Lion King – Animated vs Broadway vs Live Action

live action lion king with baby simba
It’s the Circle of life. (Sniff!)

The “live action” (actually CGI, folks) remake of The Lion King is hitting theaters.  This new version of the Disney 1994 classic features significant differences.  Now is a great time to return to Pride Rock — and revisit Simba, Nala, Timon, Pumbaa, Mufasa, Zazu, and Rafiki — as we compare the animated, Broadway, and the live action versions of The Lion King.

The Animated Version of The Lion King

In the summer of 1994, Disney released The Lion King.  It was the fifth film in the Disney renaissance that started with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.  It was also the first Disney animated film that featured an original story, and not an adaptation of an existing property.  Although it does have strong similarities to the play Hamlet….(link goes to our cool comparison post).

Elton John and Tim Rice wrote the award-winning songs for the soundtrack. Remember Hakuna Matata, and Can You Feel the Love Tonight?   Hans Zimmer himself composed the score.

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The movie was a true critical and box office success!

hakuna matata log scene from lion king with simba, timon, and pumbaa
Hakuna matata, forever!

Synopsis of The Lion King (Spoilers)

The film starts with a young lion cub named Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), heir to his father Mufasa’s throne.

All three versions of The Lion King open with the song “The Circle of Life” with the mandrill Rafiki (Robert Guillaume) presenting newborn Simba to the animal kingdom, who bow in reverence.

Simba’s uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) murders Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and blames Simba for it, sending him into exile and taking over the throne.  Simba forms a new family with free spirits Meerkat Timon (Nathan Lane) and Warthog Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), who rescue him in the desert.  He embraces their philosophy of “Hakuna Matata” (No Worries).

Time passes.  Simba’s friend and love interest Nala (Moira Kelly) goes in search of him, and finds adult Simba (Matthew Broderick).  They fall in love (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”)  Nala tells him the Pride Lands are in ruin and everyone is starving under Scar’s reign.  She urges him to return home.

Simba refuses and storms off, unable to tell Nala he “killed” Mufasa.  Simba runs into Rafiki, who tells him his father’s spirit lives on in him.  Simba is visited by Mufasa’s spirit, who tells him he must take his rightful place as king (the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Black Panther has this concept too, and is also from Disney Studios…hmmmm).

Unable to run anymore, Simba returns home.  Timon and Pumbaa distract the hyenas so Simba can get to Scar.  When Scar thinks he has Simba cornered, he confesses to murdering Mufasa.  Simba pins him to the ground and forces him to confess this out loud to everyone.  Like all Disney villains, Scar ends up getting what he deserves.  Simba takes his rightful place as king with Nala as his queen.  The last scene is of Rafiki presenting their own newborn cub.

The lion king broadway poster
See The Lion King on Broadway, or at Disneyworld, if you ever get the chance!

The Broadway Version of The Lion King

In 1997, Disney brought the Lion King to Broadway.  Beauty and the Beast was still going strong as a musical, so why not adapt one of their other biggest hits for the stage?  Indeed.

From the very start, Lion King was getting rave reviews and selling out. It won six Tonys, including Best Musical.  It is Broadway’s third-longest running show, and the highest-grossing Broadway production of all time.  It made over a billion dollars.  Julie Taymor became the first woman to win Best Director of a Musical.

One of the most significant differences between the Broadway version of — and the other versions of — The Lion King is the appearance of the animals.

Animation is not an option for a live theatrical Broadway performance.  Instead, Julie Taymor designed elaborate costumes — most of them based on puppetry — that create not only the illusion of the animals, but the grace of their movements.

Having seen the show at least five times, I can tell you the effect is breathtaking.  It is the kind of creative risk one wishes Disney would take more of.

rafiki in the lion king broadway musical
Rafiki in the Lion King Broadway musical

Another significant difference is that Rafiki was changed to female, and the role is now traditionally played by a woman on stage.  According to the Wikipedia, Taymor believed there was no leading female character in the film.  Rafiki becomes a sort of Greek chorus in the musical.  She actually leads the song, “The Circle of Life” at the top of the show.

