Ranking the Songs From "The Lion King"

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In entertainment news from this weekend that might cause you to double-take, The Lion King is the #1 movie in the country this week, with a weekend take of $29.3 million. Not bad for a movie that was released two days before the O.J. chase, though of course, there's a reason this is happening—the flick was recently re-released in 3-D, for a limited theatrical run preceding its eventual release on Blu-Ray. Though we here at Popdust are too behind on our 2011 releases (anyone know if Rise of the Planet of the Apes is any good?) to run out to the local multiplex to see it again, as the consensus office favorite of the '90s Disney movies, we salute the movie's second run of theatrical success.

The movie's weekend win got us to thinking, of course, about our favorite songs from The Lion King. Not having seen the movie in a while, we assumed that while all the songs we remembered from it were classics or near-classics, there were probably a couple bum tracks in there that have since been lost to time. Not so, however—the movie features but five Elton John and Tim Rice-penned songs, each of them virtually unforgettable to anyone who saw the movie at an impressionable age. Three of them were nominated for an Oscar, two of them became top 20 hits as performed by John, and together, they helped the movie's soundtrack sell a stupefying ten million copies. Clearly, this was not a movie whose music was to be trifled with back in 1994.

But which songs hold up best 17 years later? Well, let's investigate.


If the name of this song doesn't sound familiar, there's a pretty good reason, and it relates to that asterisk next to it—"The Morning Report" wasn't featured in the original Lion King, only in the 2002 IMAX re-release. Watching the clip today, you can see why—an unnecessary musical interlude featuring hornbill and Pride Rock executive assistant Zazu reading lion king Mufasa the dailies, it plays like a bad outtake from an animal-kingdom Guys and Dolls. Mercifully, the actual musical content is kept under a minute, until Zazu's big number turns into mere window dressing for a scene of Mufasa teaching first-born Simba how to attack poor defenseless birds while they attempt to make an honest day's living.


The first and probably least of the canonical musical numbers, and uncoincidentally, the other Lion King song to prominently feature Zazu and a pre-pubescent Simba. An ode to youthful arrogance, invincibility and above all, impatience, "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" mostly features Simba and kiddie galpal Nala torturing Zazu as he tries in vain to make him understand that the titular position comes with scheduling responsibilities and political concerns far beyond his pre-teen comprehension. It's catchy for sure, but it's irritating in all the same ways that literary predecessor Prince Hamlet's whinier monologues were, and musically it treads a little too close to "River of Dreams" for our taste anyway.


The biggest pop hit from the movie's soundtrack, and perhaps the only legitimate between-the-sheets ballad in Disney's '90s run, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" is a thumping beat and a couple "soaking wet" references away from being an R. Kelly slow jam. (Not to mention that the scene in the movie is basically an even naughtier version of the climax to Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" clip). It's cheesy, and a little disconcerting, but undeniably effective—though perhaps more for the heartbreaking sections of Timon and Pumba bemoaning the loss of their friend to sexual maturity than for the touching consummation of Simba and Nala's lifetime of love and dormant desire. (Unsurprisingly, the hit Elton John rendition omits these parts entirely.)


The main thing to recommend The Lion King over its formidable peers in the '90s Disney filmogrpahy—Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid if you want to stretch to '89—was its sheer scale. It was easily the biggest movie the studio had released to that point, a scope rarely matched by any animation studio, even in the 17 years since. And the movie's opening number, "Circle of Life," was the song that most matched the movie's panoramic visuals, a huge-sounding number with tribal drums, Zulu chant backing vocals, and one of the most rousing choruses of any genre in the '90s. Even though the intro chant ("Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba / Sithi uhm ingonyama"—loosely translated to "Here comes a lion, Father / Oh yes, it's a lion," apparently) has become something of a cliché, invoked beautifully in an Aziz Ansari sketch, it still sends chills down your spine when you listen to it amidst shots of the animal kingdom snapping to life at day's dawn.


Quick question: Who was the best character from The Lion King? If you needed more than a few seconds to think about it, you're clearly not a true fan—it's obviously the Jeremy Irons-voiced Scar, who might be second only to Othello's Iago in the realm of Shakespeare-related villains in the Western literary canon. "Be Prepared," Scar's musical proclamation of his plans of ill-gotten throne ascent, is far from the catchiest or most purely memorable song featured in the movie, but it's put over and then some by Irons' signature devilish charisma, as he hisses "The future is littered with prizes / And though I'm the main addressee / The point that I must emphasize is / YOU WON'T GET A SNIFF WITHOUT ME!!!" The whole thing is like an evil version of Pet Shop Boys' "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)," which of course we mean as a huge compliment.


By far the sunniest, most blissful ode ever written to being a transient, "Hakuna Matata" makes living like a bum in the wilderness sound like an eternity at Dorney Park and Wild Water Kingdom. Timon and Pumba spend the song teaching Simba the ethos of the titular phrase, which includes enjoying the more playground-like aspects of nature, foraging for grub (literally), and most importantly, just straight up not giving a fuck, against a musical dropback so sweet-natured and sublime that it makes "Don't Worry Be Happy" sound like something off Pink Floyd's The Wall. All that, plus an operatic interlude from Pumba ("Not in front of the kids!"), and the unforgettable visual of the trio walking and swaying rhythmically in time across the ages, forever in a smiling mood. We should all be so lucky.

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