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'The Lion King' Turns 20: Every Crazy, Weird Fact About the Disney Classic

It’s been exactly 20 years since The Lion King opened in wide release.

That means it’s been two decades since those first chills we got watching the “Circle of Life” opening sequence, launching years of perfecting our own made up gibberish while attempting to sing along to the Zulu lyrics. It’s been 7,300 days since we first cried all those tears as Simba watched Mufasa fall to his death. And it’s been 175,200 hours since we first grappled with loathing Scar’s evil nature while delighting in Jeremy Irons’ delectable voice work.

That’s not to mention, either, the immeasurable time spent since our first screening dutifully spreading the word of Timon and Pumbaa’s it’s-all-good mantra, hakuna matata.

If you’ve seen The Lion King once, you’ve seen it dozens (and dozens) of times, because there’s no way to stave off the addicting charm offensive that is Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton’s crackling Hamlet-meets-Bambi script; Elton John and Tim Rice’s Oscar-winning original songs; and the host of iconic voice performances, from James Earl Jones to Nathan Lane, each perfecting that balance of humor and heart. There’s no reason, then, to mark the occasion of the film’s 20th anniversary—dear god, we’re old—by telling you how good the movie is. You’ve seen it countless times; you know.

So instead, we searched the Internet for as many (substantiated) behind-the-scenes stories and trivia that we could find about the film’s surprising development process and blockbuster cultural and commercial impact. Here’s 35 of the strangest, wildest, and most interesting bits of info we could find:

1) Pumbaa was the first Disney character to ever fart on screen. This is probably the most important fact on here.

2) The Lion King was originally titled The King of the Jungle. Blessedly, someone realized that lions don’t actually live in jungles, and so the title was changed. The tagline still lived on in some of the film’s marketing, though. Whoops.

3) If you were in grade school around the time The Lion King was released, you probably lost yourself in giggle fits every time the Savannah’s Three Stooges—hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed—came on screen. Initially, however, the trio was written with Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong in mind to deliver Shenzi and Banzai’s repartee. The famed comedy duo, however, wasn’t working together at the time, and the reunion wasn’t in the cards. Whoopi Goldberg was then cast as Shenzi opposite Marin’s Banzai, and the rest is hilarious history.

4) Off-screen, there was even more drama when it came to those hyenas. Biologists were not pleased that they were portrayed as villains in the film. One researcher, in defense of the animals, even sued Disney for defamation (PDF) of character. Another, displeased with how the film would affect the hyenas’ reputation, listed boycotting The Lion King among things people could do if they want to help preserve hyenas in the wild.

5) Actors James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair provided the regal voices for Mufasa and Sarabi, the respective King and Queen of the Pridelands and Simba’s parents. Their royal chemistry shouldn’t be a surprise, though: They also voiced the king and queen in Coming to America.

6) The Lion King got majorly shafted by Disney’s creative team during development. Pocahontas was being produced at the same time and everyone who worked for the studio was more bullish on that project, thinking that the historical roots of the film would make it the more likely to succeed. As such, Disney’s top animators actually worked on Pocahontas, and not The Lion King.

7) There’s a playground legend that, in a scene where Simba flops on the ground, the dust kicks up around and forms the letters “SEX” in a cloud above him. Well, turns out it’s just that: legend. Producers later admitted that there are letters in the dust cloud, but they actually spell “SFX,” a nod to the special effects team that worked on the movie.

8) Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, who voiced Timon and Pumbaa, actually wanted to play two of the hyenas. The actors were starring together in Guys and Dolls on Broadway at the time, and ran into each other at the voice audition and convinced the casting director to let them audition as a pair. Their chemistry killed so much that it was decided they would be a far better fit as the famous meerkat-warthog duo.

9) This was the first full-length animated film to be created from an original script idea. OK, there are definitely elements of Hamlet in there. But it was still the first animated Disney movie to not be based on a book or a familiar fairy tale.

10) During early stages of the story creation, the plot was described as “‘Bambi in Africa’ meets Hamlet,” or Bamlet for short.

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