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The Best Summer Movie Ever is ‘The Lion King’

Millennials are ruining Summer Movie Debate Week.
Fsr Bestsummermovies Thelionking
By  · Published on April 24th, 2018

It’s Debate Week. This article is one of sixteen arguments competing for the prize of being named ‘Best Summer Movie Ever.’ Read the rest throughout the week here.

The Lion King came out in June of 1994 when the Great Millennial Generation (myself included) were at peak Disney-consuming age. And I can assure you that if you were already too old or didn’t exist yet in 1994, you missed out.

That summer, if you were a kid, it felt like everything was made for you. The Lion King wasn’t just in theaters — it was everywhere. And it wasn’t even supposed to happen.

The greatest piece of trivia about The Lion King is that it was never meant to be a hit. Pocahontas began production at the same time, forcing most of the studio’s animators to claim only one project. Because of this, The Lion King lost most of Disney’s best animators, who had no confidence in it. According to Don Hahn, the film’s producer, “The Lion King was considered a little movie because we were going to take some risks. The pitch for the story was a lion cub gets framed for murder by his uncle set to the music of Elton John. People said, ‘What? Good luck with that.’”

But the creative team who stayed true were passionate, and the underdog project gave them a chance to spread their wings and prove themselves. Because of course, The Lion King wound up being a smash success, earning two Academy Awards and spawning several sequels and a TV show. Its stage adaptation is the highest-grossing and third longest-running Broadway show, and the much-anticipated remake with the likes of Beyoncé, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and John Oliver is due to come out next year.

But I didn’t know or care about any of this in the summer of 1994 because I was five years old, and all I wanted to do was watch those singing lions forever. I had Lion King bedding, Lion King clothes, a Lion King backpack, a Lion King toothbrush. Here’s a sample of the trove my mom dug out of my bedroom closet for this piece:

Beloved Lion King Merchandise

My future children’s inheritance.

I had a stuffed Simba, Nala, Zazu, even the Pumbaa with grubs you could hide under his tongue. The family car was permanently playing The Lion King soundtrack tape. I was Simba for Halloween. And if you’re in your late twenties or early thirties, there’s a good chance you were too.

The Lion King was a sensation, and it obviously had a great merchandising team. But why was it such a surprise success? Why did kids love it so much?

The Author in Lion King Clothes

Off to kindergarten with Lion King shirt, shorts, backpack, and lunchbox.

For one thing, its star is a kid, too. There are plenty of Disney movies about kids, but the several that came out before — The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, as well as the concurrent Pocahontas — were all about adults. Or at least teenagers who, when you’re five, are totally indistinguishable from adults.

The Lion King, however, begins with a little kid and his best friend. They get up to kid adventures. There’s still a love story, sure, but it’s not until near the end of the film. Simba is a kid for the first half and, importantly, even when he grows up he’s still a kid at heart. Hiding in the jungle for years with his bachelor bros Timon and Pumbaa, Simba never really matures. To the adults in the audience, he’s clearly traumatized by his role in his father’s death and has devoted his life to avoiding responsibility for anything else. To the kids, he’s just a relatable character — a big kid who likes to play.

But the troubles Simba faces, both when he’s young and just young at heart, are very real, and it’s his age that really heightens the gravity for the five-year-olds watching. Unlike a lot of kid characters in movies for kids, Simba isn’t smarter than the adults around him. He’s full of himself, distractible, and easily manipulated, all qualities you identify with as a kid without understanding the consequences.

And there are consequences. Parent death wasn’t unheard of in kids’ movies at the time — Bambi is an age-old example, and The Land Before Time, just a few years before The Lion King, raised the bar with on-screen parent death. But at least for me, this was the first time I had to face a parent’s death (and really death at all) on the big screen, where I couldn’t hide in the next room or fast-forward.

The Author In Lion King Pajamas

My sixth birthday in fall-season Lion King jammies.

And there’s something about Mufasa’s death, seen through Simba’s eyes, that’s truly disturbing for a child. As he’s urging his father to wake up, Simba is told by his uncle that it’s all his fault. So while five-year-old you is processing death, already a tall order, you’re confronted with injustice, too. You know that Simba isn’t responsible, but the only adult present insists that he is. It’s loss of safety and disillusionment with authority, all in one fell swoop.

It’s a lot to process.

But in spite of the all the adult issues, I could not get enough of The Lion King. My mom has informed me that my obsession lasted for two years. I’d like to say I was all about the deceptively nuanced storytelling, but I have a hunch there was a more basic tenet at play…

Kids love animals.

Kids especially love big animals, and Africa is full of them. That was part of the trick to the successful merchandising, I’m sure. Have you already successfully begged your parents for a stuffed Zazu and Nala? Then have we got a set of three unnamed giraffes for you!

This is hardly a universal rule, since Frozen has blown The Lion King out of the water on the kid-obsession front, and it only has one non-speaking reindeer to its name. But there was something magical about the excitement of being a little kid in the summer of 1994, when it felt like the whole world was about singing animals and secret kings. In spite of ourselves, my generation learned to face the facts of loss, injustice, and responsibility, and we actually had a great time doing it.

I’d like to see Frozen do that.

The artwork for #DebateWeek was created by the wonderful Eileen Steinbach, whose work can be found on her website and on Twitter @sg_posters.

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Liz Baessler is a frequent contributor and infrequent columnist at Film School Rejects. She has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands. (She/Her)