But for “The Lion King,” the studio was, mostly out of necessity, breaking from the traditions of its predecessors. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, the stage composers whose songs had given those pictures such vivid life, were unavailable; Ashman had died during the production of “Aladdin,” and Menken was working on the studio’s 1995 release, “Pocahontas.” The directors responsible for those features were likewise committed, leaving those duties to a pair of first-timers, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff.
They weren’t the only gambles. This was the first Disney animated feature populated solely by animals; even “Bambi” featured a world that humans touched, and occasionally infringed upon. And unlike that film, the traumatic death at the center of this story would occur onscreen.
Chanciest of all (especially for a studio that has become, in the ensuing years, even more concerned with brand familiarity), this was the first Disney property not based on existing material — though it wasn’t hard to trace its inspirations. “It’s a combination Moses-Hamlet-King Arthur Meets Elton John in Africa,” the producer Don Hahn told Premiere magazine (“half in jest,” according to the reporter, Ari Posner).
The picture had a difficult birth, first envisioned, by the original director George Scribner, as a serious-minded, noble nonmusical titled “King of the Jungle.” The success of Disney’s Renaissance films turned it into a light, comic, pop-tinged musical, and the studio was willing to do whatever it took to make the music work without Ashman and Menken.
When Ashman fell ill during “Aladdin,” the Broadway lyricist Tim Rice had stepped in, and he was drafted for “The Lion King.” He told Premiere, “They asked me who I wanted to work with, and I said, ‘Elton John would be great, but you won’t get him.’ But they did.” John’s involvement gave the picture a boost in credibility, a marketing hook, and (most profitably) a 10-times platinum soundtrack album.