A big part of what makes The Lion King arguably Disney’s greatest animated film is the strength of its soundtrack, which remains a delight for kids who bought the cassette back in 1994 all the way through to kids (and adults) today. A mix of both rousing numbers and deeply emotional tracks, the powerhouse combo of two legendary composers — Elton John and Hans Zimmer — as well as songwriter Tim Rice helped bring The Lion King to life, and have made each of its songs a classic.
I mean truly, it’s 2016 and people are still making (usually terrible, off-key) references to the opening call of “Circle of Life.” Can you really watch a sunrise and not think of it? I still get chills. It was instantly iconic, something that immersed viewers into The Lion King’s savannah with intoxicating intensity. The track, along with the fantastic romp of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and the deeply beautiful “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” are performed twice on the OST, which some might see as a downside, but I think it provides a lovely choice. Though I prefer Elton John’s vocals on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” I can still picture the scenes with Simba and Zazu that match Jason Weaver and Rowan Atkinson’s vocals in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.”
As for the tracks without doubles, Jeremy Irons makes a sweeping impression in the dark and moody “Be Prepared,” while the jazzy, carefree tone of “Hakuna Matata” is often replicated by casual singers exactly as performed by Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane, including the comedic flourishes (like the epic middle bar). And yet, that song is also punctuated with a wonderful instrumental section that starts off quietly, as Simba it taken care of by Timon and Pumba, and builds as we watch him grow up, finally cresting atop a harp and chorus-laden crescendo that reveals a grown Simba, ready to take back the throne.
Zimmer’s instrumental tracks for “This Land,” “…To Die For,” “Under the Stars,” and “King of Pride Rock” are all epic, intense, spellbinding, and lush in turn. Try playing the second half of “King of Pride Rock” during a workout and I guarantee you will feel like the celebrated hero of a generation (and you’ll probably get another mile out of it).
“King of Pride Rock” is also a great example of Zimmer’s integration of uniquely African sounds and instruments with a soaring choral background that make The Lion King’s atmosphere so dense and complete. It’s an utter celebration at every turn both culturally and musically, and the way the final moments of the track call back and then replicate the finale of “Circle of Life” is absolutely perfect.
But it’s that final track that really seals the deal on everything. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is so emotional and incredibly romantic, with John’s soaring vocals and signature piano perfectly entwined with the flourishes of the backing strings. (And something I didn’t know, but apparently both Take That’s Gary Barlow as well as Rick Astley — yes that Rick Astley — contributed backing vocals on the track). It won the 1994 Academy Award for Best Original Song, a distinction held by just about every great romantic Disney soundtrack song at the time (“Beauty and the Beast” won in 1991, “A Whole New World” from Aladdin won in 1992, and several more followed throughout the late 90s).
The hope in bringing The Lion King soundtrack back to the forefront of your mind is just to remember the joy of it, and perhaps to inspire a sing-a-long. It’s an example of a pop collaboration for a movie that went very, very right, and beautifully married the film’s tone — one that included comedy, romance, and even the dark and sinister — with emotionally and culturally significant instrumental compositions. Hakuna Matata.
For more of our soundtrack appreciations, peruse the links below:
- Iconic Batman Themes, From Danny Elfman to Hans Zimmer
- Nathan Johnson’s ‘Brick’ Score, 10 Years Later