The Story Behind 'Circle of Life,' The Lion King's Incredible Opening Number

Some 25 years since The Lion King's release, we break down how the opening came to be, and how it almost looked and sounded completely different.

by | June 25, 2019 | Comments

Lion King Open
(Photo by ©Walt Disney Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

It’s been 25 ears since The Lion King was released in theaters on June 24, 1994. And it’s just less than a month before Disney’s new take on the story lands in cinemas across the country. To celebrate the anniversary of the original game-changing animated classic, we’re looking back at its first few minutes, which make up one of the most spellbinding opening sequences in movie history. Here’s how it came together – and how it almost looked, and sounded, completely different.

“The Circle of Life” Might Have Looked Very Different

The opening moments of The Lion King are some of the most powerful moments Disney animators have ever put to screen: from the second Lebo M.’s Zulu chant kicks in over a rising red sun, to the moment that same sun slices through the clouds to bless baby Simba, held skyward by Rafiki, the sequence holds the audience in its thrall. Twenty-five years on, it has lost none of its ability to drop your jaw. And yet. Originally, the scene – now widely regarded as one of the most awe-inspiring movie openings ever – was going to be quite different. For starters, rather than simply show the animals wordlessly moving towards Pride Rock, the scene was to feature dialogue; one early iteration would have them sing a prayer in Swahili. Also, in one early incarnation of the scene we were to meet The Lion King’s villain, Scar, who was to be shown angrily watching over the proceedings until being noticed and slinking away. Ultimately, the filmmakers went in a different direction, opting for zero dialogue, and move history was made.

Lion King
(Photo by ©Walt Disney Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

The Song Was Written in Two Major Flurries of Inspiration

It’s hard to believe that a song as powerful as “The Circle of Life” – which opens the film, stage show, and presumably also the upcoming live-action film – came together so quickly. Both of the song’s key elements – the memorable Zulu chant that opens the film, as well as the sung English verses and chorus – were created in moments of sudden inspiration. Lyricist Tim Rice has said that the main melody was dreamed up by Elton John in less than two hours. “I gave him the lyrics at the beginning of the session at about two in the afternoon,” Rice says in The New Illustrated Treasury of Disney Songs. “By half-past three, he’d finished writing and recording a stunning demo.”

The Zulu section – including the famous “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba!” – came about in similarly inspired fashion. Hans Zimmer (pictured above), who had been brought on to compose the score, tapped Lebo M., a then-exiled South African composer living in the U.S., to help with the music. Zimmer and the directors told the composer what they wanted to do with the opening scene, and, during one session, Lebo began to riff on ideas. At first, it looked like the session was not going anywhere, and that the team might not have the right music for the opening scene ahead of a screening for executives. Then, suddenly, Lebo cried out “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba,” and all present agreed – instantly – that the chant would open the film.

The Creation of Pride Rock 

The opening scene of The Lion King introduced audiences to the movie’s signature sound and feel, but also to one of its most indelible images: Pride Rock, a jutting formation of giant rocks that becomes almost an amphitheater on which much of the film’s key action takes place. It is where baby Simba is introduced to the world; where Scar meets his fate; and where Simba and Nala’s baby is held aloft in the film’s final, bookending moments. It would also go on to become the signature set piece in Julie Taymor’s Broadway production of The Lion King. Many curious fans have dug into The Lion King’s production history in search of the real-life landmark that inspired Pride Rock, believing that it exists somewhere in Kenya. While it’s true that the filmmakers traveled to Kenya’s Hell’s Gate National Park to research the animals and landscape, the look of Pride Rock itself was something that came straight from the minds of the animators. Co-director Roger Allers has reportedly said, “….we used a variety of inspirations. Many people try to say, ‘Pride Rock is based on this mountain here,’ but they are wrong. An artist in Burbank invented Pride rock.”

Lion King
(Photo by © Walt Disney Co./courtesy Everett Collection)

“Circle” Became the Defining Moment of the Movie, And The First Trailer

The power of The Lion King’s opening scene was obvious from the very beginning. Apparently, after seeing the sequence for the first time, then CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner, said the scene was almost too good, telling the creative team that now the rest of the movie had the pressure of living up to the opening minutes. The marketers recognized the power of the sequence, too, and elected to use the “Circle of Life” sequence in its entirety for the film’s first trailer. It was a bold move for Disney. Never had the company released a trailer that was simply one uninterrupted scene, and it was rare to release trailers with no dialogue at all. It was a risk that paid off, though: The Lion King trailer became water-cooler conversation, and by the time the movie opened wide in American theaters on June 24, 1994, it had built so much buzz it would enjoy the biggest opening for an animated movie ever up to that point.

