Back in the days before 1995, before Pixar came along and ruined everything, the Walt Disney Studio was responsible for the greatest animated films of all time. In 1937, Walt Disney changed the face of cinema forever with the first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Every few years heralded the advent of a new Disney masterpiece, but following The Jungle Book in 1967 (the final animated film Walt himself oversaw before his death), Disney animation hit a bit of a slump.
It wasn’t until 1989, with the success of The Little Mermaid, that the studio’s second Golden Age of animation arrived, and it lasted until CGI (and the obvious storytelling prowess of Pixar Studios) moved in and brutally kicked traditional hand-drawn animation out of the cinemas. It was a magic age that brought us films the likes of Aladdin, Mulan and Tarzan, but there were two films that stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Both were films that told classic stories in a way that only Disney animation could achieve. Both reveled in critical and box office success. (One was able to claim for nine years that it was the highest-grossing animated movie of all time; the other was able to claim for 19 years that it was the only animated movie to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award–until an expansion of the category to ten nominees and this film came along.) And both were unquestionably among the most brilliant jewels in Disney’s animation crown. But this, folks, is Flickchart, and there’s only one question to ask: Which movie is better? Find out in this edition of Reel Rumbles (now Super-Sized, with a special Bonus Round!): The Lion King vs. Beauty and the Beast.
Beauty and the Beast (1991) is a fairy tale (familiar fodder for Disney films) that dates back to France in the 1700s. (It was also a 1980s fantasy television series starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton, but somehow I don’t think the folks at Disney concerned themselves with that in their adaptation.)
They are each, as is firmly stated in Beauty, “a tale as old as time”, but that’s just what you come to a Disney animated film for: a beautiful, charming and new rendition of a classic tale.
Let’s not debate whether Shakespeare is better than a French fairy tale. Let’s just call this round a draw and move on. 10-10.
The Lion King is pure comedy. Absolute hilarity from start to finish (from Zazu telling Mufasa that Scar would make a handsome throw rug to Timon dressing in drag to do the hula), it might be one of the funniest films you’ll ever see.
It’s also bloody dark.
Simba watches his dad get trampled to death, something for which he spends the next several years of his life blaming himself. Then he has to return to Pride Rock to reclaim the throne and confront the true murderer, his own uncle, in a battle to the death. Heavy stuff for a kids’ movie. But the tale is extremely effective, the dialogue snappy, and the musical numbers just sell the whole thing.
Beauty and the Beast seems to follow the same old Disney princess routine. Which, of course, is expected; it is a fairy tale, after all. But it’s very well-constructed. The villain is thoroughly despicable, the heroine easy to love, and the Beast undergoes a transformation from monstrous to lovable that feels entirely natural. There’s also a healthy dose of humor that the greatest animated films handle so effortlessly. (Beauty also certainly contains its share of darkness; Gaston threatens to have Belle’s father thrown in the insane asylum, and rallies an army to go take the Beast’s head. His final battle with the Beast is fairly brutal, by G-rated Disney standards.)
There are no twists of plot in either film that an experienced moviegoer cannot see coming. Nor is there any lack of creativity on either side; using animals to re-tell Hamlet is just as creative as having inanimate household objects come to life and help drive your story. But there is one aspect of the stories that could be pointed to in helping to decide a winner here: While, of course, the love story in Beauty is central to the plot, it is one aspect of The Lion King that might seem a little forced. There is no need, story-wise, for Simba and Nala to share a romantic interlude before he returns to his home to claim his rightful place as king. It’s just a convenient detour to allow for the writing of yet another great song. (More on that later.)
It’s a very slight win, but this round goes to Beauty and the Beast, 10-9.
In an animated film, this is a two-fold operation, split between the voice talent and the animators. Let’s just say right now that Disney animators have always been the best in the business. Every character in both films is full of character, as far as the drawings are concerned. Let’s focus on the voices:
The Lion King is chock-full of indelible characters. Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella are a perfect comic duo as Timon and Pumbaa. Robert Guillaume and Rowan Atkinson are pure hilarity as Rafiki, the baboon shaman, and Zazu, the hornbill majordomo. Of course, nobody lends gravitas in their voice quite like James Earl “Darth Vader” Jones, as Simba’s father, Mufasa. (Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick, voicing the hero at different stages in his life, are almost lost amidst the color of the rest of the characters in the cast.)
But the standout is Jeremy Irons. He makes Scar into a villain for the ages, just oozing pure evil. The Lion King would be a delight even as an audio drama, as long as Irons was there to pour pretty poison into our ears.
