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It's exactly as amazing as it sounds. Actually, probably more amazing than it sounds.
One thing that made it so cool was the amount of scenes with something coming at the screen...with teeth bared. Through flames...
Perhaps as a testament to the popularity of the film, it outgrossed every competing film two weeks in a row and is the highest grossing re-release since the original Star Wars was re-released in 1997. In fact, Lion King was grossing so much that theaters decided to extend the limited release, even after ads for the home video re-release started airing.
Rafiki going Screaming Mandrill Fu on some hyenas, complete with Offhand Backhand.
Rafiki gets an earlier and subtle one - he's a shaman, after all, and had to have been rolling the bones for quite some time after Scar took over. He no doubt got all kinds of confusing signs, since of course Simba was dead...everyone knew this! But then one day, the tea leaves tell him - in no uncertain terms - Simba's alive and grown up. All of those previous confusing signs suddenly make sense, and he realizes...
"It is time!"
Mufasa leaping out of a stampede to climb a sheer cliff after saving Simba.
The fact that Mufasa saved Simba successfully. He went into the fray, got hit by a wildebeest and kept going, caught Simba in midair, weaved back through trouble and brought Simba to safety. Meanwhile, Simba avoided being trampled several times. The contemporary equivalent is doing the same on a busy highway. Mufasa and Simba are downright valiant.
If you thought that Ed was just the comic relief hyena with no chance at being intimidating, his sinister chuckle, which is very much the death knell for Scar, will prove you wrong.
Then they tear Scar apart as the fire prevents you from seeing anything more. We only see it in shadow but for a Disney movie that takes balls.
Say what you want, the fact that Scar's plan actually succeeds is a pretty awesome achievement on his part, and grants him the status of one of the most successful, if not the most successful Disney villain. It's likely one of the reasons for his sizable fanbase.
As well as the lionesses responding with roars of their own, while that glorious African chanting kicks in.
For that matter, the opening sequence, "Circle of Life" is a Moment of Awesome for the bloody movie. If one character had to be placed as MOA recipient, it has to be Rafiki, but that whole sequence just leaves the jaw agape Every. Single. Time. Disney's first trailer for this film was no more than this sequence!
The fight between Simba and Scar, complete with a majestic version of the music that plays when Mufasa shows Simba the kingdom (which is only included on the Legacy Collection soundtrack; it's at a slower tempo, but awesome all the same). Just as importantly, it clearly shows that Simba fights in a distinctive way from his father, in a cooler, more cerebral way.
To put this scene in perspective. You have two lions battling each other for the Crown, atop of a fiery mountain while lightning blazes in the background.
After all the cruel, wicked, Manipulative Bastard actions Scar took throughout the movie (especially the way he played on poor little Simba's insecurities in the gorge), there is nothing quite so satisfying as this scene. Just watching Simba lay the smack-down on his treacherous uncle, holding nothing back and finally ready to kill the damn bastard... Instant catharsis (many theaters erupted in cheers at this moment).
Mufasa's head appearing in the clouds to give Simba confidence.
Bowling for Hyenas.
Mufasa telling the hyenas in no uncertain terms that if they mess with his kid again, he will END them (also comes with a little bit of a Funny Moment). His perfectly timed arrival: Simba tries to scare the hyenas off with a roar, but it's a "rather uninspiring thing". The hyenas smirk and dare him to give it another crack. He takes another deep breath-and what seems to come out is the THUNDER of one VERY angry adult lion. The hyenas have just enough time to Oh, Crap before Mufasa's Big Damn Heroes arrival is clear.
Not a minute earlier, Simba saw Nala slipping down the cliff, the hyenas about to catch her. He races to save her, with Shenzi about to make a meal of Nala... only for Simba to slash right through her cheek. And judging by her growl, he truly angered her.
It's a small one, but when the hyenas corner the cubs, Simba pushes Nala against the wall and plants himself protectively in front of her.
Another one for Sarabi. She's not even a second behind Nala in leaping into the fray when it's revealed that Scar killed off Mufasa. Say hello... to one VERY pissed off Queen.
The hyenas smirking and daring Simba to give it another crack.
The animation in the stampede. For one thing it marked a milestone in animated film-making as the first time computer generated animation was used heavily across a sequence. But more than that, the technical side isn't what people remember about the scene: all they remember is the incredible emotion it's imbued with.
Simba:MURDERER!!!!! Scar: No, Simba, please! Simba: Tell them the truth!! Scar: Truth? But truth is in the eye of the behol— (is cut off by being choked) All right...all right! (softly) I...did it. Simba:So they can hear you.