Coming Full “Circle”: From Screen to Stage and Back Again

The opening sequence of The Lion King would find a second life in Taymor’s six-time Tony–winning Broadway production. In the live musical, the film’s now-famous images of animals moving towards Pride Rock were translated into a theatrical experience in which dancers wielding mammoth animal puppets move majestically down the theater’s aisles towards the stage, on which Pride Rock stands. It is widely considered – just as the moment in the film is – one of the great openings in musical theater. Back on screen, in late 2018, Disney paid homage to its own marketing campaign for the original film, releasing a trailer for the upcoming live-action Lion King that prominently featured the opening scene with just flashes of other moments from the film; a TV spot that aired during the Super Bowl in 2019 similarly centered on the opening song. Online, fans went wild: already excited by the casting of names like Donald Glover and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, as well as James Earl Jones (returning as Mufasa), they were now assured that the filmmakers were aiming to capture spirit and emotions of the original movie, and its awe-inspiring opening.

The Lion King was released June 24, 1994 | The Lion King is in theaters everywhere July 19, 2019

Tag Cloud

WGN teaser spain GIFs The Arrangement book cancelled Grammys 24 frames Logo LGBT Apple toy story comic Pride Month blaxploitation series Holidays TLC Writers Guild of America Box Office Peacock harry potter Superheroe The Walking Dead Sci-Fi facebook Hallmark Extras FOX streaming IFC Films DC streaming service jamie lee curtis Disney Plus Countdown Fox News CBS All Access RT History spanish language Year in Review medical drama Tarantino Comedy Walt Disney Pictures DGA Turner Classic Movies Britbox First Reviews casting crime thriller ratings zombies Classic Film children's TV crossover nature TBS golden globes Biopics versus batman Epix Warner Bros. Lionsgate halloween National Geographic Cannes Amazon Prime Video Cartoon Network Film Festival NBC indie Lifetime based on movie travel quibi miniseries Character Guide 45 talk show Schedule disaster AMC Mystery political drama Captain marvel A&E Marvel Television Chernobyl Reality Video Games television Certified Fresh composers Toys hist romance boxoffice discovery Syfy WarnerMedia breaking bad Crackle independent slashers DC Universe Winter TV TV renewals MTV spider-man mutant Creative Arts Emmys BBC America christmas movies The Purge Film Spectrum Originals finale adaptation SXSW Mary Poppins Returns sitcom Oscars video History Musical Netflix richard e. Grant USA Network Awards cancelled television Marvel Studios TruTV Interview Hallmark Christmas movies Opinion Nat Geo HBO Max Superheroes NYCC Pirates BET Ellie Kemper cinemax Anna Paquin zombie Pop Masterpiece See It Skip It Sundance Now VH1 A24 Rock transformers Star Wars Disney streaming service Amazon vampires Ovation mockumentary 2017 strong female leads Television Academy Spring TV Emmy Nominations X-Men Horror San Diego Comic-Con TCA 2017 Calendar cancelled TV series Pet Sematary Dark Horse Comics Brie Larson Apple TV+ Marvel Disney renewed TV shows Netflix Christmas movies technology game show CMT TCA New York Comic Con TNT Animation elevated horror Western Holiday YA Sony Pictures animated El Rey Trivia Martial Arts FX rotten movies we love Hulu Disney+ Disney Plus Apple TV Plus Stephen King USA Rocky Tomatazos Pixar CBS Nickelodeon The Witch doctor who DC Comics RT21 werewolf Lifetime Christmas movies Showtime Binge Guide Photos aliens 21st Century Fox Comics on TV ABC Podcast Mudbound anime Musicals Elton John screenings Premiere Dates canceled south america cats Lucasfilm CW Seed Trophy Talk Acorn TV thriller Comic Book VICE Disney Channel Set visit Esquire PBS Winners Reality Competition Quiz free movies 2015 zero dark thirty what to watch Rom-Com dramedy Best and Worst anthology Kids & Family spinoff ESPN SDCC Starz Mindy Kaling Trailer American Society of Cinematographers YouTube Red unscripted natural history BBC cooking Heroines crime TIFF Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Action Thanksgiving Infographic YouTube Premium Arrowverse cults green book Nominations crime drama Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Christmas binge Shudder Crunchyroll Fantasy Valentine's Day witnail Sundance Summer DirecTV FXX Bravo HBO Music Tumblr theme song movies dc politics YouTube 71st Emmy Awards TCM Shondaland Super Bowl dceu Black Mirror joker PaleyFest cancelled TV shows Vudu Spike OWN adventure E! 2016 2018 TV supernatural Comedy Central biography Paramount ghosts Emmys blockbuster 007 Red Carpet 2019 Polls and Games award winner latino Adult Swim foreign psycho Turner science fiction CNN MCU ITV cartoon Food Network tv talk Cosplay Teen revenge IFC Mary poppins Marathons sports psychological thriller GoT Rocketman festivals Election Drama Mary Tyler Moore docudrama hispanic robots stand-up comedy diversity Family period drama space kids justice league Watching Series E3 Amazon Prime ABC Family First Look police drama cops Star Trek serial killer Paramount Network APB GLAAD The CW sequel Universal dragons romantic comedy TV Land Columbia Pictures MSNBC war cars true crime comics Song of Ice and Fire Awards Tour President LGBTQ 20th Century Fox game of thrones Sneak Peek Ghostbusters SundanceTV Women's History Month canceled TV shows Freeform social media comiccon spy thriller Country singing competition Fall TV historical drama