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All of the Little Things That Made the Original ‘The Lion King’ So Great

From Scar’s cute animated butt to Simba’s mini-mohawk mane, the remake of the Disney classic has a lot to live up to 

Disney/Ringer illustration

Mostly everyone has a story about The Lion King, because that’s what happens when a movie is transcendent, which The Lion King was, of that there can be no debate. Mine is:

My cousin told me about The Lion King after he’d gone with his mom to see it a couple of weeks after it came out. We were standing in front of a different cousin’s duplex in some Section 8 housing in San Antonio and he was recounting the plot to us, but since we were children he was doing it in that way that children do where they just say a bunch of individual parts of the movie without ever actually stitching them together. He told us about Mufasa dying and he told us about Timon and Pumbaa and he told us about the big hyena fight and he told us about Scar getting murdered, and so on and such and such. He just kept saying “Oh, and there’s a part where … Oh, and there’s a part where … Oh, and there’s a part where” over and over again.

That’s what this article is, really—same as we did with Good Will Hunting, it highlights a bunch (but certainly not all) of the movie’s very cool and very good small parts that occasionally get lost in conversation (and were certainly lost in conversation that day with my cousin). There’s:

  • The way the nature sounds start playing before anything else. I like in movies when you start hearing stuff before you start seeing stuff. They do that in The Lion King. You hear the sounds of the savannah before you see anything on the savannah. It’s only a second or two long, but it’s wonderful.
  • The way the voice starts singing exactly when the sun starts to come up. SYMBOLISM!
Screenshots via Disney
  • The way the cheetah inches her neck up tall. This happens right at the beginning of “Circle of Life.” They show us animal after animal as the music builds. The cheetah is my favorite of the bunch. She looks very serious, and very regal. I’d like to know more about her. I bet she has a good story.
  • The way the baby giraffe squints her eyes when the sun shines on her face. This one also happens during “Circle of Life.” The baby giraffe and the mama giraffe come up over a hill and the sun hits the baby giraffe in the face and she squints her eyes like there was really sun really hitting her in her real eyes.
  • The way Rafiki pats Mufasa on the back twice. This one happens the first time Rafiki and Mufasa see each other. Rafiki opens his arms for a hug, embraces Mufasa, then pats him on the back twice. That’s the ideal number of times to pat a friend on the back when you’re hugging them. One pat is OK, two pats is ideal, three pats OK but trending toward odd, and anything at four pats or above makes you look like a fucking psycho.
  • The way all the animals cheer for Simba when Rafiki holds him up in the air for them all to see him. Probably the best proof of how dad joke-y my protons have become is I will laugh 100 percent of the time when a new dad recreates this scene with a human baby. It’s always funny. I’m sorry. It’s one of the two things your Dad Instincts compel you to do when you first become a dad, the other one being the thing where you pose like the Heisman Trophy except the baby is the football.
  • “Life’s not fair, is it?” That’s the first line of dialogue in the movie. It’s said by Scar, who, by nearly every measure, is the most captivating character. Him opening the movie by saying that life isn’t fair is cool for any number of reasons, the two most substantial ones being: (1) FORESHADOWING. Because Scar is just minutes away from his campaign of doing a whole bunch of unfair shit. And (2) CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. The first thing Scar does in the movie is say that life isn’t fair. The last thing he does is plead for his life before the hyenas attack him. There is not one single moment in the movie when Scar isn’t fully aware of who and what he is.
  • Scar’s butt. This is going to sound weird, but: Scar has a cute butt. It’s extremely compact. It’s a good animal butt.
  • The way Simba tries to wake up Mufasa when he’s asleep. There are numerous times in The Lion King when the movie circles back on itself. This is one of them. Mufasa is lying there asleep and Simba, cute as can be, comes running over and starts to try to wake him up, which he eventually does. About 30 minutes later, the same thing happens (Mufasa lying down; Simba trying to wake him up), except he’s not able to, because Mufasa is dead.
  • The way Sarabi pats Simba on his butt with her nose. It happens when she’s encouraging Simba to go with Mufasa right before the “Everything the sun touches” speech. It’s an extremely mom thing to do. (The woman who voiced Sarabi is named Madge Sinclair. The Lion King was the second time she played a queen married to a king played by James Earl Jones. The first was in 1988’s Coming to America.)
