Home > Reviews > THE LION KING – Hans Zimmer

THE LION KING – Hans Zimmer

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Nants ingonyama bagithi baba! Sithi q!uhm, ingonyama. Nants ingonyama bagithi baba! Sithi q!uhm, ingonyama; Siyo n!qoba; Ingonyama nengw’enamabala, ingonyama nengw’enamabala…

When Lebo M’s plaintive cry in his native Zulu rang out across the savannah, informing the animals of the plain that a newborn lion, destined for greatness, had been born, one of the most memorable moments in film music history was born along with him. The Lion King, originally directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, did pretty brisk business at the box office when it was released in the summer of 1994, raking in almost $1 billion at the global box office, and quickly becoming an enormous cultural phenomenon too. The film spawned a massively successful stage show that ran for many years on Broadway, several animated spinoffs, and single-handedly introduced the phrase ‘hakuna matata’ into the American lexicon. With Disney in the middle of making live-action versions of several of their classic animated films – we have already had Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, among others – it stands to reason that The Lion King would be in line for the same treatment, given the improvements in digital computer technology since the original was released.

The man to whom Disney turned was actor-writer-director Jon Favreau, who had already pushed the boundaries of CGI when he directed a new version of The Jungle Book for them in 2016. Unlike the original film, which had a hand-drawn animated look, the new Lion King is rendered in near-perfect photo-realism; the spectacular African backgrounds come straight from the pages of National Geographic, while the lions, hyenas, warthogs and meerkats are all now virtually indistinguishable from the real thing – except, of course, for the fact that they talk and sing. The story is a well-worn one – to boil it down to its basics, it’s Shakespeare’s Hamlet with lions – and it follows the adventures of a young cub named Simba who is born into royal lineage and is destined to succeed his father, Mufasa, as king. However, Simba’s uncle Scar covets the throne, and is Machiavellian in his plans to usurp the order of succession. Scar frames Simba for his father’s death in a wildebeest stampede, and coerces him into fleeing; Simba ultimately grows up away from the pride, his only friends being a talkative meerkat named Timon and a flatulent warthog named Pumbaa. Eventually, after many years in exile, Simba is convinced by his childhood friend Nala to return to Pride Rock, defeat Scar, and take his rightful place as king.

Music played a massive part in the success of the original Lion King, and the majority of it can be attributed to three men: Hans Zimmer, Elton John, and Tim Rice. Three of John and Rice’s original songs – “Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata,” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” – were nominated for an Academy Award, with the latter one taking home the Oscar. Meanwhile, Zimmer won his first –and, to date, only – Academy Award for his score, just five years or so after he first broke through into the film music mainstream with Rain Man. As was the case with Alan Menken on Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, this new version of The Lion King gave Zimmer the opportunity to revisit one of his best loved scores, 25 years down the line, and freshen up the sound for a new audience. The same opportunity was given to the songs, which were to be performed by an all-new voice cast, and had one or two updated lyrics and contemporary twists to keep them fresh. Not only that, Disney took advantage of having global superstar Beyoncé in their cast by having her co-write a brand new song, while John and Rice also contributed a brand new song of their own for the end credits.

The whole thing opens, of course, with Lebo M’s legendary plaintive Zulu cry “Nants’ Ingonyama,” heralding the newborn king and inviting all the animals of the savannah to pay homage. South African vocalist Brown Lindiwe Mkhize takes over from Carmen Twillie to perform the rest of the classic “Circle of Life,” and her slightly exotic-sounding accent gives an interesting timbre to her pronunciation. The song ends, of course, with the now prototypical Zimmer chord that accompanies the appearance of the title card, and then the score begins in earnest. Largely, the new score sounds mostly the same as the original score, and hits all the same emotional points, but the overall orchestral accompaniment feels larger and more expansive. Some of the synthetic-sounding percussion hits heard in the original have been replaced by much beefier live drums, while some thematic lines have been switched from woodwinds to strings and brass to give them a little more weight.

