“SEX” Dust and Other Secrets in ‘The Lion King’

The Lion KingBuena Vista Pictures via Everett Collection

Once upon a time, the phrases “Circle of Life” and “Hakuna Matata” were not a part of the American lexicon. That was before Disney’s The Lion King exploded onto movie screens during the summer of 1994. The tale of the young lion Simba — voiced in the movie by Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick — who grows up to overthrow the reign of his evil uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) became a global phenomenon, augmented by the songs of Elton John and Tim Rice. Even if you know that the film was nominated for four Academy Awards, here are some fun facts about the movie that you might not know.

1. The movie was the first Disney feature-length animated film to be created from an original script idea. All of the company’s other animated movies had been based either on books or long established fairy tales.

2. The original script was titled King of the Jungle and centered on a battle between lions and baboons. In that version, Scar was the leader of the baboons. At some point during development, the animation team realized that lions don’t actually live in the jungle.

3. At one point in the production, animators considered having the song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” sung entirely by Pumbaa and Timon, much to the horror of John and Rice. A version of the song using Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, the voices of the warthog and meerkat, was recorded but not used.  Similarly, the song was almost cut from the movie entirely until John lobbied to have it kept in.

4. Many of Disney’s top animators at the time didn’t work on The Lion King because they were working on the animated film being produced concurrently, Pocahontas. Most people at Disney thought that the historically-based film would be the more prestigious of the two.

5. It was the second Disney animated film, after Beauty and the Beast, to win the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy.

6. When Irons’ Scar delivers the line, “You have no idea,” it is a direct nod to one of the actor’s most famous roles as Claus von Bulow in Reversal of Fortune. In that film, Irons’ character delivers the line in answer to his lawyer calling him a “very strange man.” In The Lion King, he says it after Simba accuses him of being “so weird.”

7. Timon’s famous line, “What do you want me to do, dress in drag and dance the hula?” was improvised by Lane.

8. When Irons strained his voice while recording “Be Prepared,” actor Jim Cummings, who voices the hyena Ed, stepped in and imitated Irons to get the song finished.

9. Originally, the intention was to pair Cheech Marin with his longtime comedy partner Tommy Chong to voice the hyenas Shenzi and Bonzai. They could never get in touch with Chong to reach an agreement, so Whoopi Goldberg was tapped instead.

10. James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair, who voice Simba’s parents, also play a royal husband and wife in Coming to America, where they reign as the king and queen of a small African country and parents to Eddie Murphy.

11. Scar makes an appearance in a later Disney animated movie. He’s seen as a rug during a sequence in Hercules.

12. There was a controversy over the formation of dust during a scene when Simba flops on the ground. Activist Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, asserted that the dust gathered to form the word “SEX” if you looked at a freeze frame of the scene and was an intentional subliminal message aimed at promoting sexual promiscuity. The producers said that really it was meant to be “SFX,” as a reference to the special effects team that was working on the movie. In the films rerelease, some additional dust was added to the scene to blur any letters.

13. There was additional controversy over similarities between the film and a Japanese animated TV series entitled “Kimba the White Lion” that was produced in the 1960s. Disney has maintained that any similarities are coincidental, but Broderick has admitted that he thought that they were adapting “Kimba” when he first saw the script.  

14. Three of the songs from the film — “Hakuna Matata,” “The Circle of Life,” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” — were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” ultimately won the Oscar, and John’s version of the song went to No. 4 on the singles chart in the U.S.

15. Rice, who had provided the lyrics for Disney’s Aladdin and started his career as the partner of Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Technicolor DreamcoatEvita), was made a knight by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994. John was knighted in 1998. The duo reteamed for the Broadway musical Aida in 2000.

16. Before playing Timon and Pumbaa, Lane and Sabella had previously worked together in the Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls. After The Lion King, they were paired again on Broadway in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. At first, Lane and Sabella were cast to be two of the hyenas, but their chemistry was so good that they were switched to voicing Simba’s pals.

17. Lane and Broderick went on to star as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom in the Broadway musical version of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, and reprised the same roles in the film version. Reportedly, the duo saw each other only once during their voice work for The Lion King… passing each other in a hallway.

18. The stage version of The Lion King, which has been running since 1997, is the highest-grossing Broadway show in history.

19. The Lion King was the second highest grossing movie of 1994, behind Forrest Gump, in the United States, but it easily outdistanced Tom Hanks’ movie worldwide and grossed over $768 million during its initial theatrical release.

20. The Lion King remains the highest grossing hand-drawn (or hand-drawn/computer animation combination) film of all time. It’s the second highest grossing film in the history of Walt Disney Animation Studios behind only Frozen.

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