'The Lion King' 5 things you never knew about Disney's original animated classic from the people who made it

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
The animal ensemble in Disney's 1994 animated classic, 'The Lion King' (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

When it arrived in theaters 25 years ago, Disney’s The Lion King became a Cinderella story ... minus the studio’s version of Cinderella. Dismissed within the Mouse House as a B-movie during its production, the movie unleashed a mighty roar at the box office, grossing more than $300 million domestically during its initial theatrical run. (It’s since brought that total up to over $400 million through several successful re-releases.) With a new Lion King poised to conquer multiplexes this weekend, we revisited the Yahoo Entertainment archives and unearthed five secrets about the ancestor to Disney’s newest box-office king.

The songs you know and love originally sounded very different

If you grew up watching The Lion King, it’s hard to remember a time when you didn’t know the words to “Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” by heart. But those tunes — written by Elton John and Tim Rice — required a lot of refinement before arriving at the versions playing in your head right now. Take the soaring opening credits anthem “Circle of Life,” which sounded far less majestic in John’s original demo. “[It was] totally different than the one we wound up with,” Lion King co-director, Rob Minkoff, said in 2017. “It went, ‘And we’ll all join in in the circle of life.’ And we thought, ‘It’s terrible.’” But that story has a happy ending, as Rice worked directly with John to craft the number that opens both the 1994 film and the 2019 remake.

In the case of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” it was John who persuaded the filmmakers they were on the wrong path. Executive producer Don Hahn revealed in 2017 that Minkoff and his fellow director, Roger Allers, had the bright idea of handing the movie’s love ballad to comic relief sidekicks Timon and Puumba (Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella). To say that John was displeased is an understatement. “What have you done? You’ve destroyed my song,” Hahn remembers the singer protesting. “This is the reason I did the movie, I always wanted to write a great Disney love ballad, and you’ve just destroyed it.” Allers and Minkoff quickly reversed course and let Simba and Nala take center stage as John intended. (While Matthew Broderick and Moira Kelly provide the speaking voices for the adult lion lovers, Joseph Williams and Sally Dworsky crooned their lyrics.)

Speaking of the warthog-and-meerkat comedy team, an early version of “Hakuna Matata” dedicated an entire verse to Timon’s days as a “young meerkat.” “We had this very long verse before the song started,” Minkhoff explained in a behind the scenes featurette included on a new Blu-ray edition of The Lion King in 2017 . “We thought it took too long to get going. So we figured out a way to begin the song with the chorus.”

You almost heard a different Puumba

Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella were starring alongside each other nightly in the celebrated 1992 Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls when they both auditioned to play the wisecracking hyenas that help Scar bring down Mufasa. As Sabella recalled in 2017, it did not go well. “We were in this little booth that they concocted and we were ad-libbing as well, and when we got done, there was silence in the room. And I said to Nathan, ‘Well, at least we have a job at night.’”

The duo may have bombed as the hyenas, but the directors determined that they’d be perfect fits as Simba’s wisecracking pals. Well, Lane was at least. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in 2017, Minkhoff revealed that they almost parted ways with Sabella during production. “We did our first session, we cut it together, we played it and the jokes didn’t land. It wasn’t his fault, it was completely our fault. After the meeting, people in charge were sort of disappointed about it and said, ‘Maybe we should look to recast him.’” Minkhoff pleaded to give Sabella a second chance in the recording booth, and that session proved magic. “The next scene we played went over like gangbusters, and everybody realized [Ernie and Nathan] were great together.”

Sabella rewarded the directors for sticking by him by inventing a classic bit of Puumba tomfoolery: his penchant for passing gas. In order to pick up Lane’s spirits during recording sessions, he’d blow into his hand and make fart noises, which never failed to bring a smile to his co-star’s face. “Later when we were doing interviews, I would tell reporters, ‘Pumbaa is the first Disney character to have gas,’” Sabella remembered in 2017. “And then Nathan would take the mic and say, ‘It’s actually Snow White, but we don’t talk about that.'”

Jeremy Irons’s singing voice is smoky for a reason

Some singers have a naturally smoky voice: in the case of Jeremy Irons — who plays one of Disney’s all-time great villains, Scar — he had a bit of an assist. “He’s a smoker,” Minkhoff told Yahoo Entertainment in 2017. “So when we recorded him, he was smoking, including [during] the song ‘Be Prepared.’” Not that any secondhand smoke is visible in the movie. “We had to edit out all of [the smoking],” the director joked.

In the same interview, Minkhoff cleared up some confusion over the exact relationship between Scar and Mufasa (James Earl Jones). In an interview with the website HelloGiggles, Hahn seemed to suggest that the two lions weren’t actually brothers, a story that quickly went viral on the internet. But Minkhoff chalks that up to a misunderstanding over the habits of actual lions versus the characters in the movie. “For sure, they are brothers,” he stressed. In that case, Mufasa should really say something to his sibling about his smoking habit.

Matthew Broderick’s kids aren’t the world’s biggest Lion King fans

Actors generally regard a role in a Disney movie as a gift to their offspring. But as Matthew Broderick discovered, that gift can be rejected. During a 2016 Role Recall with Yahoo Entertainment, the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off star explained that he agreed to voice adult Simba with his future children in mind. “I was in Ireland in the summer, and I got a call to be a lion. It was just when Disney movies were really coming back. I thought if I ever do have kids, it will be good to have this.” At the time he recorded the role, Broderick was single. Three years after the film’s release, he married Sarah Jessica Parker, and they now have three children. Apparently, The Lion King isn’t a family movie night staple in the Broderick-Parker household, though. “[I didn’t realize] they would have to watch the father get trampled to death,” he says, chuckling. “I’ve learned it’s not as fun to watch with kids as you might think.”

Killing Bambi’s mom paved the way for killing Simba’s dad

Broderick’s kids aren’t the only ones left traumatized by Mufasa’s fatal plunge. The lion king’s death ranks up there with the murder of Bambi’s mother as one of the most scarring moments from a children’s movie. And Minkhoff told Yahoo Entertainment in 2017 that Bambi was very much on their minds, but not in the way you might expect. “It’s really sad, and then they go to this new spring song, where the birds are singing in the trees,” the director notes about the way Bambi’s mother vanishes from the film after her shooting. “It’s really disturbing.”

Rather than repeat history, Minkhoff and Allers decided to show Simba finding his dad’s body. “We were thinking that [Simba] needs to deal with the fact that his father died. We need to bring some closure to it. And the fact that later in the story, his father does come back to him, in a very meaningful and important way, kind of closes the loop. It’s not that he really does die and disappear forever, which I find much more disturbing.”

But is it more disturbing for kids? We asked sociologist and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, Margee Kerr, to weigh in on the different treatments of the death of a parent in Bambi and The Lion King earlier this year. “For a young child, not seeing the actual death scene might be better, because it doesn’t bring into focus ideas about brutality,” she explained. “Just the idea of someone not being out of here anymore is different than here is a person or an animal that I’m seeing die. But both can serve as opportunities to have conversations with you kids about what it all means.”

The Lion King is available to purchase on Amazon, iTunes and Vudu. The 2019 Lion King is playing in theaters now. Visit Fandango or Atom Tickets for showtime and ticket information.

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