Mane Attraction

How did the runt of the litter grow up to be so strong? Say it again: story, story, story. One of the techniques unique to Disney animation is the constant trying out of scenes, a ritual that works much like the mounting of a stage show. All through the painfully slow procedure of working music into Lion and chucking out dead-end plot elements (such as a trio of childhood pals who were to grow up with Simba), the directors were, in effect, always in full dress rehearsal. "We're actually sort of making the movie even in that initial phase, on the [story] boards," says Minkoff. Each scene is rendered in small sketches attached to huge sheets of particleboard, with the dialogue written beneath each illustration. When successive rounds of executives stop in to see how it's shaping up — Minkoff calls them "the Jeffrey tasters" — the directors and animators "pitch" the board, performing the parts. "It's much easier to know what you think of that than it would be reading a script," says Minkoff. "If an idea works, it stays on the wall."

"Our in-house story department is the totally unsung thing about our process," says Tom Schumacher, Disney's VP of feature animation development. "They're artists who can also write." On King especially, it was this core of staff artists — 17 are named in the credits — who pulled together material from the screenwriters, the executives, and the directors and kept the tone consistent.

"A lot of the characters' personality traits come out of that process, because the storyboard artist lives with a character for a long time," says production designer Chris Sanders, who "boarded" several sequences. In fact, despot Scar's fascistic paean to usurpers, "Be Prepared" (gamely sung by Jeremy Irons), grew out of one sketch by story staffer Jorgen Klubien that pictured Scar as Hitler. The directors ran with the concept and worked up a Triumph of the Will-style mock-Nuremberg rally, uncertain whether Katzenberg would go for it. Perhaps they didn't know that at age 20, Katzenberg had helped manage New York City mayor John Lindsay's 1972 presidential campaign. The political allegory tickled him completely.

Well, almost completely: One of the finished shots of goose-stepping hyena stooges got blown up and cropped tighter in the final release prints. "I heard they got cold feet," says Scar animator Deja. "Too over-the-top, I guess, which is what I loved about it."

The decision appears to have been an aesthetic one and not the result of any audience reaction (though Disney animation certainly solicits more of that than other studios, says editor Tom Finan; starting last November, 11 test screenings were held for Lion, ranging from kid-heavy matinees to late-night date crowds). Still, says Deja, the scene makes its point as is. "It's adult, you know? It says to people, we don't do girls with little birds on their fingers going 'lalalalala' anymore."

Nothing drives that message home harder than the film's most disturbing moment: the murder of Mufasa by Scar as Simba looks on. The scene is so strong that retired animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston objected when they were invited in for a look. "They didn't think it was such a good idea to show Simba approaching his father's dead body," says Deja. "They said, 'Leave it off screen, the way we did in Bambi.'"

Such soft-pedaling would be a mistake, argues codirector Allers, whose own father died a few years before production began. "I don't think it's wrong for people to cry in a movie. If things like death are upsetting to children, I think movies are a pretty good way of exploring it. You go with your parents, hopefully, and maybe afterwards you talk about it."

Movies you can talk about afterward — that's something Hollywood doesn't give audiences very often, especially in summertime. And whether or not you leave The Lion King consumed with questions about life, death, and the way the Disney folks tried to get it all down, you can be sure that in Glendale, they're taking another meeting about it right now.

Originally posted Jul 08, 1994 Published in issue #230 Jul 08, 1994 Order article reprints
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