Of all the animated musical films produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation since The Little Mermaid signalled the rebirth of the genre, the Lion King musical stands as one of the greatest (and I say that as one of Ashman and Menken’s biggest fans). The involving story of a scheming uncle who kills his brother, the king, before usurping the throne that rightfully belongs to his young nephew has often been compared to Hamlet – and while I think that’s an oversimplification that does neither work any favours, The Lion King is certainly more Shakespearean than it is the Andersen/Perrault fairytale that is the Disney studio’s more usual stamping ground.
One thing that’s noticeable, though, is how Western the original film is. With songs by Elton John and Tim Rice and a score by Hans Zimmer, aurally its feet are square in the Euro-American tradition of the musical. Save for the opening strains of The Circle of Life, many of the songs show no sense of place, no indication that the story is taking place on the African plains. Even Hakuna Matata, which takes its title from a Swahili phrase, is arranged as a Dixieland foot-stomper, bringing to mind The Jungle Book’s Bare Necessities.
The success of the film and its accompanying soundtrack CD saw a more interesting “sequel” CD, Rhythm of the Pride Lands, which saw the film’s existing songs and score rearranged, mixed with new and traditional African melodies to produce a wonderful fusion of styles.
It’s a shame that Rhythm of the Pride Lands is so hard to find these days, as it provides a clear bridge between the animated film and the stage musical, which I got to see for the first time last night, a good ten years after it first opened in the West End.