Underrated: The Lion King 2

by caolainn daly

It’s the late nineties. The Disney Renaissance is in full swing. Hercules comes out. Mulan comes out. Tarzan comes out. Amidst this cluster of late-Renaissance films, a direct-to-VHS sequel to the beloved The Lion King is released and receives no love at all. Panned by critics and ignored by consumers, dismissed for being derivative or underwhelming, The Lion King 2 was tossed aside and left to fester in the crowded cauldron of forgotten B-list Disney sequels alongside the likes of Cinderella 2 and Aladdin: The Return of Jafar.

When The Lion King was released it was nothing short of a revelation. It captured the hearts of parents and children alike with its music and memorable characters and became an instant classic. The Lion King 2 is a rather humble sequel in this regard. It did not have the budget of the original, and therefore lacked the enchanting production values of the original, but this only makes the sequel more impressive. The film, like the original, is a retelling of a Shakespearean tragedy. However, this time the story is based on Romeo and Juliet. The cast for the film is almost untouched from the first with the likes of Matthew Broderick, Robert Guillaime, Nathan Lane, and Ernie Sabella reprising their roles. Timon and Pumbaa’s comic relief proves so irresistible that they have their own film, 2004’s Lion King 1 ½, which retells the events of the first film but from their perspective. The Lion King 2 gives us a satisfying preview of what was to come from them as the self-appointed godparents of Simba’s cub.

Suzanne Pleshette lends her voice to the scheming Zira, the widow of Scar and mother of the alleged rightful heir to Pride Rock, Scar’s stepson Kovu. The premise involves the forbidden love between Simba’s daughter, Kiara, and Kovu, who is conditioned by Zira to one day usurp Simba as the king. When they meet for the first time as cubs we are gifted with a charming scene that has echoes of The Fox and the Hound (an underappreciated film itself). Here we learn that in the aftermath of Scar’s defeat his conspirators, Zira among them, were exiled from the pride lands and forced to inhabit the termite-infested caves of the outlands with not much food and even less sunlight. Simba must confront the consequences of the events of the first film, this being one of them.

From the opening song, ‘He Lives in You,’ the film establishes itself as a continuation of Simba’s story. The first film saw Simba discover that that he couldn’t turn away from becoming king. The second shows how well Simba copes with leadership. The Lion King puts a cork on the kingship problem with its reprise of the ‘Circle of Life’ and presents a happy resolute ending, but its sequel explores the nature of Simba’s reign. It asks the question of whether Mufasa is really still with him, whether he can live up to the expectations put on him as the son of a great ruler, and simply what must he do to be one himself. We see a conflicted Simba still clearly troubled with the death of his father and his part in the events. He finds himself confronted with questions of trust, compassion, and forgiveness. The result is a tale that questions the notions its predecessor sets out (the treatment of the hyenas, for example). It also does this without betraying the original, and this itself makes The Lion King 2 a worthy sequel. Finally, where it certainly stands up to the original is in the music.

The aforementioned opening number, ‘He Lives in You’, sung by Lebo M, is inarguably an enchanting song. The vibe for the opening is quite a far cry from the original ‘Circle of Life’. Firstly, this one is sung in a minor key. Where the first was celebratory and triumphant, this is surprisingly haunting, taking cues from all walks of music and even allows room for a trickle of 80’s synth rock a la A-ha or Duran Duran. It is perhaps the only element of the film that has survived obscurity as it features in the Broadway musical. The standard does not falter from there, with the touching duet between Simba and his daughter, Kiara, in ‘We Are One’ establishing the prominent theme of unity. ‘One of Us’ marvellously masks the limited resources of the production team by creating something bigger than itself, as does ‘My Lullaby’, performed by the menacing Zira, which is the real show-stopper. Much like ‘Be Prepared’ from the original, ‘My Lullaby’ is the big piece that acts as the contemporary counterpart to the Shakespearean villain’s soliloquy. It tells of her plight, her twisted ambitions, and her wicked heart which rivals Scar’s number, if not surpassing it. O, the drama.

For its music, its willingness to question the teachings of the original, for its impressive and unexpected grandeur, The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride deserves way more praise. It is a spectacle that will flatter, deceive, and fundamentally delight.