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. 

10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars

Jeff Bridges accepts the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010.
Jeff Bridges accepts the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Winning an Oscar is, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you're Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you'd think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are (we're looking at you, Colin Firth).

1. Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie with her Oscar in 2000.
HO/AMPAS

At the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony, after Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world collectively squirm, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage when Marcheline died in 2007, but it hasn't yet surfaced. "I didn't actually lose it," Jolie said, "but nobody knows where it is at the moment."

2. Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi Goldberg with her Oscar.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. "Oscar will never leave my house again," Goldberg said.

3. Olympia Dukakis

Olympia Dukakis with an Oscar statue.
Steven Henry/Getty Images

When Olympia Dukakis's Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. "For $78," they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando in 1957.
Keystone/Getty Images

"I don't know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront," Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. "Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared." He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. "The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don't know where it is now."

5. Jeff Bridges

Actor Jeff Bridges, winner of Best Actor award for
Jeff Bridges, winner of the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart, poses in the press room at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards on March 7, 2010.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

In 2010, Hollywood legend Jeff Bridges won his first-ever Oscar for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the time next year's ceremony rolled around, when he was nominated yet again for his role in the Coen brothers's True Grit

When asked about his year-old statuette, Bridges admitted that "It's been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now." Finding the MIA Oscar seemed even more urgent when Bridges lost the 2011 Best Actor Oscar to Colin Firth for The King's Speech. "I'm hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven't won a spare," Bridges said. "But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better." 

6. Colin Firth

Colin Firth with his Oscar in 2011.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed Colin Firth as he said those aforementioned words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. Matt Damon

Actor Matt Damon in 1999
Brenda Chase/Hulton Archive

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn't sure where his award went. "I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it," Damon said in 2007.

8. Margaret O'Brien

Child actress Margaret O'Brien.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1945, 7-year-old Margaret O'Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O'Briens' maid took the award home to polish it, as she had done before, but never returned. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O'Brien's mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There's a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O'Brien. "I'll never give it to anyone to polish again," she said.

9. Bing Crosby

Barry Fitzgerald (left) holds his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor while American actor Bing Crosby holds his Oscar for Best Actor, both for their roles in Going My Way; 1945.
Barry Fitzgerald (left) holds his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor while American actor Bing Crosby holds his Oscar for Best Actor, both for their roles in Going My Way; 1945.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944's Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school's library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a 3-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. "I wanted to make people laugh," the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. Hattie McDaniel

A publicity still from 1939's Gone with the Wind; at the 1940 Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel (left) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Vivien Leigh (right) won Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland (center) was also nominated for Best Supporting A
A publicity still from 1939's Gone with the Wind; at the 1940 Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel (left) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Vivien Leigh (right) won Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland (center) was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

The Most Successful Entertainment Production in History Might Just Surprise You

Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images
Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images

Last year, Marvel Studios capped off an unprecedented run of success with Avengers: Endgame, a movie promoted as the culmination of over 10 years of storytelling. The film made $2.8 billion, unseating 2009’s Avatar and knocking 1997’s Titanic down to third place. With nearly $3 billion in ticket sales, you would think Endgame would count as the most successful entertainment production of all time—be it a single movie, book, album, or video game.

It isn’t.

While it earned a staggering amount of money, Endgame is hobbled by the fact that theatrical runs last just a few weeks or months. To really roll in the dough, it helps to have a combination of high ticket prices and a show that runs almost in perpetuity. That’s why it’s another Disney production, the Broadway adaption of The Lion King, that can make a credible claim to being the most financially rewarding entertainment effort of all time. Since debuting in 1997, the stage show has grossed $9.1 billion. (The 1994 film, 2019 live action remake, and merchandising aren’t included in that total. If they were, the number rises to $11.6 billion.)

A theater sign for 'The Lion King' is pictured in New York City in March 2003
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The musical, adapted by Julie Taymor, follows the story of the animated original, with lion cub Simba learning to accept his role as king of the Serengeti Plains. It’s estimated the show has been mounted 25 times globally in nine different languages, with more than 100 million people purchasing a ticket to see it.

Does that make Endgame a distant second? Not quite. Another long-running musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, has grossed more than $6 billion since its 1988 debut. The 2013 video game Grand Theft Auto 5 cleared $6 billion in 2018. And if one were to account for inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind made $3.44 billion.

The Lion King does have one asterisk, however. If inflation is taken into consideration, then 1978’s arcade classic Space Invaders comes out the winner. The popular coin-op game—which was later ported over to the Atari 2600—was a smash hit. By 1983, it had made $3.8 billion. Accounting for inflation, it earned $13.9 billion. What’s even more impressive is that unlike big-ticket movies and stage shows, Space Invaders did it one quarter at a time.

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