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. 

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The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

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