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

justice league Crunchyroll Summer toy story TV RT21 Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Endgame Cartoon Network Avengers blockbusters Turner toronto SundanceTV Academy Awards tv talk Apple cars Rock Disney Mary poppins romance docudrama Polls and Games cancelled TV shows remakes MCU talk show Alien series reboot saw french singing competition 45 serial killer SXSW E! Superheroe Sundance spy thriller zombie 007 Nickelodeon book adaptation video on demand Year in Review ABC Family NBA breaking bad Lifetime Christmas movies Wes Anderson Infographic DirecTV WarnerMedia revenge ABC Signature FX on Hulu Hallmark Christmas movies DGA Holidays VOD nfl fresh Super Bowl A&E harry potter Tarantino The Walking Dead New York Comic Con Rom-Com TV One Freeform supernatural black leaderboard Musical Apple TV+ Music 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards parents El Rey LGBTQ science fiction basketball Netflix Christmas movies Sundance Now History The Witch 2021 71st Emmy Awards based on movie American Society of Cinematographers Logo Holiday Spring TV Oscars TLC TBS cancelled television Extras festival action-comedy Christmas comedies wonder woman Drama Comedy BET genre Paramount Network theme song Comic Book young adult rt archives Dark Horse Comics unscripted anime Quiz VICE Pride Month Set visit Fantasy reviews new star wars movies free movies heist movie witnail comic best cancelled TV series USA ghosts sitcom Podcast Calendar Pacific Islander The Arrangement APB transformers documentary Photos kids facebook Red Carpet Superheroes jurassic park VH1 4/20 dramedy ID biopic Lifetime Comedy Central children's TV quibi Tubi Universal Pictures Rocky screenings cults Television Academy GLAAD hist Food Network Song of Ice and Fire concert Stephen King Fall TV ESPN aapi screen actors guild Walt Disney Pictures Watching Series true crime Ghostbusters disaster comiccon Musicals Certified Fresh binge OneApp Marvel obituary franchise San Diego Comic-Con Pirates nbcuniversal independent slashers BBC target Fox News psycho period drama comic books 2017 CMT romantic comedy Horror christmas movies miniseries nature halloween war CW Seed Ellie Kemper comics Mudbound animated game show Funimation trophy adventure dreamworks TCA Winter 2020 cooking crossover AMC Plus TNT IFC Films PaleyFest political drama Action Lucasfilm LGBT blockbuster Disney Plus The Purge See It Skip It ITV Emmy Nominations Paramount Plus crime Warner Bros. debate 2015 black comedy venice Tokyo Olympics sports name the review Captain marvel trailers President Lionsgate First Look laika natural history Amazon Studios E3 Spike IMDb TV crime thriller Trivia Showtime technology sequel CNN Countdown all-time canceled TV shows Valentine's Day crime drama Premiere Dates a nightmare on elm street australia HBO Go 1990s television Bravo GoT TV Land The Academy vs. SDCC rt labs marvel cinematic universe Chernobyl football versus dceu satire kong festivals TCA 2017 robots Character Guide HBO Pet Sematary Disney Channel fast and furious Sneak Peek indie Sundance TV what to watch chucky YA Marvel Studios Disney streaming service olympics Brie Larson aliens Martial Arts police drama thriller godzilla Emmys BBC One japanese richard e. Grant YouTube superhero DC streaming service rotten social media Film new zealand NBC live action dragons werewolf Reality Competition The Walt Disney Company YouTube Red Turner Classic Movies discovery worst golden globes king arthur scorecard HBO Max space Arrowverse 90s Netflix marvel comics FOX Biopics Teen Columbia Pictures criterion Kids & Family YouTube Premium Hulu Neflix adenture spanish language latino kaiju rotten movies we love Heroines MSNBC 99% lord of the rings spanish diversity razzies AMC Cannes game of thrones psychological thriller Star Trek Peacock A24 new york spinoff Adult Swim scary dexter cinemax green book Box Office prank Trophy Talk Pixar 2016 Marathons Mystery DC Comics Sci-Fi composers Exclusive Video Awards Masterpiece posters dogs comic book movie Amazon Prime Discovery Channel Television Critics Association spider-man slasher rt labs critics edition docuseries Epix 24 frames RT History doctor who Opinion National Geographic cats hollywood dark Mary Poppins Returns Reality critic resources Star Wars anthology Writers Guild of America high school Women's History Month monster movies 2019 Fargo art house ratings Paramount 20th Century Fox Spectrum Originals women Nat Geo pirates of the caribbean zombies Family finale Hear Us Out dc cops deadpool Comic-Con@Home 2021 PlayStation Shudder Broadway twilight Animation Amazon Prime Video First Reviews BBC America 2018 zero dark thirty mcc superman classics suspense ABC know your critic Nominations book adaptation USA Network sopranos TCM Mindy Kaling 72 Emmy Awards Marvel Television FX Binge Guide Pop stop motion james bond comic book movies rom-coms Election joker Black History Month live event stand-up comedy Image Comics Sony Pictures biography mockumentary casting TIFF The CW Tomatazos Winter TV Mary Tyler Moore Comics on TV GIFs sag awards DC Universe NYCC scene in color italian PBS Trailer spider-verse king kong CBS All Access OWN mutant Western indiana jones 21st Century Fox telelvision Winners scary movies popular films video directors Interview medical drama strong female leads travel universal monsters jamie lee curtis 2020 Legendary Acorn TV feel good critics TruTV Universal Syfy Creative Arts Emmys ViacomCBS renewed TV shows streaming movies worst movies cancelled die hard TV renewals boxing spain Awards Tour TV movies Toys Classic Film BET Awards MTV batman Schedule Vudu gangster Video Games Best and Worst X-Men halloween tv elevated horror foreign Film Festival Crackle hidden camera documentaries Disney+ Disney Plus hispanic Starz teaser hispanic heritage month historical drama emmy awards TCA Awards FXX international child's play IFC Travel Channel WGN Cosplay Hallmark japan Tumblr TCA movies golden globe awards Baby Yoda news BAFTA Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Shondaland Grammys boxoffice cartoon stoner canceled Pop TV sequels Country royal family CBS streaming Esquire Anna Paquin blaxploitation south america asian-american Amazon politics Apple TV Plus Elton John legend award winner 73rd Emmy Awards archives movie 93rd Oscars mission: impossible Fox Searchlight Rocketman vampires mob Black Mirror Britbox Instagram Live Ovation Thanksgiving