Interestingly, Zimmer invited the Re-Collective Orchestra, an all-black ensemble founded by session musicians Stephanie Matthews and Matt Jones, to perform a great deal of the music; Matthews and Zimmer knew each other from when they both worked with Pharrell Williams performing the song from Hidden Figures on Saturday Night Live, but it was the orchestra’s cover version of Kendrick Lamar’s “All the Stars” from Black Panther that led to this collaboration. In fact, considering the film’s setting, Zimmer made a point of hiring as many musicians with African heritage as he could, and this is something to be commended.

Zimmer brings back the majority of the score’s main themes, including the one for Simba, the one for Mufasa, and the two inter-connected ‘main themes’ which collectively represent the concept of the king, and the physical manifestation of Pride Rock itself. Some may be disappointed to learn that neither Scar’s theme nor the Timon & Pumbaa theme are carried over, but this is perhaps understandable given the slightly more serious tone this version of the film takes. However, the whole thing actually opens with “Life’s Not Fair,” a light, cheerful piece of tribal source music for marimbas, keyboards, and a quiet African choir, which finishes with a moment of darkness that acts as a precursor to the tragedy to come. The subsequent “Rafiki’s Fireflies” has a magical, mystical quality to it, with light synthesizers, chimes, and atmospheric percussion ideas giving the orchestra a sense of peacefulness, and as it develops and incorporates a more expansive choir, the performance of the main theme is quite superb.

“Elephant Graveyard” is the first of the score’s main set pieces, underscoring the scene where Scar lures Simba to the one place he knows he is forbidden to go, and he is attacked by a pack of compliant hyenas. Clap sticks, ominous synth tones, and abstract orchestral textures underscore the danger Simba finds himself in. A chase sequence emerges after around two minutes, thrusting and exciting, and then the choral explosion of Mufasa’s heroic theme at 2:50 as he intervenes to save his son, is quite magnificent; similarly, the cello elegy that develops into a powerful phrase for the full orchestra, circling through several of the main themes, is just gorgeous. This is vintage Zimmer action of the type he was composing regularly in the 1990s, and the combination of that style with his current orchestral power is just terrific.

“Stampede” is the second of the score’s main action sequences, for the scene where Simba is trapped in a gorge in the path of a herd of thundering wildebeest. Simba’s terror is palpable with the opening set of string textures, anguished and shocking, and then it explodes into a huge tribal chant, with rousing vocalists and a colossal orchestra accompanying Simba as he frantically scrambles for his life. A massively heroic version of Mufasa’s theme explodes at 2:12, underpinned by rampant drums and choral tones, as he again races to save his son; of course, it all goes terribly wrong, and Zimmer scores Mufasa’s sacrifice with yet more massive statements of the main theme, desperately dark brass chords, and collapsing choral outbursts. The conclusive statement of the main theme, arranged like a Brahms requiem for strings, woodwinds, and hummed chorus, is utterly heartbreaking.

“Scar Takes the Throne” opens with a plaintive version of the main theme for flutes as Scar feigns sadness at Mufasa’s death. Cellos combine with the choir in sympathy, but by the end of the cue the themes have been infected by militaristic drumbeats, a martial tone in the brasses, and electronic ideas representing the hyenas which come to flank Scar and usher in his new regime. However, “Simba Is Alive!” is both inspirational and optimistic, as the wise old monkey Rafiki realizes that Simba is alive somewhere out on the savannah; the main theme is performed with quirky, slightly eccentric synths, percussion, and steel drums, similar to the playful tones heard during “Rafiki’s Fireflies”. The main themes are again performed with a mystical quality in “Reflections of Mufasa,” usually led by harps, soft strings, a hummed choir, and sparkling electronic textures that carry a sense of wistfulness mixed with a powerful sense of destiny. This cue contains one of the few moments that Zimmer uses the traditional African song “Busa” as a thematic idea, cleverly anchoring Simba’s personal fate with that of the land itself. The dramatic thematic juxtaposition of both main themes against Mufasa’s theme, which are heard contrapuntally and sequentially beginning at 3:18, is just magnificent, and demonstrates Zimmer’s prowess at conveying complex thematic ideas in musical ways that are both emotionally compelling and intellectually satisfying.