The highlights of the voice cast for Beauty and the Beast are easily Jerry Orbach as Lumiere, Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts and, most especially, David Ogden Stiers as Cogsworth. As the candlestick, teapot and clock, they get to provide the most comedy, and get most of the memorable lines.
Everyone else is actually pretty generic, considering Disney’s pedigree, but that’s how these fairy tales go. Paige O’Hara is a typical Disney princess. Robby Benson growls with gusto as the Beast, but his vocal presence is not nearly as memorable as his physical one.
The character animation is superb in both films; The Lion King team deftly anthropomorphizes a myriad of animals, while the Beauty and the Beast animators breathe life into the furniture. But the colorful and memorable voice cast easily wins this round for The Lion King, 10-8.
Let’s forget that Roger Allers went on to direct Open Season (2006) for Sony Animation. Let’s also forget that Rob Minkoff went on to direct Disney’s first attempt at turning one of their theme park rides into a major live-action motion picture. (No…not Pirates of the Caribbean. That would be The Haunted Mansion , starring…um…Eddie Murphy.) Let’s just not think about that. These guys made The Lion King. Sequence after sequence of pure fun and excitement, from that spectacular opening sunrise to the powerful closing shot of Simba’s son held aloft. Nothing but fantastic here.
Their opponents are Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, who, after Beauty, later directed The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), a somewhat lesser effort among Disney animated films, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), which is actually a rollicking adventure quite different from other Disney fare. Beauty and the Beast is certainly their pinnacle. The opening narration over pictures made up like stained-glass windows is haunting. The ballroom dance scene is sweeping and romantic. The castle siege in the film’s climax is thrilling.
It’s too close to call. Round four is a draw: 10-10.
(Incidentally, another quirk of animated films that makes this round harder to call is the sheer collaborative nature of them. Both these pairs of directors actually contributed to each other’s films in significant ways, particularly in the story department.)
These are animated Disney films. You cannot speak of them without speaking of the music. Every Disney animation features rousing original songs, but The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast feature arguably the greatest soundtracks in the studio’s history.
The combination of pop superstar Elton John working with lyricist Tim Rice proved to be a coup for The Lion King, in every way imaginable. Three of the film’s Oscar nominations were for Best Original Song (for the rousing “Circle of Life”, the hilarious and fun “Hakuna Matata”, and the powerful love ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”; the latter won the award). Toss in a peppy little number for young Simba called “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” (the sequence for which allowed the animators to have some fun with the film’s visual style) and the haunting villain’s number, “Be Prepared”, and you’ve got a soundtrack for the ages.
To top it off, the film’s second Oscar win was for Best Original Score by Hans Zimmer, arguably the best score in the composer’s prolific career.
The songs for Beauty and the Beast were composed by Alan Menken, from lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, who tragically passed before the film’s release. The team had also collaborated on the songs for The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, to winning results, and they also were responsible for three Best Original Song nominations for Beauty. Those songs were “Belle”, the introduction to the film’s heroine, the timeless “Be Our Guest”, and the titular ballad “Beauty and the Beast” (which won the Oscar). The soundtrack also features the cute little song “Something There”, which plays over the sequence when Belle and the Beast get to know each other better, and “Gaston”, a fun number for the film’s villain. A song originally cut from the film, “Human Again”–in which the animated dishes and other objects in the castle dream of returning to human form–was animated and put back into the film for the DVD release, partly in honor of Howard Ashman.
Which soundtrack is better? It’s almost a matter of taste. For my money, “Be Prepared”–a song that underlines and italicizes Scar’s menace–is a better villain piece than “Gaston”, which, while funny as heck, paints the film’s villain as, of course, a blowhard and a buffoon. Which works, but “Be Prepared” gets the blood pumping. Yet, in my humble opinion, “Beauty and the Beast” is the better love ballad. Maybe it’s just because “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” seemed to get overplayed even more on the radio…
The two films’ signature songs, for me, will always be “Hakuna Matata” and “Be Our Guest”, and it’s impossible to say that either of these is better than the other. The former is pure hilarity and joy; the latter simply dazzles and invites you to sit back and enjoy the party.
It comes down to “Circle of Life”. The rousing way in which it opens the film makes you sit up and pay attention, and is instantly and indelibly memorable, thus winning this round for The Lion King, 10-9.
This race is as close as they come. Both films are works of art. But the characters in The Lion King are really what nudge it just ahead of Beauty and the Beast. As touching as Beauty‘s love story is, as fun and indelible its characters, the colorful gang that populates The Lion King is just too memorable. (And let’s not forget that opening shot.) It’s a knock-down, bloody battle to the finish, but in the end, only one film emerges from the ring, battered and bruised, but long live the King. Our winner, with the slightest of advantages is…The Lion King.