  • The way Simba’s little claws come out during “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” when he climbs up an incline. It’s a neat little touch. You barely ever see his claws. He shows one of them during the opening scene of the movie, and then you see them here when he’s climbing, and then you see them again when he smacks one of the hyenas across the face during the chase scene in the elephant graveyard.
  • The way the elephant stomps along with the beat in “King.” I like that kind of stuff.
  • Another good circling-back moment. Remember the “I laugh in the face of danger” line that Simba gives when he and Nala are in the elephant graveyard? He delivers that line, and then he starts laughing, and then in the background you hear more laughing and it’s the hyenas. That’s how they’re introduced into the scene. They come in on Simba’s laughing. A few minutes later, after the hyenas have cornered Simba and Nala and are getting ready to eat them, Simba tries to scare them away by roaring. The hyenas make fun of his tiny roar, then tell him to do it again. He does, but this time it’s a giant, full-grown roar, because really it’s Mufasa who’s roaring. That’s how he gets introduced into the scene. He comes in on Simba’s roaring, same as the hyenas came in on Simba’s laughing. SYMBOLISM!
  • The way Simba charges down the stack of bones to save Nala when the hyenas are closing in on her. It was so very clear that Simba was born to be the king. He had the exact right pedigree. Were that me in that situation, I would not have run back to save Nala. She’d have gotten eaten. That’s really all there is to it. I’m no king. At best, I’m that mole who delivered the news to Zazu so that Zazu could then deliver the news to the king.
  • “You deliberately disobeyed me.” There are a lot of perfect lines in The Lion King. This one—particularly the way that James Earl Jones as Mufasa delivers it—is the most perfect.
  • The way Simba drops down when Mufasa says he has to teach his son a lesson after the elephant graveyard incident. Mufasa activates his Dad Voice here, which lets Simba know immediately that things are going to be very serious for a few minutes. (Dad Voice is a vocal affectation that dads take on when they want to let their child/children know that the time for playing is not right now. It’s a powerful weapon, so you have to wield it with great caution. I have, on occasion, misused it for personal gain, like the one time when I was playing hide-and-seek with my sons and I couldn’t find one of them so I just said his name with my Dad Voice and five seconds later he came sprinting into the room because he thought he was in trouble.)
  • When Simba is in trouble and he starts walking toward Mufasa and he looks down at the ground and sees own tiny paw inside of a giant paw print that Mufasa just made. SYMBOLISM!
  • Scar’s accent. What’s going on here? Why does Scar have an accent? And why doesn’t Mufasa know that Scar is a villain? His nickname is literally Scar. Like, THAT’S WHAT THE PEOPLE IN HIS FAMILY CALL HIM. That should’ve been one sign. His accent should’ve been the second.
  • Another good circling-back moment. Right before Rafiki shows Simba off to the rest of the animals at Pride Rock at the beginning of the movie, we get an overhead shot of all of them gathered around to see Simba. It’s this very rich, very welcoming moment. The only other time we get an overhead shot like that again in the movie is when Scar is walking away from Simba after he’s positioned him in the gorge to get stampeded to death. It’s a total inversion of the first one.
  • The way the camera zooms in when Simba realizes the wildebeests are running. Every single part of The Lion King is airtight. It’s just masterful filmmaking, which is made all the more impressive when you remember that it’s a cartoon from 1994.
  • The way Scar stalks around watching Mufasa try to rescue Simba. (By the way, Scar hissing “Long live the king” at Mufasa right before killing him is truly spectacular. I wonder how much time Scar spent thinking of that. He said that shit like he’d fantasized about it for years. It was soaked with just so, so, so much venom.)
  • The way Simba’s eyes search the stampede for Mufasa.
  • The way Simba crawls under Mufasa’s paw to feel his weight one last time.
  • The way Timon pinches his thumb and forefinger together when he says, “Nothing. What’s a motto with you?” There’s a small group of movies where when you watch them you say something like, “There is not one single role in this that could’ve gone to somebody else and it’d have made this movie better.” The Lion King is in that group. Every character was perfectly cast. Nathan Lane as Timon is an absolution.
