25 Surprising Facts About The Lion King

Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Disney Enterprises, Inc.

We're looking back at the 1994 Disney film that started it all, from the hit Broadway musical to the live-action adaptation. Here are 25 things you might not have known about the animated masterpiece that had you in tears over two decades 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. 

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

17 Facts About Airplane! On Its 40th Anniversary

Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays (with Otto) in Airplane! (1980).
Julie Hagerty and Robert Hays (with Otto) in Airplane! (1980).
Paramount Home Entertainment

Shot on a budget of $3.5 million, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker wrote and directed Airplane!, a movie intended to parody the onslaught of disaster movies that graced movie theater screens in the 1970s. The comedy classic, which arrived in theaters on July 2, 1980, ended up making more than $83.4 million in theaters in the United States alone, and resurrecting a few acting careers in the process. Here are some things you might not have known about the comedy classic on its 40th anniversary.

1. Airplane! was almost a direct parody of the 1957 movie Zero Hour!

Shorewood, Wisconsin childhood friends Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker grew up and moved to Los Angeles, where they were responsible for the sketch comedy troupe Kentucky Fried Theater. The trio made a habit of recording late-night television, looking for commercials to make fun of for their video and film parodies, which is how they discovered Zero Hour!, which also featured a protagonist named Ted Stryker (in Airplane! it's Ted Striker). In order to make sure the camera angles and lighting on Airplane! were matching those of Zero Hour!, the trio always had the movie queued up on set. Yes, the three filmmakers did buy the rights to their semi source material.

2. Universal thought Airplane! was too similar to their Airport franchise.

Universal released four plane disaster movies in the seventies: Airport in 1970; Airport 1975 (confusingly in 1974); Airport ‘77; and The Concorde ... Airport ‘79. Helen Reddy portrayed Sister Ruth in Airport 1975 and was game to play Sister Angelina in Airplane! before Universal stepped in and threatened to sue. Instead, the role went to Maureen McGovern, who sang the Oscar-winning theme songs to The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno—two movies that were also “disaster” movies, albeit ones not involving a plane.

3. David Letterman, Sigourney Weaver, and other future stars auditioned for Airplane!

In early conversations regarding Airplane!, Paramount Studios suggested Dom DeLuise for what would eventually become Leslie Nielsen’s role, and Barry Manilow for the role of Ted Striker, but they were never asked to audition.

4. Chevy Chase was mistakenly announced as the star of Airplane!.

Chevy Chase was erroneously announced as the star of Airplane! in a 1979 news item in The Hollywood Reporter.

5. The role of Roger Murdock was written with Pete Rose in mind.

Pete Rose was busy playing baseball when Airplane! was shot in August, so they cast Kareem Abdul-Jabbar instead.

6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got a pretty swanky carpet out of his Airplane! gig.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Peter Graves, and Rossie Harris in Airplane! (1980)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rossie Harris, and Peter Graves in Airplane! (1980).
Paramount Home Entertainment

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s agent insisted on an extra $5000 to the original offer of a $30,000 salary so that the basketball legend could purchase an oriental rug he'd had his eye on.

7. Peter Graves thought the Airplane! script was "tasteless trash."

Peter Graves eventually found the humor in the film, including the pedophilia jokes, and agreed to play Captain Oveur. Graves's wife was glad he took the role; she laughed throughout the premiere screening.

8. No, the child actor playing young Joey didn't know what Peter Graves was actually saying.

Rossie Harris was only 9 years old when he played the role of Joey, so did not understand the humor in Turkish prisons, gladiator movies, or any of Oveur’s other comments. But by the time he turned 10 and saw the movie, Harris had apparently figured it out.

9. Airplane! marked Ethel Merman's final film appearance.

"The undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage” played a disturbed soldier who believed he was Ethel Merman. Merman passed away in 1984.

10. Michael Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul was in Airplane!.

Jonathan Banks plays air traffic controller Gunderson.

11. Airplane!'s three-director setup caused legal problems.

The Directors Guild of America ruled that Abrahams and the two Zuckers couldn’t all be credited for directing a movie, nor be credited under the single “fictitious name of Abrahams N. Zuckers.” A DGA rep was on set to make sure that only Jerry Zucker spoke to the actors. What he saw was Jerry Zucker next to the camera, who would then go to a nearby trailer where the other two were watching the takes on a video feed, and come back to give notes to the actors after conferring with his partners. A DGA executive board eventually gave the three one-time rights to all share the credit.

12. A BIT ABOUT BLIND POLISH AIRLINE PILOTS WAS WRITTEN AND FILMED.

Blind singer José Feliciano, and lookalikes of blind singers Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, played Polish airline co-pilots. The Polish-American League protested, and it was determined by the writer-directors that the idea wasn’t funny enough to stay in the movie.

13. Robert Hays was starring in a TV show at the same time he was filming Airplane!

Robert Hays, the actor who played Ted Striker, had to race back and forth between the sets of Angie and Airplane! for two very busy weeks. The theme song to Angie was performed by the one and only Maureen McGovern.

14. Robert Hays was—and is—a licensed pilot.

He can even fly the ones with four engines.

15. Leslie Nielsen had a lot of fun with his fart machine.

Leslie Nielsen sold portable fart machines for $7 apiece on set, causing a brief epidemic of fart noises emanating from most of the cast and crew and delaying production. When they were shooting Hays’s close-up, Nielsen used the machine after every other word of his line, “Mr. Striker, can you land this plane?”

16. Stephen Stucker came up with all of Johnny's lines.

Lloyd Bridges and Stephen Stucker in Airplane! (1980)
Stephen Stucker and Lloyd Bridges in Airplane! (1980).
Paramount Home Entertainment

Stephen Stucker was a member of the Kentucky Fried Theater. His line “Me John, Big Tree” was part of an old riff he used to do, which continued with him going down on his knees and putting an ear to the ground to hear when a wagon train was arriving.

17. The original rough cut of Airplane! was 115 minutes long.

After screenings at three college campuses and two theaters, the film was cut down to 88 minutes.