The massive 11-minute “Battle for Pride Rock” is the film’s action finale, where Simba and Nala successfully fight to defeat Scar and the hyenas and restore pride and honor to the land. All the score’s main themes receive rousing statements, both as dramatic heralds to the action, and within the action itself. The solo cello version of Mufasa’s theme at 1:10, as Simba seeks to channel the courage of his father, is an emotional high point, while the leaping, swirling string figures that dominate the music in the cue’s central action core recall his career-best work in this style. The whoop of brass at 9:00 is the moment where Scar tries one last time to best Simba with another cruel trick, but Simba is having none of it; here Zimmer brilliantly uses a thunderous brass-chorus-percussion arrangement of Mufasa’s theme as an action motif for Simba – the son has truly become the father and earned the title of king. The final ambient electronic chords give Scar’s fate at the hands of the hyenas a terrible darkness. The conclusive piece, “Remember/King of Pride Rock/Circle of Life Finale,” offers final statements of all the beautiful main themes, a celebratory chorus of ‘Busa,’ and a final burst of Circle of Life to end things as they began – as, of course, it should be.

In terms of the new versions of the songs, I have to admit that, in my opinion, and unlike my opinion of the score, they are almost all inferior to the originals. Perhaps it has something to do with nostalgia, and perhaps it has something to do with my familiarity with the sound of the 1994 efforts, but three of the four main songs feel much less impressive than they should, especially considering the wealth of talent behind the microphones. In “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph take over from Jason Weaver and Laura Williams as Young Simba and Young Nala, while TV comedian John Oliver takes over from Rowan Atkinson as Zazu, Mufasa’s hornbill majordomo. The arrangement is fine, but John Oliver really cannot sing, and doesn’t even quite have the same level of pompous exasperation in his voice that Atkinson did, which is odd considering that exasperation is Oliver’s stock-in-trade inflection.

In “Be Prepared” Chiwetel Ejiofor takes over from Jeremy Irons as the voice of the duplicitous Scar, plotting and scheming to take over from Mufasa with the help of his army of hyenas. Whereas the original song had a sense of mischief under Irons’s malevolence, Ejiofor talk-sings his way through significantly different lyrics, and gives the whole thing a much more serious and dangerous attitude, while Zimmer’s orchestrations offer a touch of Wagnerian grandeur to accompany the film’s militaristic imagery. “Hakuna Matata” sees comedians Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen coming in to replace Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa, Simba’s carefree cohorts, while Donald Glover performs the adult singing voice of Simba. The general approach is the same – rock vibes, a calypso beat, funny lyrics – but Eichner and Rogen are much less accomplished singers, and it shows. The one improvement, however, comes from their amusing ad-libs and commentary on the song, which shows a little touch of meta-awareness the original did not have. Rogen also says ‘farted,’ so there’s that too.

Finally, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” features a duet between Grammy super-couple Donald Glover and Beyoncé, who replace Joseph Williams and Sally Dworsky as the leonine lovers reunited after so many years apart. This is the one exception to the ‘inferior’ clause. Glover, who is of course a massively successful recording artist in his own right through his Childish Gambino alter-ego, combines with Beyoncé to create a contemporary R&B megastar duo, and they more than hold their own. Both singers, of course, have smooth and lush voices, and are better than the original pair just in terms of pure vocal power. The arrangement feels lusher and more romantic too, and I especially like the new woodwind-heavy opening.

The first new song is “Spirit,” written by Ilya Salmanzadeh, Timothy McKenzie, and Beyoncé Knowles Carter, and performed by Beyoncé, and I’m conflicted about it. On the one hand, it’s a perfectly acceptable modern R&B anthem, filled with everything that many people find so appealing about Beyoncé’s music, albeit with a much stronger African twist to pay homage to the roots of the story. It was originally written for the end credits, but eventually was tacked into a specially inserted new scene that follows Simba on his journey home to Pride Rock. However the problem, for me, is that its style and tone is so massively different from literally everything else in the movie, it seems like it comes from another project entirely. The Lion King is a musical, with specially-curated songs that work with the narrative, but this feels like a fan-service needle-drop that serves no other purpose than to boost album sales and earn a Best Song Oscar nomination. Unfortunately, I feel the same way about the actual end title song, “Never Too Late,” a new song by Elton John and Tim Rice, performed by John. I like it, it’s fine, but again it feels like an afterthought instead of an integral part of the film’s dramatic purpose. The album is rounded out by a couple of additional songs, including “He Lives in You,” Mark Mancina and Lebo M’s song from the Lion King spinoff album ‘Rhythm of the Pridelands,’ and two versions of the same melody: a cover of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” performed by Eichner and Rogen, and “Mbube,” which is Lebo M’s performance of the traditional African song on which “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was based.

