It’s been 25 ears since The Lion King was released in theaters on June 24, 1994. And it’s just less than a month before Disney’s new take on the story lands in cinemas across the country. To celebrate the anniversary of the original game-changing animated classic, we’re looking back at its first few minutes, which make up one of the most spellbinding opening sequences in movie history. Here’s how it came together – and how it almost looked, and sounded, completely different.
The opening moments of The Lion King are some of the most powerful moments Disney animators have ever put to screen: from the second Lebo M.’s Zulu chant kicks in over a rising red sun, to the moment that same sun slices through the clouds to bless baby Simba, held skyward by Rafiki, the sequence holds the audience in its thrall. Twenty-five years on, it has lost none of its ability to drop your jaw. And yet. Originally, the scene – now widely regarded as one of the most awe-inspiring movie openings ever – was going to be quite different. For starters, rather than simply show the animals wordlessly moving towards Pride Rock, the scene was to feature dialogue; one early iteration would have them sing a prayer in Swahili. Also, in one early incarnation of the scene we were to meet The Lion King’s villain, Scar, who was to be shown angrily watching over the proceedings until being noticed and slinking away. Ultimately, the filmmakers went in a different direction, opting for zero dialogue, and move history was made.
It’s hard to believe that a song as powerful as “The Circle of Life” – which opens the film, stage show, and presumably also the upcoming live-action film – came together so quickly. Both of the song’s key elements – the memorable Zulu chant that opens the film, as well as the sung English verses and chorus – were created in moments of sudden inspiration. Lyricist Tim Rice has said that the main melody was dreamed up by Elton John in less than two hours. “I gave him the lyrics at the beginning of the session at about two in the afternoon,” Rice says in The New Illustrated Treasury of Disney Songs. “By half-past three, he’d finished writing and recording a stunning demo.”
The Zulu section – including the famous “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba!” – came about in similarly inspired fashion. Hans Zimmer (pictured above), who had been brought on to compose the score, tapped Lebo M., a then-exiled South African composer living in the U.S., to help with the music. Zimmer and the directors told the composer what they wanted to do with the opening scene, and, during one session, Lebo began to riff on ideas. At first, it looked like the session was not going anywhere, and that the team might not have the right music for the opening scene ahead of a screening for executives. Then, suddenly, Lebo cried out “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba,” and all present agreed – instantly – that the chant would open the film.
The opening scene of The Lion King introduced audiences to the movie’s signature sound and feel, but also to one of its most indelible images: Pride Rock, a jutting formation of giant rocks that becomes almost an amphitheater on which much of the film’s key action takes place. It is where baby Simba is introduced to the world; where Scar meets his fate; and where Simba and Nala’s baby is held aloft in the film’s final, bookending moments. It would also go on to become the signature set piece in Julie Taymor’s Broadway production of The Lion King. Many curious fans have dug into The Lion King’s production history in search of the real-life landmark that inspired Pride Rock, believing that it exists somewhere in Kenya. While it’s true that the filmmakers traveled to Kenya’s Hell’s Gate National Park to research the animals and landscape, the look of Pride Rock itself was something that came straight from the minds of the animators. Co-director Roger Allers has reportedly said, “….we used a variety of inspirations. Many people try to say, ‘Pride Rock is based on this mountain here,’ but they are wrong. An artist in Burbank invented Pride rock.”
The power of The Lion King’s opening scene was obvious from the very beginning. Apparently, after seeing the sequence for the first time, then CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner, said the scene was almost too good, telling the creative team that now the rest of the movie had the pressure of living up to the opening minutes. The marketers recognized the power of the sequence, too, and elected to use the “Circle of Life” sequence in its entirety for the film’s first trailer. It was a bold move for Disney. Never had the company released a trailer that was simply one uninterrupted scene, and it was rare to release trailers with no dialogue at all. It was a risk that paid off, though: The Lion King trailer became water-cooler conversation, and by the time the movie opened wide in American theaters on June 24, 1994, it had built so much buzz it would enjoy the biggest opening for an animated movie ever up to that point.
The opening sequence of The Lion King would find a second life in Taymor’s six-time Tony–winning Broadway production. In the live musical, the film’s now-famous images of animals moving towards Pride Rock were translated into a theatrical experience in which dancers wielding mammoth animal puppets move majestically down the theater’s aisles towards the stage, on which Pride Rock stands. It is widely considered – just as the moment in the film is – one of the great openings in musical theater. Back on screen, in late 2018, Disney paid homage to its own marketing campaign for the original film, releasing a trailer for the upcoming live-action Lion King that prominently featured the opening scene with just flashes of other moments from the film; a TV spot that aired during the Super Bowl in 2019 similarly centered on the opening song. Online, fans went wild: already excited by the casting of names like Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, as well as James Earl Jones (returning as Mufasa), they were now assured that the filmmakers were aiming to capture spirit and emotions of the original movie, and its awe-inspiring opening.