Ken: What has it been like re-visiting The Lion King after all these years?
Mark Henn: Well, anytime looking at a film you’ve worked on in the past, it’s like opening a yearbook of memories and all kinds of things. So with Lion King, obviously the memories are very special as it was a unique project, and it’s amazing that 17+ years later it’s still going strong. It’s great that it’s come out new and fresh for a whole new generation of young people who still haven’t seen it in theaters, video or DVD. Surprisingly there are many people I’ve talked to who hadn’t seen it yet.
Did you like the effect that the 3D version had on your work?
For many of us who worked on the film, our first initial reaction was that if it wasn’t broken to begin with, why change it? But when I finally saw the film with the stereo treatment, I felt that it really worked nicely, and everyone I’ve talked to who worked on it were also pleasantly surprised at how well it works. It takes what was already there and brings it to a whole new level, and it reminds you anew of how good the movie is. If we had that kind of technology back in the '90s when it first came out, we probably would have created the movie in that fashion.
Why do you think the movie was such a huge success and why has it endured after all these years?
Now having been given the benefit of time and the chance to look back, it didn’t have high expectations at the time of its production. It was considered the ‘B movie’ next to Pocahontas, which everyone thought was the big ‘A movie,’ but it had a crew that was young and full of many first-time supervisors. Myself and animator Andreas Deja had been there for awhile already, so we were considered the veterans at that point. It just had that kind of energy you get when you have a group of people who are not necessarily being told that it couldn’t work, but they just recognized that they had something special to work with. You don’t really know why it works, but we just realized during production that we had a great story, great characters, art direction and music, and that perfect storm of all these things coming together. I think we first knew it when Disney released the first trailer, which they decided should basically just be the opening Circle of Life sequence. That was a brilliant idea, so impactful and it gave everybody goose-bumps, so we started feeling we had something special then.
Do you think there are some larger universal themes that are tapped into through the story structure of the film?
Yes, I think anybody can identify with the notion of that experience of growing up, which Simba goes through in the film. He learns from his parents, makes good and bad choices, and goes through a journey which we all take, through situations we all experience and struggle with. That’s one of the things I always see when I view the film. The mythical elements in the story, which are largely borrowed from stories like Hamlet, are also there because they are true. We were talking about this in church just recently about the importance of history, and the fact that Simba learns to take responsibility for taking his place in history, serving and doing his part. In the film this is referred to as the circle of life. I think that is something that is lost these days on our young people, that appreciation of history and how it’s important.
Related to that, from the perspective of acting in animation, what kind of ideas or experiences did you tap into when animating Young Simba and his journey?
I always start with myself, and try to put myself into the character’s situation, to see if my experiences can be put into that character’s performance. Simba was a unique challenge, in that you had the aspects of bringing his character to life, but he also had to move believably like a real lion cub would. So we enjoyed several months of research going to the zoo, having animals brought into the studio, and having experts talk to us about animal behavior, which was a lot of fun to learn. The voice acting by Jonathan Taylor Thomas also brought a new level to it, combined with great story elements. To me, it’s ultimately about making that character as genuine and believable as possible, because that’s what audiences identify with. Because the audience has shared the experience of that character, they will know when something is not sincere. That is what the Nine Old Men learned from working with Walt, so this was also instilled in us starting out at Disney as young animators, and we continue to pass this along to the animators that will come after us.
I remember when the film came out, the emotional scenes with Simba when Mufasa dies, many people referred to that as the “Bambi moment” for this generation.
Exactly, and I think that is something most of us had in the back of our minds. It wasn’t necessarily a message that was written down and taped to our desks, but we did feel this was our "Bambi" in terms of the style of the film, working with realistically-rendered animals, and the same level of research that went on at the studio. It also had many of the same emotions, and I was very pleased that the directors and story crew weren’t afraid to bring that sequence to the screen. I think it was important to bring Simba into that valley, which was the lowest point for him, in order to make him so heroic at the end. I think often our films today tend to shy away from that, because there is a fear of offending or scaring the audience. But I think those are important emotions, and they should be handled tastefully of course, but there should be room for that in our films, so that parents and children can talk about it. We had to do that with Simba. He had to go through that valley.