Few companies throughout the history of the world have been so shameless in their pursuit of the almighty dollar as the Walt Disney Company. After breaking the mold in 1934, Disney has never shied away from creative marketing and release strategies to wring every last dollar out of its most beloved pieces of intellectual property. Each week, we’ll look at the House of Mouse’s various sequels, prequels, spin-offs and various misadventures relegated from the silver screen to the small screen. Is there any artistic merit to be found? Or was each film mostly conceived as an excuse to print more money? Join me as we search for the answers from the wonderful world of Di$ney.

Why does this exist?

Unlike previous Disney Renaissance films, the studio knew from the start that it had a hot card in its hands with 1994’s The Lion King, and talks of a direct-to-video sequel began before the film even earned a single dollar.

That’s a bold move, even from Disney, and even more so for an at-home release. But Disney went all-out and promoted The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride using cross-promotions with McDonald’s and Mattel, and the gamble worked like gangbusters.

Though it was initially released on VHS, the DVD boom was not far away, and today, the film remains the highest-grossing direct-to-video release of all time.

What’s going on here?

It’s certainly bold of Disney to replicate the story elements of the original film for the first half of a sequel. Simba’s Pride opens right where the original film left off, with a beat-for-beat (if a little truncated) “Circle of Life” rip-off montage, set to a sort of afrofuturist synth-pop song, where Rafiki introduces Kiara, who is Simba and Nala’s newborn cub.

Simba, ever the protective father, can’t seem to let her be her own person — er, lion — and after she runs off, she meets Kovu, a distant relative of Scar, who idolizes the villain and believes Simba murdered him. Kovu and his clan, including his mother, Zira, still resent Simba because they believe he murdered Scar, so they plant Kovu amongst Simba’s pride to enact their revenge. Meanwhile, Kovu and Kiara form a bond that becomes love, and Kovu must choose where his loyalties lie.

How much of the original is preserved?

When you’re basing your films on the works on Shakespeare, the possibilities are endless. No matter how tenuous the connection is, there is undoubtedly some element of Hamlet to be found in 1994’s The Lion King. And so Pride screenwriters Flip Kobler and Cindy Marcus pulled the next logical move and put the Disney spin for the sequel based on another famous play, Romeo and Juliet.

We’ve already seen a couple instances of sequels putting too much focus on secondary characters from the original film, so color me impressed that Simba’s Pride still manages to give Simba a complete arc while still focusing on new characters.

As usual, it’s unclear what the budget for this film was, but it’s clear that Disney gave high priority to bringing back the majority of the voice cast, from Matthew Broderick and James Earl Jones as Simba and Mufasa, to Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa, and Moira Kelly and Robert Guillaume as Nala and Rafiki. Edward Hibbert replaces Rowan Atkinson as Zazu, and the absence is certainly noticeable, but the film doesn’t lose major points because of a decreased role for him.

It’s hard to live up to the music of Elton John and Tim Rice. Simba’s Pride comes closest to replicating the success in the music department as any film we’ve covered so far. Are most of these songs second-rate replacements for the originals? Yes, but they mostly manage to work because they’re visually exciting as well.

“My Lullaby” is the villain’s song in the same vein as “Be Prepared”; instead of an elephant graveyard as the setting, it’s a termite cavern, and it’s one of the more fantastic visual sequences in this series so far. I have no idea what was going on, lyrically speaking, in the “Upendi” sequence, but the visuals go toe-to-toe with the Busby Berkeley aesthetic of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” Never underestimate the inventive ingenuity of animals doing non-animal things.

Does this ruin the original film?

Simba’s Pride, as well-written as it is, does get off to a rocky start by doubling down on the larger elements of the original film. Its focus on the characters, and the developments in the second half, gives it a fresh enough voice to stand on its own. If I had come out of a years-long hibernation in 1998 and watched this before the first film, I would rate Simba’s Pride much higher, which is about as good of a compliment as you can receive with these films.

Pixar’s Toy Story 2 was just around the corner when Simba’s Pride was released — another sequel initially slated as direct-to-video but instead given a traditional release. I can only imagine what the box-office receipts would have looked like if Simba’s Pride were theatrically released. Not that Disney was complaining, though. It had the highest-grossing home release of all time and an ever-expanding list of theatrical hits. Hakuna matata, indeed.

  • Next Time: Is Goofy a dog? A human? An alien? Or some kind of Dr. Moreau-style nightmare creature? I’ll be extremely disappointed if An Extremely Goofy Movie doesn’t provide answers.