Strangely, this scene can also be a crowning moment for Scar; after his initial shock (where he thinks Simba is Mufasa returned,) he recovers his composure extremely quickly, manages to Hannibal Lecture Simba off a cliff, and actually gets into a position where he can kill Simba and the lionesses are too stunned by the revelation Scar brought to light to react. If he hadn't suddenly grasped the Villain Ball with his Evil Gloating, he could well have turned Simba's entire awesome return into a Shoot the Shaggy Dog and killed him there. Scar is not only one of the very few Disney villains to actually accomplish his goal of becoming king, he manages to Xanatos Speed Chess his way to a Near Villain Victory even after the Rightful King Returns.
The moment leading to this is pretty impressive. After a heated argument with Sarabi, Scar finally snaps and smacks her to the ground for mentioning the name of his cursed brother. Straight afterwards, he notices a very angry looking Simba on an above ledge. As he leaps in front of him, Scar is naturally ready to shit himself.
Real-life example: Jim Cummings doing a perfect impersonation of Jeremy Irons towards the end of "Be Prepared" (everything after "YOU WON'T GET A SNIFF WITHOUT ME!"). You would never know the difference.
Nala travelling across a desert on the small chance that she might be able to find food. Bear in mind that she's starving, and has been suffering under Scar's tyrannical rule for years. That took guts. Or maybesuicidal depression. But it was still epic, even if Simba later repeated the feat.
Simba's Big Damn Heroes moment when she goes after Pumbaa, until they put two and two together.
On a related note to the above point, the epic-ness of Simba repeating the feat is emphasized not only by more of the always awesome African chanting but also by having him appear as a slow-motion overlay, with his tiny form in the background to show the true vastness of the desert—a shot so memorable it became the cover art for Rhythm of the Pride Lands.
Its massive success-both critically and financially-is a Crowning Moment Of Awesome considering that Disney just thought it would be a "filler" movie while they worked on Pocahontas, which they expected to be the smash hit. We all know how that turned out.
Take a look at the list of highest-grossing animated films. From thirty onwards, all the films were made in the naughties except for The Lion King. And it sits at number three. For a traditionally animated movie made in the nineties, that is damn impressive.
And then you realize that it held the top spot for sixteen years.
A fairly subtle one, but when the hyenas surrond Simba, Nala and Zazu, Zazu doesn't fly away until the hyenas are distracted and the cubs get away. He's quite brave considering he's the comic relief.
The stage musical
Most of the crowning moments from the first film are cleverly symbolically shown in the musical. A few of the results potentially upstage the film:
If you thought "The Circle of Life" was a Moment of Awesome for the original film version of The Lion King, just wait until you see it live.
They found a way to have several actors appear from the crowds holding props that, together, materialized a full-scale African elephant which walked convincingly onto the stage! It always gets applause. Julie Taymor remembers this as one of the crowning achievements.
The Wildebeest stampede is completely on-stage, using a combination of a projected background of Afro-styled art depictions of them, along with a full group of costumes and some clever use of the rotating sets.
The use of full-human actors with distinctive facepaint for the lions allows fight scenes to be very distinctive.
When Mufasa appears in the clouds to give Simba confidence, Mufasa's face is a gigantic prop that manages to shimmer into place from out of nowhere, larger than most of the entire sets of the show. This, accompanied by a chorus on-stage in the corners, gives the biggest chills in the show along with the Circle of Life opening.
The fact that Disney pulled a film like this off on stage. When it was first suggested to put this on the stage, everyone just laughed.
Meta: While this is a highly personal one for Alaskan troper musical fans, this particular show was not built for two-thousand-seat facilities, nor for circular arenas - eliminating the two major performance spaces in the city (the Atwood Concert Hall and the Sullivan Arena). When local TV celebrity John Carpenter wanted to make it happen, he had to convince the city to let the show's producers massively modify the Atwood, taking out significant amounts of the sound-direction paneling to add two platforms for drum sets, taking out two columns of seats for specific moments where actors and/or gigantic costume animals ran through the aisles, and making sure that support actors could easily get up to higher levels in the audience; combined with a few precision tweaks to the show, the entire thing managed to run to two weeks of non-stop sold-out shows - a record for both that particular tour that far (this was 2009, ten years after the musical started) and for any multi-show event in Alaskan history - along with possibly one of the strongest performances the musical ever saw due to its more intimate audience.
Child Simba leaves during "Hakuna Matata" running offstage. ADULT SIMBA TARZAN SWINGS IN, SINGING THE SONG CALMLY THE ENTIRE TIME.
The song "He Lives In You". BIG TIME.
The added scene where Timon nearly goes over a waterfall into a gator's snapping maw. When he gets out of said dilemma, he's acting totally casual, not even remotely shaken by what just happened. Because, hey, hakuna matata.
"Shadowland", where Nala leaves the Pridelands to go and find help, after Scar has not only driven their land to ruins, but reveals he intends to marry her and have her bear his cubs. She doesn't know where she's going or if she'll succeed, but the send-off she gets from the rest of the pride (and Rafiki) is amazing.