Film The following was posted on my Hamlet blog just over ten years ago. I'll add that I remember seeing it vividly at screen one of the Odeon on London Road on a night when I was home from university with my family. You can bet I gave my Dad a big hug afterwards.
On release, The Lion King was widely broached as being a departure for Disney -- it was their first major animated film not based on a particular source material, be it a fairy tale or piece of literature. Which in watching is only half-true. Whilst it doesn't directly re-tell a particular story, it does draw on a number of elements, including Disney's own Bambi and particularly visibly, Hamlet. Except with Lions.
Almost. The story is superficially similar -- a king murdered by his brother who steals the throne but is eventually revenged by the late king's son. But the action of the play is shaken up, the elements moved about for the purposes of expressing different themes and creating an ending which while not completely happy, is certainly more positive than the mass slaughter which occurs at the end of Shakespeare. For example, the late king, Mufasa does appear as a ghost to the young Hamlet figure, Simba -- but rather than explain how he died (something his son will have to learn later for dramatic purposes) he nudges Simba into following his destiny of taking over the crown.
The film is more concerned with telling a good story than directly referencing its sources. There is a moment when the Claudius figure, Scar holds up a skull, but it doesn't seem like a conscious homage. Similarly there aren't any noticable times when the dialogue parallels anything from the play, except perhaps 'To be or not...' (when Simba finds his life catching up with him in the plains) but that's more to do with these being universal themes rather than anything specific. Also Timon and Pumba, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have a much great slice of the action, especially in the closing moments. We effectively see in the film what might have happened if Hamlet had gone to Wittenberg instead of hanging around the palace plotting revenge. Another what if built on here is the appearance of the Hyenas on the prideland which certainly smells of a successful invasion of Fortinbras while Claudius is in power.
The Lion King is a favourite film and I wouldn't want it to change -- the balance between tragedy and comedy is just perfect, as are songs, which are probably some of the best Elton John has written. In the interviews and commentary for the film on the dvd, you can tell there is a slight disappointment that the creators of the work couldn't nudge it closer to the Shakespeare. Certainly the original concept art was much bolder and starker. Was there a moment during the development when the script was much closer to Hamlet the play and how different would that version have been? Less songs presumably and Nala drowing in the watering hole. Which would be wrong, frankly. Still at least we can introduce the play to kids by saying ... "It's a bit like The Lion King only sadder..."