From the now-iconic opening note of that incredible beginning sequence, viewers of The Lion King knew they were in for a very special treat: A Disney animated movie that — thanks to its compelling story about the circle of life, an all-star voice cast that included Jeremy Irons, Matthew Broderick, and James Earl Jones, and that music — would appeal to adults just as much as the kids that begged their parents to take them to theaters.
The Lion King followed Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin in an era that came to be known as the Disney Renaissance. But, The Lion King was the first Disney animated movie that was an entirely original work — not directly based on any previous story. As the legend goes, the Disney team wasn’t originally too sure about Simba. Production began at the same time as work on Pocahontas, which was considered to be the more successful project. The animators and behind-the-scenes team had a change of heart when they saw the opening footage cut together. In fact, it was then decided that for the first time for a Disney movie, the original trailer would just be a full scene from the film.
Today, EW’s Summer Blockbuster Month continues with Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s animated showstopper that made us all feel the love (tonight).
Release Date: June 15, 1994 (limited), June 24, 1994 (wide)
The Competition: When the film was in limited release, the big kids’ movie attention was on instantly- forgettable Macaulay Culkin-starrer Getting Even With Dad. In wide release, it went up against the big-budget flop Wyatt Earp. (Speed had opened two weeks prior.) In its first week in wide release, The Lion King opened at number one with $40,888,194. The next big box office story of the summer would go to Forrest Gump, which debuted July 6 and caused the rest of the summer — and heck, the rest of the year — of movie talk to be dominated by the lion and the war veteran.
Box Office: $312,855,561 (original theatrical domestic), $987,483,777 (total worldwide)
What EW said: “The themes — death, loss, the eternal cycle of growing up — couldn’t be more mature, yet something about animation is ideally suited to these deep-dish Jungian fables. While a live-action film can tell us that a son is following in his father’s footsteps, the wondrous exactitude of drawn images makes the repetition startlingly romantic. The Lion King, like Bambi, is a rapturous piece of storybook mythmaking: Joseph Campbell for kids….A-”
Cultural Impact Then: The film was instantaneously a huge hit with both audiences and critics. Domestically, The Lion King became the second-highest grossing film of the year (first worldwide), and the film received four Academy Award nominations, all for music. It went on to win Best Original Score and Best Original Song (for “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”). The film also, for better or worst, pushed product tie-in to children to a new level. (If you were a kid in the ’90s, you had a stuffed Simba…possibly more than one.)
Simba’s fun wasn’t just contained to one film. Disney later produced two more direct-to-video movies: a sequel, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride; and a parallel, The Lion King 1½. There was also an animated television series called Timon and Pumbaa.
Cultural Staying Power: Hakuna matata is still a thing people say, right?
The lion continues to rule the kingdom: The film received an IMAX re-release in 2002, and a 3-D theatrical conversion in 2011. Together, that added an additional $109,928,216 to its all-time box office. The Lion King is the third-highest-grossing animated film of all time worldwide, and the second highest-grossing film of Walt Disney Animation Studios (it was just recently passed by Frozen).
In addition to never-ending goodwill for the movie (20 years later, kids are still obsessed), a Broadway musical version of the movie opened in 1997, and is still running worldwide. The show — which, like the film, had its skeptics while in production — is the top-selling theater production of all time, grossing over $1 billion in ticket sales.
It’s good to be king.