The Story Behind 'Circle of Life,' The Lion King's Incredible Opening Number

Some 25 years since The Lion King's release, we break down how the opening came to be, and how it almost looked and sounded completely different.

by | June 25, 2019 | Comments

Lion King Open
(Photo by ©Walt Disney Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

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 Circle of Life” Might Have Looked Very 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.

Lion King
(Photo by ©Walt Disney Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

The Song Was Written in Two Major Flurries of Inspiration

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 Creation of Pride Rock 

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.”

Lion King
(Photo by © Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection)

“Circle” Became the Defining Moment of the Movie, And The First Trailer

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.

Coming Full “Circle”: From Screen to Stage and Back Again

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.

The Lion King was released June 24, 1994 | The Lion King is in theaters everywhere July 19, 2019

Tag Cloud

Animation spain sports Pixar Horror PBS 007 batman FX supernatural DGA CNN New York Comic Con Shondaland slashers Trophy Talk Hulu DC Comics Certified Fresh X-Men TruTV book hist LGBTQ Cannes versus historical drama joker kids Photos Acorn TV directors OneApp Endgame ratings Holidays TCA Winter 2020 YA anime serial killer Comics on TV 2019 The CW National Geographic golden globes free movies Superheroes Box Office Toys 20th Century Fox comics MCU Calendar unscripted social media Apple toy story Hallmark revenge ABC CW Seed Universal television Grammys Mindy Kaling Classic Film theme song History DC streaming service FXX Paramount Apple TV Plus First Look SundanceTV Tarantino E! Netflix Christmas movies RT History Fantasy DirecTV APB science fiction Sundance cancelled television Mary Tyler Moore movies Election Fox News El Rey Rocky spider-man Black Mirror Starz Pride Month reboot cancelled TV series comiccon Music HBO TNT Disney Winners Sci-Fi natural history SXSW rotten movies we love police drama Kids & Family Creative Arts Emmys tv talk Country IFC TV Land Crackle thriller documentary Amazon Baby Yoda Opinion politics composers latino BBC 71st Emmy Awards Family teaser 2017 true crime romance sequel werewolf SDCC Musicals MTV Writers Guild of America Shudder Tubi Countdown Anna Paquin MSNBC RT21 talk show Valentine's Day canceled TV shows green book quibi Television Academy NYCC based on movie Avengers Schedule cats Star Wars Character Guide Amazon Studios dramedy Dark Horse Comics psycho Paramount Network Thanksgiving Rocketman Spring TV halloween doctor who The Purge Christmas Year in Review richard e. Grant technology GoT cars NBC Disney Channel Lucasfilm Drama Turner Classic Movies Premiere Dates discovery Epix Spike casting mutant zero dark thirty DC Universe The Witch Logo harry potter blaxploitation animated GIFs Brie Larson screen actors guild christmas movies Ghostbusters Action Elton John A24 Nat Geo what to watch Red Carpet Pirates Lifetime American Society of Cinematographers festivals Marathons WGN Ellie Kemper Hallmark Christmas movies GLAAD Turner CBS All Access independent medical drama HBO Max Interview WarnerMedia justice league Nickelodeon comic witnail Song of Ice and Fire Sundance Now transformers hispanic Set visit Binge Guide miniseries Pop Vudu Polls and Games BBC America Winter TV Cosplay war Ovation Emmys diversity Teen Oscars Heroines Disney+ Disney Plus facebook dragons 2015 Comedy Central Rom-Com video YouTube Premium stand-up comedy Captain marvel vampires Mary poppins 45 elevated horror Marvel Television See It Skip It Watching Series game show zombie San Diego Comic-Con foreign Tumblr binge YouTube Summer Showtime ITV Warner Bros. Best and Worst USA Network Bravo name the review Disney streaming service Masterpiece 2020 Lionsgate cartoon TIFF Sony Pictures adaptation Holiday Fall TV First Reviews Biopics period drama Crunchyroll Arrowverse adventure cinemax ABC Family Video Games Netflix cooking Star Trek OWN mockumentary Comedy Rock sag awards TLC cops Esquire streaming TCM TBS Amazon Prime Video ESPN award winner CMT PaleyFest Marvel AMC Women's History Month romantic comedy Sundance TV cancelled aliens cults Awards Tour docudrama Discovery Channel IFC Films Mystery Lifetime Christmas movies VH1 Chernobyl VICE The Arrangement breaking bad ghosts psychological thriller USA Sneak Peek TCA 2017 Britbox BET boxoffice Trailer Marvel Studios Food Network movie children's TV TV crossover Western Nominations Infographic indie Extras dc biography Amazon Prime 2018 TV renewals Superheroe singing competition finale Cartoon Network renewed TV shows screenings game of thrones robots Reality crime drama FOX E3 CBS spinoff Freeform Adult Swim Trivia nature south america Pet Sematary dceu TCA Spectrum Originals crime disaster A&E space Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Syfy Quiz Disney Plus cancelled TV shows Walt Disney Pictures Academy Awards Martial Arts sitcom Tomatazos Stephen King strong female leads 24 frames 2016 Peacock political drama zombies Apple TV+ blockbuster Mary Poppins Returns canceled 21st Century Fox Reality Competition Columbia Pictures Podcast YouTube Red Emmy Nominations Comic Book spy thriller travel Awards series crime thriller The Walking Dead President Film Festival jamie lee curtis Super Bowl spanish language LGBT anthology Film Mudbound Musical