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Movie Musical Monday, April 16th: “The Lion King”

April 16, 2012

Good morning, and Happy Movie Musical Monday!

April is National Poetry Month in America, and also the month where some eccentrics (including myself) celebrate the birthday of the most influential dramatist in the English language, William Shakespeare.

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What a guy.

To commemorate this very prestigious time of year, MMM will be focusing on musicals inspired by the works of Mr. W Shakes for the remainder of the month.  So let’s start off with the Hamlet inspired box office hit–the highest grossing hand-drawn film in history, that spawned a stage adaptation which currently has the distinction of being the highest grossing musical ever–Walt Disney Picture’s The Lion King.

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But before we talk Africa and Elizabethan theatre, let’s address the elephant in the room:


Yes, for many reasons.  Firstly, it has the pacing of a book musical: a little dialogue action, that leads into setting up the next song.  Secondly, there is hella underscoring (supplied by One Of The Great film composers, Hans Zimmer).  Thirdly, there is a sense of huge production value built into each musical sequence.  And lastly: just because it’s an animated film, doesn’t mean it can’t also be a musical.  If you still don’t believe me, perhaps you should look to a greater authoritative body.  Say, the American Film Institute?  They probably know a thing or two about movies and musical production in film, right?  Well in that case you should know that Lion King was one of several Disney animated features that had been included as one of the 180 nominees for AFI’s list of the Greatest Movie Musicals back in 2006 (Beauty and the Beast made the cut, coming in at #22–above both Guys and Dolls AND Showboat).  So if the AFI thinks this movie is a musical, I think we all have to agree to defer to whatever definition they hold in qualifying this film as such.  

Cool?  Let’s move on.


Since the movie is based on Hamlet (plus some action from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, with the possibility of having been slightly plagiarized from this Japanese animation), you can basically look at the first hour or so of the film as the backstory to the play that we never see on stage.  Also, if you haven’t watched this movie in a while (or–if possible–ever), I encourage you to do so soon.  I did recently, and it is a lot darker than I remembered it.  Which makes it more like Hamlet.  Obviously.

It’s year 15-something, and over at Elsinore Rock, Prince Hamlet has just been born to his mother Queen-Consort Lioness Gertrude and father King Hamlet.  All the citizens of Denmark show up to celebrate the birth of the future monarch and the perpetuation of the feudal system in place there:

Did you see the prince’s little face?  He has no idea he’ll be inheriting the responsibility of avenging his father’s death in due course.

You see, not everyone is happy about this sudden familial addition.  Prince Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, brother to King Hamlet, was next in line to the throne, but now this young cub has crossed him from the golden time he looked to.  He didn’t go to the ceremony because fuck that.  So King Hamlet and his majordomo Polonious go out to have a word with Claudius about civic duty and royal decorum.

Foreshadowing threats, yes–but plots to commit an act of assassination that will overthrow an entire government take time, so its months before Claudius is ready to act.  By then, Prince Hamlet is starting to think about how awesome it will be when he grows up and has the run of things.  Watch for the Busby Berkeley staging aspects towards the end of this next number.

While Prince Hamlet is fantasizing about firing the tedious old fool during the one and only time we’ll hear him talk about the job with any relish (Point of fact: Hamlet never talks about “how great things would be if I were king” in Shakespeare’s play.  It’s almost like he has no interest in the job whatsoever…), his uncle is still hoping to pull a Richard III and pluck down the crown by the usual means.  To help him, Claudius enlists the help of several commoners in the land–Jack Cade-like characters who dream of revolution, but don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to pull off such an uprising on their own.

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Claudius, however, a very polished public speaker, is able to convince them that he’s the right man to lead them to utopia:

Elizabethan Denmark/Africa was also where Nazism was born, if you didn’t know.

After a previous botched attempt at assassinating Hamlet, Claudius decides to pull out all the stops and stages a massive Wildebeest riot, wherein the prince is nearly stampeded to death.  Luckily for him, his dad shows up and  saves his almost-rug skin, but then gets taken off himself.  When the king is finally able to grasp at a cliff side to pull himself out of danger, Claudius pours an unction down his ear by grabbing his paws with claws and throwing Hamlet the Elder to his Disney-style death.

