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Overview of the LION KING media universe

Sequels, prequels, midquels and remakes of Disney's animated classic

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WALT DISNEY PICTURES
  • Walt Disney Pictures

At the peak of the 1990s "Disney Renaissance," the animation braintrust turned to not another fairy-tale libretto, but an adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet set on the savannah. And The Lion King didn't just become a hit; it became the most successful hand-drawn animated feature of all time, and one of only four movies from the 20th century still on the list of the 100 highest-grossing movies of all time.

Not surprisingly—and perhaps presciently, given Disney's modern-day obsession with intellectual property—The Lion King was spun off into several more features and animated series. Now, with the original film back in theaters July 12 for its 30th anniversary, and a prequel to the 2019 CGI remake coming later this year, here's a look at the whole Simba-verse.

The Lion King (1994): The one that started it all was a satisfying mix of grand melodrama and lowbrow humor—in other words, absolutely true to its Shakespearean roots. It's hard to say why specifically this became grand champion in an era that also boasted The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, but the songs by Elton John and Tim Rice were certainly earwormy enough, and the comic relief from Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) kept the kids coming back for more. It's probably also worth giving Jeremy Irons' Scar a (gulp) lion's share of the credit as one of the great Disney villains.

The Lion King's Timon & Pumbaa (1995-1998): Thrown together on the cheap for syndication, this series lasted three seasons and 85 episodes focusing on the Looney Tunes-style misadventures of the meerkat and warthog buddy pair. While original Pumbaa Ernie Sabella voiced his character throughout the run of the show, three different voice actors—including Nathan Lane—contributed Timon's voice, which is just one indication of how sketchily this whole enterprise was constructed.

The Lion King II: Simba's Pride (1998): Ah, the halcyon days of direct-to-video sequels! This first feature follow-up opens with a nice twist on the finale of the original film that found Simba (Matthew Broderick) and Nala (Moira Kelly) presenting their own child on Pride Rock: It's a girl! Their daughter Kiara (Neve Campbell) ends up connecting with a cub from Scar's exiled band of Outsiders, and shazam, Hamlet becomes Romeo & Juliet. Where so many of the Disney quickie sequels felt half-baked, this one managed to replicate the formula of its predecessor in all the right ways, even if the visuals were clearly farmed out to the "B" team of the TV animation division.

The Lion King 1-1/2 (2004): If The Lion King was Hamlet, it was only fitting that it would get its version of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Timon & Pumbaa are once again at the center of this story, a meta-narrative "midquel" focusing on the origins of the characters and the events taking place between their discovery of Simba and the lion prince's return to Pride Rock. As these things go, it's not half bad, boasting a couple of catchy tunes (particularly "Digga Tunna") and directed with energy and an anarchic comedy sensibility evidenced by a finale of Disney character silhouettes watching the movie with Timon and Pumbaa in a theater.

The Lion Guard (2015-2019): Another century, another TV incarnation. This one turned Simba and Nala's younger cub, Kion, into the leader of an oddball band of animals tasked with protecting the pridelands from threats. It may not have been particularly good, but at least it got weird and ambitious enough to bring back Scar as a fiery, vengeful spirit (voiced by David Oyelowo). Plus, Rob Lowe taking over as the voice of Simba. What a world!

The Lion King (2017): Director Jon Favreau's CGI remake was a massive box-office success even beyond the level of the original, so I guess someone out there was interested in what it had to offer. It hits all the same story notes, only with photorealistic animals, which feels misguided on every possible level; there's a huge difference between an animator's creation of Timon as an idiosyncratic character, and a meerkat that looks, you know, just like a meerkat. The faces lack all ability to show emotion, because heaven forbid that an animal character ever demonstrates a facial expression that doesn't look like an actual animal. Some of the voices are perfectly serviceable, but somewhere along the line, the creative team didn't stop to consider whether making these animals look more real was worth making them look less alive.