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Written by Ivan Radford   
Tuesday, 04 October 2011 06:39


Yes, that's the sound of me singing in South African as I continue my relentless quest to re-watch all the VHS tapes gathering dust in my attic. This week, the greatest Disney video in my childhood collection: The Lion King.

It's being released in UK cinemas in 3D this week (the trailer's this way) - no surprise really, given how gorgeous it looks in good old low-def, analogue 2D:



From the opening chants, it's hard not to be swept up in the brilliance of it all, especially when the low-level camera swings round to reveal Pride Rock in all its proud, rocky glory. Directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff were clearly onto something here. It's odd that they never went on to do anything else remotely good - one directed Stuart Little, the other Open Season. Oh well, Hakuna Matata.

I loved this film when I first saw it in the cinema all those years ago, and was blown away yet again when I saw it at Birmingham's IMAX a few years back (again in 2D). From the Circle of Life theme to the hand-drawn detail, this is pretty much Disney's masterpiece. Yes, it's even better than Enchanted.


Doodle of The Lion King by me, aged 7 Hand-drawn Walt Disney masterpiece


But there's a reason why I like it so much more than, say, The Jungle Book or Aladdin. It's the story of Simba (Matthew Broderick in his best role since Ferris Bueller's Day Off), a son whose father is killed by his evil uncle, prompting the boy to run away for years before returning for vengeance. Sound familiar? That's because it is.

No, not the whole plagiairism thing. Forget the similarities to Tezuka's 1965 anime series Kimba the White Lion: this classic kids story is basically Hamlet. Hamlet with lions. And that's pretty much my dream movie.


Suspiciously similar
Blatant plagiarism


Ok, there are changes made to the original play, but the basic setup is almost identical (read: not really at all, but hey, this is my blog post). Hamlet / Simba's dad, Mufasa, gets bumped off by Scar / Claudius, leaving the kingdom to fall under his rule while Hamlet / Simba's mum is paraded around like some kind of trophy wife / lioness sex slave.

Of course, in Shakespeare's text, we see Claudius praying for forgiveness for his rank offence. In The Lion King, Scar has a beard that's almost as long as Jafar's in Aladdin, so using the classic Disney beard-o-meter, you can tell he's REALLY evil. Plus he's played by Jeremy Irons. And Jeremy Irons apologises to NO-ONE.



Then there's Hamlet's father. He visits Simba as a ghost, reminding him that he should avenge his death. And, of course, Simba totally pays attention - because you don't say no to Mufasa. His name is too scary for that. It's so scary, I'll type it again. Mufasa. *shudders* Mufasa, Mufasa, MUFASA. You get the idea.



Why so scary? We all know it's because he's voiced by none other than James Earl Jones - the man who not only voiced Darth Vader but also made Justin Bieber's song Baby sound even better.



No wonder Simba is so keen to get revenge against Jeremy Irons for bumping off this cinematic legend. Our hero doesn't sink into madness in quite the same way as Hamlet, but there's no telling how crazy Simba goes while he wanders the African plains. After all, he does dress up as Lisa Simpson halfway through and have visions of CNN:



At this point, a special mention should also go to The Lion King's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Timon and Pumbaa - not just because Nathan Lane is the voice of the musical meerkat, but because they provide one of the film's most memorable songs.



It's an excellent soundtrack all round, in fact. Hans Zimmer's score was only bettered by his work on Inception (Circle of BRRRMMMM would be a wonderful remix), while Tim Rice's lyrics reach a level of near-Sondheim perfection with Scar's song Be Prepared.


For all the fear induced by The Irons, it goes without saying that this is a family-friendly film. Simba doesn't die from a poisoned sword. Simba's mum, too, doesn't drink poisoned wine (or swamp water, whatever). Likewise, Simba's girlfriend Nala (Hamlet's Ophelia) doesn't drown herself in a fit of mad rejection. As for Hamlet's rival Laertes, well he doesn't exist at all in Disney's version of events. Poor guy.

Still, we do have Zazu, Rowan Atkinson's messenger bird. He's basically Polonius - you know, the guy who Hamlet shoots in the second act. Of course, he doesn't die either. So this is a faithful retelling of Hamlet, then. It just has a happy ending. Apart from the two obvious male candidates, no-one dies at all.



Bizarrely, The Lion King's sequel follow a similar Shakespearean bent. The Lion King II: Simba's Pride sees Simba's son fall in love with Scar's heir, which is effectively Romeo and Juliet. Even better than that, The Lion King 3: Hakuna Matata sees Timon and Pumbaa tell their own version of events from the very beginning of the first film. Which is basically identical to Tom Stoppard's work of genius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Needless to say, Timon and Pumbaa are very much not dead.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are...


For Shakespeare completists, it's worth noting that there's one final Lion King character that hasn't been mentioned: Rafiki, or That Monkey with the Stick. Where does he stand in the great Hamlet analogy? Erm, he doesn't. He means absolutely nothing.

On the other hand, he does look a bit like Morgan Freeman:


Morgan Freeman
The Lion King's Rafiki

And that comment's probably about as racist as me shouting African chants when I first put the tape in the VCR. So I'll shut up now.

There you have it: The Lion King, quite possibly my first introduction to the world of Shakespeare and the best Disney animated movie. Unsurprisingly, most people seem to agree: it's the best-selling video of all time, having sold over 55 million copies.

And to all those who question The Lion King's supremacy, I ask one question: can you think of another cartoon with Shakespearean themes and a soundtrack by Elton John?



Thank God I don't have Gnomeo and Juliet on VHS.


The Lion King 3D is out in UK cinemas on Friday 7th October. Watch the Lion King 3D trailer here.