Prince Hamlet is showing a heart unfortified over the body of his father when Claudius shows up.  He twists the knife of obstinate condolement by telling the cub that it’s Hamlet’s fault the king is dead.  Hamlet says he didn’t mean it, but Claudius pulls the “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” card, and tells the boy:

“Hamlet, this deed, for thine especial safety,–
Which we do tender, as we dearly grieve
For that which thou hast done,–must send thee hence
With fiery quickness: therefore prepare thyself;
The bark is ready, and the wind at help,
The associates tend, and every thing is bent
For England.”

So Hamlet runs off to England, not knowing that Claudius has sent death after him.  However, those murders are amateurs in killing (they always are), and the dane is able to slip through their digital pads.  They assume he’s as good as dead anyway, and Claudius takes control of the kingdom, throwing the delicate circle of life out of balance by A) having committed the foul and most unnatural murder of his brother, who was also king; and B) allowing the hyenas to eat way more than their alloted place on the food chain would normally allow them. (Sometimes there is class hierarchy for a reason.) But we’ll come back to this.

Out near England, possibly en route to the channel, Hamlet is discovered by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who teach him that worrying is pointless because you have as much control over your life as the result of a coin toss:

Anywhere between eighteen months and five years elapse (which accounts for Hamlet’s mane growth), when Nala shows up out of nowhere looking for help to send back to Elsinore.

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You may be wondering, “Shouldn’t Nala be Ophelia?”  But no: Nala is WAY too strong a character to be interchanged with Ophelia.  Would Ophelia cross deserts looking to raise “twenty thousand men,/That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,/Go to their graves like beds?”  Would her thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth?  No: she’d be too busy making subtextualy meaningful bouquets.  Nala, on the other hand, wouldn’t go crazy if her boyfriend killed her father: she would just cut a bitch.  So Nala is just Nala.   End of discussion.

Anyway, Nala and Hamlet hang out, and since she’s the only girl he’s seen in a long time and he’s the only other male lion she’s seen in years, they consider each other things divine and sparks ignite:

But despite this sudden love match, Hamlet can’t shirk the guilt over his father’s death.  He runs off, yelling at the heavens with pain and remorse.  Suddenly, the Fool from King Lear shows up, and through some verbal banter and a reflection, tries to teach Hamlet that his father’s legacy still exists within him.  But what really convinces Hamlet is the appearance of his father’s ghost, who basically tells him to buck up, do the right thing, and “remember me.”  Well all that, plus a bump in the head.

Hamlet returns to Elsinore.  Nala, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern soon catch up with him.  The city is a wasteland, its resources and industry exhausted from having to support too many citizens at extravagant standards of living for so long.  Hamlet remarks that something is rotten in the state of Denmark (probably the decaying dream of socialism).  R&G put on a play-within-the-play to create a distraction for Hamlet to find Claudius.  After a show down, it is revealed that Claudius had actually killed King Hamlet.  He’s then left to be devoured by the masses, while Hamlet bears himself, like a soldier, to the stage, and bids the cannons shoot.  The rest (after a musical reprise) is silence.

End of musical!


Unfortunately, this movie is so well-known, that there is literally no “hidden music” in it.  Sorry, ya’ll.  Luckily, Disney decided to draw a little more from this cash cow and made two straight-to-video-sequels, The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride (which is a very loose re-telling of Romeo & Juliet), and The Lion King: 1 1/2 (which feels like the company’s take on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead).  Here are a couple of songs from those movies you may find useful:

  1. “Love Will Find A Way”–from Simba’s Pride, this song is really quite lovely.  Written as a duet, it could be sung by either a man or a woman and done solo.
  2. “That’s All I Need”–from Lion King: 1 1/2, this is a great song for anyone auditioning for Timon (though possibly not good for anything else).

That’s all for now, but thanks as always for stopping by, and Happy Movie Musical Monday!

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