New Lion King Songs in the Broadway Musical

Musicals are generally longer than the average Disney cartoon.  So material had to be added to flesh out the show.  Significant new songs included Zazu’s pun-filled “Morning Report,” Mufasa’s powerful explanation of ancestors “They Live in You,”  Rafiki’s reprise to Simba about Mufasa “He Lives in You,” and Simba’s lament “Endless Night.”

Other new songs written for the musical include:  “Grasslands Chant,” “The Lioness Hunt,” “Chow Down,” “Rafiki Mourns,” “One by One,” “The Madness of King Scar,” “Shadowland,” and “Simba Confronts Scar.”

The book was written by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi, along with additional music and lyrics by Lebo MMark MancinaJay RifkinJulie Taymor, and Hans Zimmer.

Rafiki’s chants in “Rafiki Mourns” were written by Tsidii Le Loka, who originated the role on Broadway.  Of course, favorites from the animated movie such as “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” remain intact.

The Lion King musical also includes new scenes:

There is a conversation between Zazu and Mufasa about his parenting.  Timon nearly drowns in a waterfall while Simba watches, paralyzed.  This is an event that helps remind him of who he is and the power he has.  Nala departs from Scar when he tries to make her his queen in “The Madness of King Scar.”  She announces her intention to leave home and find help.  During new song “Shadowland”, the other lionesses and Rafiki bless her.

Meerkat Timon and Warthog Pumbaa in the Lion King Broadway musical
Meerkat Timon and Warthog Pumbaa in the Lion King Broadway musical

Of course, there were new actors playing the roles when the show debuted on Broadway.  The one I felt was especially cool was Max Casella, originating the role of Timon on-stage.  Those of you from my generation may remember him as Vinnie, Neil Patrick Harris’s best friend on Doogie Howser, M.D.

The Live Action Version of The Lion King

It is now 2019 and Disney has gone a little remake crazy. (Done or coming next: The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Mulan, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid.)  Then again, after seeing the promos that show the photo-realistic Circle of Life sequence, a live action Lion King kind of feels irresistible.

I should start off by saying “live action” is a misnomer.  Even though we’re all using this expression, the animals are actually computer generated animation.

A few things the new Lion King has in common with the original:  James Earl Jones is again the voice of Mufasa (as well he should be).  And Rafiki is male again.

Like the Broadway version, the new movie includes The Tokens’ classic pop song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  The Broadway song, “He Lives In You” is also represented.  “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” are, of course, highlights of the film.

The movie also boasts a few new songs.  Beyonce contributed a song called “Spirit” and Elton John wrote a new song called “Never Too Late” — which plays over the credits.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s new version of “Be Prepared” is reported to be toothless compared to the original Jeremy Irons version.  Which is ironic, because his version of Scar is angrier and scarier, according to reviews.  He even fought Mufasa for the crown and lost: a new addition to the villain’s back story.

The visuals in the new movie are beautiful.  This is constant across all versions of The Lion King.  The sets on Broadway are amazing.  The look of the original animated film is still dazzling.  (If they ever do another IMAX re-release or even just a theatrical re-release, I highly recommend it.)

According to critics, the new movie fails in two key areas:

One is that by making the film photo-realistic, the characters and the world are now bound by the constraints of reality.  For instance, you can’t have a massive animal pile-up at the climax of “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” or an army of hyenas during “Be Prepared.”

The 1994 film wasn’t bound by such constraints.  The Broadway musical gets around this by using a combination of inventive costumes and set pieces, stage magic, and the participation of the audience.  When you’re watching a play, you fill in things with your own imagination.  You’re an active participant in the process.

When you watch a movie, you’re more passive.  You don’t get to co-create the experience with the filmmaker.

The second flaw with the new movie is the limited range of expression the animals have.  Again, this is a problem with setting the movie in a photo-realistic world.  In animation and theater, you can get away with going over the top.  In theater, you have to play to the back row.  However, to accurately portray how an animal looks, you can’t exaggerate its features.

And Timon and Pumbaa? 

The good news is that Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) steal the show here (as they do in pretty much every version).  Some critics claim they’re even more fun in this version than in the original.

*****

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Character voices for Lion King

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