There are few films that are more beloved than The Lion King. The Disney animated classic is a golden-tier masterpiece, a wonderful, excellently realized work filled with spectacle and splendor that has dazzled audiences of all ages and through multiple generations. It has inspired direct-to-DVD sequels, an award-winning soundtrack, an acclaimed, long-running stage musical and thousands of dollars in merchandise, not to mention the "live-action" CG remake that's set to be released next month.
There's no telling yet if The Lion King (2019) will live up to the original. Chances are, Jon Favreau's latest movie may not match the expectations and rise up to the high status of the original. That's not to say that it'll be bad; it's just damn-near impossible to top the original Lion King. But Disney is trying anyway. Before that film strolls into theaters on July 19th, let's take a look back at the 1994 classic, shall we? Specifically, all the great, lovable characters.
You know these characters. You love these characters. And it's never easy to rank one against the other. If you'll indulge us, it's going t be a lot of fun to rank the characters from The Lion King, and I'll explain — to the best of my ability — why one character might go above another. Just remember: this movie is a classic for a reason. All these characters come together to tell a great story, and the movie would not be the same if one or another was taken out of the picture. Just because a character is placed at 10 opposed to three does not make that character any less lovable.
So, just remember that in the scheme of things, the ranking may not reflect your favorites. So, we encourage you to let us know in the comments which ones you believe deserve to be ranked higher! With that said, here's the characters from The Lion King, ranked!
When you think about all the great Lion King characters, there are many animals that come to mind. Unfortunately, Gopher is (probably) not one of them. In fact, it's almost cheating to put him in this list. The character, voiced by veteran voice actor Jim Cummings, is an informant for Zazu and he doesn't really make much of an impression in the original theatrical cut. He pops his head out only briefly in the film, letting people know about the hyenas invading the Pride Land, and you'd be more than forgiven if you forgot all about this guy.
It's only in the extended 2003 version that the character of Gopher is given a moment to shine. Ultimately, there is a reason why the musical sequence Gopher appears most prominently in didn't make its way into the theatrical version. He's a bit of a nothing character, to be quite honest.
You'd think that Nala's mom would play a bigger role in the scheme of things when it comes to The Lion King. In the film, Sarafina, voiced by Zoe Leader, doesn't play any sort of extended role. She barely has any lines in the film. The majority of her screen time is spent sleeping, mourning or licking her daughter. In fact, it's unclear if she'll even appear in the new remake.
While Nala wouldn't be the lioness she is at the end of the film if it weren't for her mother, it's hard to say that she's a compelling, interesting or memorable character. Nothing against this loving, dependable mother, but when it comes to strong characters, she's ultimately a bit lacking here.
Where would Simba be without his mother? Nowhere, and that's an undeniable truth. During his rise into kingdom, Sarabi, voiced by the late Madge Sinclair) is there to support her son and care for him through thick and thin. She is a great mother and a dependable supporter of her son's journey, particularly when it comes time for Simba to fight Scar for the throne. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to Sarabi's character, she isn't quite as memorable or well-defined as the rest of the character who walk among the pride. Granted, Sarabi is not a bad character. Not at all.
She is loyal, kind, caring and considerate, and she develops these traits into her son, Simba, and plays a big role into why he is such a great king by the end of the movie. But when it comes to the characters you think back on when you fondly remember The Lion King, the same fact of the matter is that Sarabi doesn't instantly come to mind, which is why she ranks lower.
Again, there is nothing necessarily wrong with her character, other than she could've arguably been a bigger part of the story, but when there are so many great characters in The Lion King, it's hard to say that Sarabi deserves a higher ranking than a number of the characters who will be listed soon. But since Sarabi is going to be played by the great Alfre Woodard in Jon Favreau's new film, there's a good chance she'll play a bigger, more prominent role in the newest film.
11-9. Shenzi, Banzai & Ed
Because honestly, how can one rank any of these three hyenas over the other? They're a trio, and since they're almost always lumped together, it only makes sense they're ranked by each others' sides. Scar's dim-witted, deeply unreliable group of hench-animals don't necessarily do their job well, but they're certainly reliable when it comes to providing laughs and entertainment value. Their screeching laughs might make them a bit grating for a few audience members, but since they're working with the bad guys, they're not supposed to be the most likable characters in the world. Thankfully, however, they still know how to make people entertained — particularly the younger audiences in the crowd.
Voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings, respectively, in the animated film, The Lion King has an assortment of wonderfully odd and kooky characters throughout the pride. And when it comes to recognizable character design, enjoyable antics and even a bit of a menacing threat in one key moment, these three hyenas aren't the best of the bunch, but they're certainly distinctive and entertaining in the right moments. And it's a credit to the film that they're not relied upon too much to keep the younger audiences engaged.
In the remake, they'll be voiced by Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre and Keegan-Michael Key in live-action format, although Banzai and Ed were renamed Kamari and Azizi, respectively. I'm still having a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of Eric Andre being in a big Disney movie, but we'll have to wait and see how it plays once the film is released.
The red-billed hornbill who serves as the majordomo to Mufasa and then Simba, Zazu is a bit prissy and he might follow the rules too much. But he is nevertheless a loyal, diligent and dutiful guardian in the right moments. While he doesn't want Simba or anyone else under his care to be caught up in trouble, he clearly cares about Mufasa and his kin. In fact, Zazu makes great strides to bring Simba and Nala out of danger whenever they are in trouble.
Voiced by Rowan Atkinson, Zazu might not be the character in The Lion King who earns the most respect or wins over people's affections. He is funny in a dry sort of way, and the character can also be tender and heartfelt in the right moments. In some respects, he's among the more underrated characters in The Lion King, and it'll be interesting — and, no doubt, amusing — to see John Oliver take on the role in the new remake.
Who would Simba be without Nala? It's impossible to say. Their childhood friendship bloomed into a romantic adult relationship, and if it weren't for Nala, voiced by Moira Kelly, there's no telling if Simba would even live up to his title as the rightful king of the pride. She is a pivotal character in The Lion King, and one who proves herself to be among the most determined and dedicated fighters against the tyranny that is Scar's rule after Mufasa's death.
Through her heart, her guidance, her wit, her good sense of humor and her bravery, Nala is one of the main reasons why The Lion King is such a strongly-realized movie with a wide array of beloved characters. She provides the strength and resistance that is needed for justice to be resorted at the end of the movie, and she provides a guiding, loving spirit that is crucial to Simba's success throughout childhood and adulthood in his journey towards becoming the king of the lions.
There's no denying that it's an extremely important role, and Beyonce Knowles should hopefully make the most of it when she takes on the voice acting duties in this summer's live-action remake. After all, it takes a Queen to know how to play a great queen.
During a moment of great existential doubt, caught between childhood and adulthood, Simba is given comfort, guidance and care by a pair of unlikely guardians: Timon and Pumbaa. Not wanting to be this lion cub's dinner, they help this cub learn the ways of "Hakuna Matata," which translates to "no worries." Their problem-free philosophy helps Simba forget — if only temporarily — about the troubles that plague him in his Pride homeland, which is overrun by Scar and his dastardly hyenas. While Timon and Pumbaa adopt a worry-free mindset, they come to the rescue when Simba's in danger.
While Timon and Pumbaa are rarely inseparable, their personalities are so distinct that it's hard not to separate them. Timon the meerkat, voiced by Nathan Lane, is the louder, smarter and more outspoken member of the duo. He's a problem-solver, a quick-thinker and he knows how to get himself and his loyal bud out of danger when a problem arises. Sometimes, that involves impromptu luaus. While undeniably a comedic relief character, they do play a major role in the lead character's journey and the positive outcome of the movie.
Through heart and humor, Timon is reliable for a quick laugh or good comfort. It's hard to imagine anyone's voice other than Nathan Lane's coming out of the character's mouth, but Billy Eichner is great casting.
While Timon is definitely the brains of the group, lacking the sharp mindset that keeps the group from getting into too much trouble, Pumbaa, voiced by Ernie Sabella, is simply more lovable of the two. If you disagree, let me know in the comments, but it's hard to think of many people who don't love Pumbaa. The big-hearted warthog finds himself unable to make too many friends due to his high flatulence rate; basically, he's misunderstood among his animal brethren, but he's easy to love whenever he's on-screen. Charming, good-humored, happy go lucky, and always quick with a smile, it's hard not to love Pumbaa. Thanks to his sensitive soul and his warm demeanor, he's always a bright, energetic presence whenever he's on the screen.
He might be messy and stinky, and he might not be the most socially-presentable of all the animal characters in the film. But once you get to know him, much like Simba, it's hard not to fall for his charms. Timon might have a better understanding the world and know how to work around their problems, however rarely those come up for them, but Pumbaa will always support his friends, and his caring heart and wonderful personality play a big role in making him one of the most beloved animated characters of the '90s. Seth Rogen certainly has big shoes to fill when he tackles his familiar character.