There has been a common recurring question buzzing around these Disney remakes, asking what their purpose is. When the original Lion King is such a wonderful movie, what is to be gained by remaking it now? While some see it as a cash grab, I personally love the idea that stories can be told and re-told for different generations using the latest technology of the era. Stories have recurred over and over again for centuries, and Hollywood has continually dipped into its own history for inspiration since movies were even a thing.

In terms of the music for The Lion King, returning to Pride Rock has proved to be a double-edged sword. As I noted, and with the single exception of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” the new versions of the original songs all feel inferior to their predecessors, both in terms of execution and style, while the brand new songs feel out of place entirely. But the score… the score is something else. I have always considered The Lion King to be one of Hans Zimmer’s greatest career achievements, but somehow here he has made the already superb into something spectacular. The enhanced orchestrations and larger instrumental ensemble gives more weight and more power to something that was already powerful and weighty. The actual composition itself, in terms of recurring thematic ideas and intelligent application of those ideas, is highlighted by many of the new arrangements, and the way in which Zimmer uses his instruments to pick out specific moments of emotional resonance is deeply impressive. And, speaking of emotional resonance, all the moments of loss and tragedy, death and mourning, celebration and life, feel bigger, broader, and more potent thanks to the album’s sharp new recording. This… my God, this is the Hans Zimmer I love. I can’t express it more succinctly that, and if you love film music the way I love film music, you’ll undoubtedly love it too.

Buy the Lion King soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Circle of Life/Nants’Ingonyama (written by Elton John, Tim Rice, and Lebohang Morake, performed by Brown Lindiwe Mkhize and Lebo M.) (4:01)
  • Life’s Not Fair (1:43)
  • Rafiki’s Fireflies (1:52)
  • I Just Can’t Wait to Be King (written by Elton John and Tim Rice, performed by JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and John Oliver) (3:22)
  • Elephant Graveyard (6:38)
  • Be Prepared (written by Elton John and Tim Rice, performed by Chiwetel Ejiofor) (2:03)
  • Stampede (7:46)
  • Scar Takes the Throne (2:50)
  • Hakuna Matata (written by Elton John and Tim Rice, performed by Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, JD McCrary, and Donald Glover) (4:11)
  • Simba Is Alive! (3:38)
  • The Lion Sleeps Tonight (written by Luigi Creatore, Hugo Peretti, George David Weiss, and Solomon Linda, performed by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen) (1:24)
  • Can You Feel the Love Tonight (written by Elton John and Tim Rice, performed by Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Billy Eichner, and Seth Rogen) (3:02)
  • Reflections of Mufasa (5:09)
  • Spirit (written by Ilya Salmanzadeh, Timothy McKenzie, and Beyoncé Knowles Carter, performed by Beyoncé) (4:33)
  • Battle for Pride Rock (11:01)
  • Remember/King of Pride Rock/Circle of Life Finale (3:09)
  • Never Too Late (written by Elton John and Tim Rice, performed by Elton John) (4:09)
  • He Lives in You (written by Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin and Lebohang Morake, performed by Lebo M.) (5:05)
  • Mbube (written by Solomon Linda, performed by Lebo M.) (1:56)

Running Time: 77 minutes 47 seconds

Walt Disney (2019)

Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith. Orchestrations by Bruce Fowler, Suzette Moriarty, Walt Fowler, Kevin Kaska and Carl Rydlund . Additional arrangements by Dave Fleming and Steve Mazzaro. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Stephanie McNally. Album produced by Hans Zimmer.

  1. James_Path
    July 26, 2019 at 5:21 pm

    Really enjoyed the review! Especially the track by track observations- very interesting. I was wondering if you’re going to review Aladdin? I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts.

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