Hakuna Matata! The Lion King Ain’t No Passing Craze

Pop Culture

Hakuna Matata! The Lion King Ain’t No Passing Craze

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

Before I had ever heard Whitney Houston sing or saw Michael Jackson moonwalking, my favourite musical act of the ’90s featured a singing meerkat and warthog. To this day, if anyone makes a ’90s playlist and remembers to include “Creep” and “Wonderwall”, but forgets “Hakuna Matata”, I make a mental note and then totally judge them at leisure. Admittedly, Timon and Pumbaa aren’t ’90s musical icons like Kurt Cobain, but that song, and indeed the entire soundtrack of 1994’s The Lion King occupy a very special place in the hearts of an entire generation that knew the story of Simba long before they had read Hamlet.

Tomorrow, the remake of the Disney classic will be hitting theatres. The colourful, hand-drawn animation has been traded out for cutting-edge, photorealistic CGI; the film’s runtime has been mysteriously increased (despite appearing to be a shot-for-shot remake from the trailer); and apart from James Earl Jones, who reprises his role as Mufasa, all the characters will be voiced by new actors. But there’s one thing that even Disney, in its quest to update all of its beloved classics, will not dare to mess with too much: the unforgettable, inimitable, always iconic soundtrack.

Most Disney films have one, sometimes two classic tunes that go on to define the film in pop culture.

Pardon my Zulu, but if you walk into any room populated with ’90s kids and scream out, “NYAAAAAAA SIGONYAAAAAAA!” or any approximation of that chant, everyone present will know you’re attempting a rendition of “Circle of Life”, which I think could be Elton John’s greatest contribution to music, “Tiny Dancer” and “Rocket Man” included. In the original 1994 version, John managed to pen songs that would go on to become some of the most-loved in the Disney canon. That year, “Hakuna Matata”, “Circle of Life”, and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” were all nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Picking between those three must have been as hard for the Academy as it is for a mother to choose her favourite child, but they eventually gave it to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”.

Most Disney films have one, sometimes two classic tunes that go on to define the film in pop culture. The Jungle Book had “Bear Necessities”, Beauty and the Beast had “Be Our Guest”, and Aladdin had both “Arabian Nights” and “A Whole New World”. But only The Lion King has had three songs that are equally popular and enjoy longevity even 25 years after their release. Back when I was a five-year-old, I used to drive my mother crazy with the Zulu chants from “Circle of Life”; today, I do the same to my girlfriend when our morning alarm doesn’t do the job. The songs from The Lion King are adaptable and evergreen, hallmarks of true classics. Even “Be Prepared” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”, the movie’s less-celebrated gems, are indisputably catchy.

If you grew up with The Lion King soundtrack, it’s never going to leave you. Those songs are as much a part of our childhood as splashing around in puddles or crying at the doctor’s office. A year ago, I was at a house party where a colleague showed up with her four-year-old son. Surrounded by boring adults, the kid was quick to make a nuisance of himself, spilling Pepsi on the carpet and overhearing “bad” words he shouldn’t have. His mother, thinking quickly, ushered him into the guest bedroom and put on Disney’s Frozen for him to watch. When we saw him an hour-and-a-half later, he was contentedly singing “Let It Go” to himself. That’s what The Lion King was to us as kids – almost a drug that could keep us content for the entire day.

That’s what The Lion King was to us as kids – almost a drug that could keep us content for the entire day.

As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The same can be said of The Lion King’s soundtrack. Just like the makers of the 2019 remake must have realised that no one but James Earl Jones and his unmistakable baritone could voice Mufasa, Elton John has also been called upon to revisit his compositions with the artist who will be filling his shoes as the musical powerhouse behind the film’s songs. That artist is arguably even bigger than John was in his ’80s and ’90s pomp. She isn’t just a popstar, she’s a Queen. She’s Queen Bey, Beyoncé Knowles.

This week, Knowles released the music video for “Spirit”, an original composition that was made just for the remake. Featuring Knowles and her troupe performing African tribal dances against jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, unspoiled landscapes, “Spirit” is aptly named, since it pulses with the authentic spirit of the classic soundtrack. It’s an encouraging sign for fans. With Knowles playing Nala alongside fellow Grammy Award winner Donald Glover as Simba, the music we’ve grown up loving appears to be in safe hands.

If The Lion King’s soundtrack should be reductively summed up as being one thing, then it would be accurate to call it a love letter to natural splendour. The folk chants, regional African instruments, and soaring arrangements transport the listener into a world of dusty red sunsets, towering baobab trees, crystalline waterfalls, rustling grasses, and night skies blanketed in stars. But the soundtrack is not just one thing, it is many different things to different people. To me, it’s a huge reason why the original film became such a classic. It’s also why, even though the remake looks to be practically the same film, just with more expensive technology behind it, I will be watching it in the theatre. Because even though The Lion King’s story has already been told, those timeless songs will never grow old.