  • The way Timon gets on his knees during the gospel part of Pumbaa’s part in “Hakuna Matata.” I smile every time. Timon is so much fun in this movie that after the rewatch, I, a grown adult with a wife and children and a mortgage, looked on the internet to find a meerkat to buy. (How’s this for poetry: There’s a website called Exotic Animals for Sale and, in the meerkat section, there’s a note about how interest in purchasing meerkats increased after The Lion King came out.)
  • Simba’s mini mane. They show it quickly during the Let’s Move This Movie Along montage in “Hakuna Matata” when they fast-forward everything a few years. Simba’s mini mane when he’s growing through adolescence looks like a mohawk.
  • The way Simba and Nala push their heads together when they realize who the other is. My favorite of all the lion gestures. (Mufasa and Sarabi also do this, but I don’t think it counts as a Circling-Back Moment because it’s just a thing that lions do.) (Semi-related: I went on a behind-the-scenes tour at the San Antonio Zoo recently. Part of the tour included going into the back area where they keep the lions when they aren’t on the reserve. We were three or four feet away from the lions, which is way too close to be to a lion. The male in the cage did his version of a cat’s purr, and it sounded like a fucking airplane landing. It was incredible.)
  • The way Timon goes wide-mouthed when Simba and Nala start being friendly.
  • The way Timon says “two.” “Our trio’s down to two.” It’s extra punchy. It’s like he puts an H in there between the T and the W. Thwo.
  • The look Nala gives Simba after she licks his face during “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” I don’t know an easy way to say this, so I’ll just say it: This is the exact moment when Nala stamps her name into the Nonhuman Cartoons Who Are Attractive to Humans canon. It’s her, Lola Bunny from Space Jam, the fox version of Robin Hood in 1973’s Robin Hood, Scar, Lola from Shark Tale, and probably two or three more I’m forgetting.
  • The way Simba begs Cloud Mufasa not to leave him. A thing I did not see coming as I aged into adulthood was the way my perspective would change while watching movies. What I mean is: The first time I watched The Lion King, I was 13. I very easily and clearly saw myself in Simba, and understood a lot of the stuff he was experiencing, in part because he was the star of the movie and that’s the point but also because I had only ever lived my life as someone else’s son. When I rewatched it to write this article, I felt myself more drawn to Mufasa, who, at his core, was just a dad and a husband who was trying to take care of the people he loved. Watching Mufasa didn’t make me feel like I was watching my own dad die anymore, like it did when I was a kid. Watching Mufasa die made me feel like I was watching myself die; like I’d somehow let my own family down; like I’d left my wife and sons to fend for themselves; like I was no longer there to love them and care for them and protect them. It was immeasurably more heartbreaking this time around.
  • “Ah, yes. The past can hurt. But the way I see it you can either run from it or learn from it.” There are a lot of profound lines in The Lion King. This one—particularly the way that Robert Guillaume as Rafiki delivers it—is the most profound.
  • The way Simba’s eyes turn from being mortified to being angry when he sees how desolate Pride Rock has become under Scar’s rule.
  • The way Scar’s posturing changes when he realizes that he’s looking at a full-grown Simba and not a Suddenly Alive Mufasa. He was terrified when he thought it was Mufasa. When he figured out that it was Simba, he immediately went into attack mode.
  • The way Scar circles Simba when he’s undressing him in front of everyone. SYMBOLISM!
  • Rafiki’s Bruce Lee moment. A great deal of fun.
  • Another good circling-back moment. Simba telling Scar to “Run away and never return,” same as what Scar told Simba when he was a cub.
  • Scar splashing ashes in Simba’s face. I watched a nature documentary one time and they talked about some monkeys in there. I don’t remember what kind of monkeys they were or where they lived or anything like that, but one thing I do remember is that if the alpha monkey felt threatened by another male monkey he would mutilate the other male monkey’s genitals and then kick him out of the group. I mention that now because Scar really got off easy after everyone found out that it was him who was responsible for the death of Mufasa. Simba just kicked him out of the pride. That’s it. That’s all he did. Scar could’ve stayed alive if he wanted to. Instead, he chose to splash some ashes into Simba’s face and then try to kill him. Tough break. But I suppose, if nothing else, you at least have to respect the villainy of the decision.

A final good circling-back moment. Right before Mufasa dies, everything around him darkens. The only real light in the shot is coming from his eyes. We get the same kind of shot of Scar right before he dies.