.’ So we got Cheech and Whoopi instead of Cheech and Chong!"

8. Ed the Gopher had to fill in as Scar at the last minute.

Jim Cummings the voice of Ed, the gopher who reports to Zazu in the film. He also filled in for Jeremy Irons as Scar on last third of “Be Prepared” when Irons threw his voice out recording the song. "Jeremy developed vocal problems while he was recording that number," Cummings said. "So the producers asked me to come in and replace Mr. Irons. Sing the last third of' 'Be Prepared’ in his place."

9. "The Lion in the Moon," a lullaby, was deleted from the film.

After Simba’s first encounter with the hyenas, the film was supposed to feature a lullaby sung by Sarabi called “The Lion in the Moon,” which was about a protective lion spirit.

10. "Hakuna Matata" wasn't in the original script.

“Hakuna Matata” wasn't originally in the script; instead, there was a song about eating bugs called "He's Got it All Worked Out." "We couldn’t convince everybody that making the entire song about eating bugs was a good idea," Minkoff said. "Soon after, the research team came back from their trip to Africa with the phrase ‘Hakuna Matata.' We talked about it in a meeting with Tim Rice—and that’s when the idea struck. I remember Tim saying, ‘Hmmm… Hakuna Matata. It’s a bit like Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.’ A song was born!”

11. The Lion King is the highest-grossing hand-drawn animated feature of all time.

The Lion King is the highest-grossing hand-drawn animated feature of all time with a total box office of over $986 million; it is also the eighth highest-grossing animated feature in general, the 42nd highest-grossing film of all time, and the best-selling videotape of all time.

12. It took animators more than two years to create the stampede scene.

According to the film's press notes, the 2.5-minute wildebeest stampede scene took Disney CGI animators more than two years to create and involved writing a new computer program to govern the movements of the herd.

13. A hyena researcher sued Disney.

A hyena researcher sued Disney for “defamation of character” for its portrayal of the animals in the film.

14. The Lion King's original director wanted it to be like a National Geographic documentary.

The film’s first director, George Scribner (who also directed Oliver and Company), wanted the movie to be a sort of animated National Geographic feature and left the film when the decision was made to turn it into a musical.

15. Disney's most important animators chose to work on Pocahontas instead.

The Lion King was actually made by a “B-Team” of Disney animators since the “A-Team” had elected to focus on the picture they thought would be more successful— Pocahontas.

16. A wildlife expert brought animals to the studio to help the animators study their movement.

Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Niketa Calame-Harris, Jason Weaver, and Laura Williams in The Lion King (1994)
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Wildlife expert Jim Fowler brought real African animals like hornbills and lions at different stages of life into the Disney studio to serve as figure models for the team of animators working on the film. According to the film's press notes, "He taught them how lions greet one another by gently butting heads and show affection by placing one's head under the other's chin. He talked about how they protect themselves by lying on their backs and using their claws to ward off attackers and how they fight rivals by raising on their hind legs like a clash of the titans."

17. An earthquake forced Disney to shut down production temporarily.

An earthquake in 1994 forced the Disney Studios to close down temporarily and much of the film was finished in the artists’ homes. "In the early phases, when the basic decisions were being made, Roger and I worked together a great deal,” Minkoff said. “As the movie went into production, we began to concentrate on our own sequences. Then, when the movie began to come together as a whole, we found ourselves operating in tandem again.”

18. Some characters were written out of the movie.

A number of characters developed for the film were written out of the script, including a tagalong little brother for Nala named Mheetu (who Simba was originally supposed to save from the stampede) and another friend of Nala’s named Bhati—a wise-cracking bat-eared fox. There was also, at one point, a lizard named Iggy, and another meerkat named Tesma (a mopey relative of Timon).

19. There are some hidden Mickeys.

One small yellow beetle that Timon finds under a log has Mickey ears on its back. It's yet one more example of dozens of "Hidden Mickeys" that Disney has placed in its movies.

20. Some of the film's animators traveled to Kenya for inspiration.

In November 1991, Disney sent a team of animators to Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya to do research for the film. Most of the landscapes in the finished movie are based on this park—but not Pride Rock itself, which was created by a Disney artist in Burbank.

"Only a few people went to Kenya, but they brought back plenty of research material for everyone to study," Minkoff said. "It was great to get a feel for the landscape, the animals and the plants of the country through their photos and drawings."

21. Rowan Atkinson had some competition for the role of Zazu.

Before Rowan Atkinson of Mr. Bean fame was cast as the finicky hornbill Zazu, several former members of Monty Python were considered for the role, as was Patrick Stewart.

22. writing "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" was not an easy task.

According to the film's press notes, lyricist Tim Rice wrote 15 iterations of lyrics for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” over the period of several years. The Elton John recording that plays during the credits (and won an Oscar) was the first version of the song.

23. The final fight sequence was supposed to have ended much differently.

The original final fight sequence had Simba losing to Scar, though Scar then died in a fire.

24. No, the word sex was not hiding in the background.

Sex in a dust cloud? Animators claimed this was supposed to say “SFX,” and was meant as an innocent nod to the art department.

25. James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair played married royals before.

James Earl Jones (who voiced Mufasa) and Madge Sinclair (the voice of Sarabi) played an African king and queen together in the 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy, Coming to America.

This story has been updated for 2019. 

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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