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‘The Lion King’ Is Turning 30! Celebrate With These 10 Fun Facts About the Disney Classic

Did you know ABBA was almost involved?


The Lion King is one of the most critically and commercially successful animated films of all time. With its evocative animation, unforgettable characters and powerful story of family and growing up in the animal kingdom, the film is one of the defining achievements of Disney’s ’90s renaissance. Released on June 15, 1994, The Lion King is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year — and it’s definitely stood the test of time, as viewers of all ages still hold it close to their hearts.

In honor of the film’s milestone anniversary, here are 10 fascinating facts you might not have known about the animated classic.

Read on for more ’90s favorites!

1. The opening lyrics of “Circle of Life” are surprisingly literal

The opening lyrics of “Circle of Life,” the stirring song at the beginning of The Lion King, are sung in Zulu, an African language. You can probably hear them in your head right now, even if you don’t know what they mean in English.

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As it turns out, the lyrics translate to “Here comes a lion, father, Oh yes it’s a lion/Here comes a lion, father, Oh yes it’s a lion. A lion we’re going to conquer, a lion, a lion and a leopard come to this open place,” which is more simple and direct than you might’ve expected them to be, given their dramatic grandeur.

2. The Lion King pulled from an eclectic mix of inspirations

With its plot of a prince whose father is murdered, leading the young royal to struggle and avenge his father’s death after being visited by his ghost, The Lion King has many parallels with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There are also similarities to Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.

The Hamlet connections have been much remarked upon, but there are many other sources of inspiration, including an earlier Disney classic, Bambi. In fact, producer Don Hahn said that when Disney was just starting out on the film, they pitched it as “Bambi in Africa.”

Scene from 'The Lion King' 1994
Bambi in AfricaWalt Disney Pictures/MovieStillsDB

The movie also drew from the biblical stories of Moses and Joseph, and scholars have pointed out similarities to the stories of real-life figures of the ancient African monarchy.

3. The animation process was intense

The hand-drawn animation of The Lion King is a marvel to behold, filled with sweeping African landscapes and captivating critters. More than 600 artists, animators and technicians helped bring it to life, and all told, more than one million drawings made up of 1,197 hand-painted backgrounds and 119,058 individually colored frames of film were created.

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Scene from 'The Lion King' 1994
A lot of work went into creating all these gorgeous scenes!Walt Disney Pictures/MovieStillsDB

4. The Lion King was originally going to have a different vibe

It’s hard to imagine The Lion King without its Elton John soundtrack, but it originally wasn’t even going to be a musical at all! The original concept for the film was called King of the Jungle, and according to producer and Disney bigwig Thomas Schumacher, “King of the Jungle was not a musical and bore more than a passing resemblance to an animated National Geographic special.”

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While the finished product had all the stunning landscapes of a National Geographic special, the narrative and musical elements made it way more crowd-pleasing than the more documentary-inspired version would’ve been.

5. Wildlife experts helped make The Lion King realistic

The animals in The Lion King strike the perfect balance between feeling mythical and real. During production, the filmmakers went to great lengths to make sure everything in the animal kingdom felt authentic.

A wildlife expert visited the studio and brought some animal friends along with him to show the animators how they moved. One of the cutest things they learned and incorporated was that lions greet one another by gently butting heads and show affection by placing one’s head under the other’s chin. The film’s original press notes even stated that one of the animal trainers who consulted on the film, along with his 700-pound lion, “became regulars at the animation department.”

Scene from 'The Lion King' 1994
These nuzzles are based on real-life lions!Walt Disney Pictures/MovieStillsDB

The animators also worked with an anatomy consultant and made many trips to zoos. All of this research helped them create animal characters that still feel realistic 30 years later.

6. It was the bestselling VHS of all time

If you were raising kids in the ’90s (or you were a kid yourself at the time!) chances are good that there was a videotape of The Lion King in your home. When the film came out, home video was at its peak, and after racking up huge numbers at the box office, the VHS sold over 30 million copies, setting a record for the most tapes ever sold.

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7. Scar was inspired by the famous actor who played him

British actor Jeremy Irons voiced Simba’s evil uncle, Scar. Irons brought the ideal mix of menace and charisma to the role, and even served as an inspiration for the animators.

Jeremy Irons in 1994
Jeremy Irons in 1994Paul Harris/Getty

In a contemporary news article, one of the animators said he closely studied Irons’ facial features and expressions in his earlier films like Reversal of Fortune and Damage (both of which are decidedly not kid-friendly) to nail the appearance of his lion counterpart.

Scar in 'The Lion King' 1994
Scar in The Lion KingWalt Disney Pictures/MovieStillsDB

8. There’s a naughty urban legend about the animation

In one well-known sequence, Simba kicks up a cloud of dust on a cliff while watching the stars with his pals Pumbaa and Timon. For years, there’s been an urban legend that if you look at the shot just right, the dust cloud spells out the word “SEX.” In actuality, the dust cloud spells “SFX,” and was meant to be a little easter egg from the special effects department.

9. ABBA was originally supposed to be involved

The process of bringing The Lion King to life was long and filled with detours. At one point, the campy Swedish pop group ABBA was even going to be involved!

ABBA in 1976
ABBA in 1976RB/Redferns/Getty

Tim Rice, who composed lyrics for the film, had previously worked with two of the band’s members on the 1984 musical Chess, and they were hoping to continue the partnership for the Disney movie. However, a combination of scheduling conflicts and disapproval from some of the producers got in the way, but it’s still fun to imagine Simba busting a move to “Dancing Queen.”

10. The merchandise made a killing

As an animated kid’s movie, The Lion King had a ton of merchandise. Toys, clothes, accessories — any item you can think of, there was probably a Lion King version of it in the ’90s. In 1994 alone, the film pulled in over $1 billion in merchandise sales, giving Disney a true moment of Hakuna Matata.

Stuffed Simba from 'The Lion King' 1994
A stuffed Simba from 1994James Keyser/Getty
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