Easily among the most distinctive and despicable villains in Disney history, Scar is a mischievous, cunning antagonist, one who has been filled with spite and resentment for years and one who isn't afraid to kill or endanger others if it means he will take over the throne. He's a dark, foul character, and yet, he is a magnetizing presence. A great film often relies upon a great villain, and Scar is certainly one memorable menace for our main character.
Richly voiced by Jeremy Irons, who uses his familiar baritone to ooze bitter resentment and dastardly intentions, Scar is a lion with evil intentions and it's always apparent that he is up to no good. While that character might not have a lot of range and layers, he is dangerous in a distinctive, deranged sorta way that is instantly engaging, leaving you wondering when he'll exact his revenge and when Simba will serve his spiteful uncle his own downfall. While it'll be hard to top Jeremy Irons' performance, Chiwetel Ejiofor is certainly a great actor, and he'll hopefully bring a great performance to this role.
In the original Lion King, Mufasa is a wise, respectful and diligent ruler of the pride. He's also a stern, yet caring and loving, father to Simba, making sure that he understands the sacrifices, responsibilities and duties that go into becoming a great leader. Not everyone can be a king, and there are certainly only a few great ones. Yet, Mufasa's insightful, dutiful rulings are just and kind, and they provide a great role model and mentor for our lead, Simba.
Iconically voiced by James Earl Jones, so much so that he's the only actor who has returned to reprise his role in live-action, Mufasa is a noble lion and a beloved ruler. He sets forth grandiose ideas and great values, but every decision he makes comes from a place of guidance and love. His death scene remains one of the most haunting in Disney history, while his spiritual farewell is one of the most gorgeous and most adored scenes to ever come from the Mouse House. Mufasa is many things, but above all else, he is a great — if tragically short-lived —character.
In times of great personal trouble, one could only wish to have someone as eccentric, yet insightful, as Rafiki to guide them to their destiny. It can never be easy to love a parent or a loved one. Everyone grieves differently. But when it comes to the sudden, tragic and heartbreaking death of Mufasa, poor dear Simba is at a loss, left to resort to the disillusioned mindset of Timon and Pumbaa to get his mind off his worries. Alas, that can only provide some fleeting memories. But when push comes to shove, everyone has their responsibilities, and that's especially true for Simba. And while Simba might not want to take on his duties as King at such a sensitive, tender point in his life, Rafiki knows the truth must come to pass, and what must come to pass.
Once Rafiki learns that Simba is alive, he goes to find the forgotten heir to the throne and tries to convince him that it is his destiny to live up to his father's future. Though he is reluctant, he helps impart some kind, yet crucial, wisdom that helps Simba know the truth and the light in his path. He is a character full of benevolence and insight, yet he is also funny and steadfast — not to mention quick to use some awesome martial arts at the right time.
Through his actions and his words, Rafiki helps save the day as a guiding spirit and heartfelt provider. He might not win as many hearts as a few other characters on this list, but he's easily one of the most important and critical characters inside the film. While Robert Guillaume did a wonderful job bringing this character to life in the animation version, hopefully John Kani lives up to the promise too.
Because how could we name anyone else? The Lion King is Simba's story; sure, there are a bunch of characters who help Simba on his quest to become the true king of the pride, but it's ultimately his growth, resilience and his maturing spirit that makes the movie such a rich, timeless classic. It can be easy to say that any of the other characters in the film are better since they get more memorable moments, funny lines or likable interactions. But without Simba, there wouldn't be a Lion King. Because the movie rides on his shoulders. Simba's moving story is absolutely key to its success.
Simba's journey follows a cub who rises into his destiny, and while the story expands throughout a great deal of time, it's through our understanding and respect for Simba's hard-pressed journey that we get so emotionally invested. In order for this story to work, we need to believe that this character can be a trustworthy and rightful king, no matter what the rules of the land say. We have to want to see him be rewarded with his destiny. Thankfully, the character, voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick, more than fulfills its duty, serving as a great, well-rounded protagonist.
There is no doubt that Donald Glover has a lot riding on his portrayal of the character. But we know he has what it takes to make this story even more great. And when it comes to Simba, there's no denying that it wouldn't be right to have any character other than this king in the top spot. It's only fitting here.
Of course, it's hard to say which characters truly deserve their individual rankings. I'm just one man; I'm sure you might disagree with a few choices I made. Therefore, please feel free to put your personal rankings down below. We can talk again whenever The Lion King (2019) hits theaters everywhere next month.
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Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.