Although I write this article expecting pitchforks from rabid Disney fans to be at my door as soon as it gets published (with my roommate leading the charge), I feel duty-bound to give my namesake the justice she deserves, even if I am the only one who believes she deserves it.
For those of you who weren’t named after the protagonist in the “Lion King” sequel and didn’t spend your entire childhood watching and rewatching the special two-disc DVD version of that movie, there is in fact, a “Lion King” sequel, entitled “The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride.” If you already knew this, you know more about this franchise than quite a few people, but did you know there was also a “Lion King 1½” spin-off told from Timon and Pumbaa’s perspectives? My DVD player got sick of that one too.
While I could talk about how “Digga Tunnah” was an early 2000s bop in the spin-off, I do have standards, and the song wasn’t that good. I will however, defend the music of “The Lion King II” to the death, because it is good, and just because the original movie has songs that are more iconic does not mean that they are better. I feel like I should take another aside here to explain that I’m not saying that the sequel as a whole is a better movie than the original — it is still a sequel, let’s not get ahead of ourselves — but the music is amazing and really doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
To get one more tangent out of my system before going into the core of the matter, Disney has a bad habit of trying to mirror the original in its sequels or later iterations in a film franchise — a trend I observed recently when I was watching “Mary Poppins Returns” — which only leads the viewer to make comparisons to the original version they already know, subsequently appreciating the remade version less than the nostalgia-infused song of their childhood. Why would I care about lamplighters singing and dancing to “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” when I have chimney sweeps singing and dancing to “Step in Time”? However, after rewatching both scenes, it’s clear that, at the very least, the choreography to “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is better than that for “Step in Time,” mostly because 80 percent of it isn’t the Can-Can. So let’s take off our nostalgia glasses for just a moment and look at the two “Lion King”s.
Most of the songs in the “Lion King II” are spiritual successors to the songs in the original, enough so that you can easily group them together after a quick listen. “Circle of Life” and “He Lives in You” are both the introductory, heavily African-influenced opening songs that pair with beautifully animated scenery of sunrises and birds and mountains and such. “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” and “We Are One” are both childhood songs foreshadowing how the adulthoods of the lion cubs would turn out. “Be Prepared” and “My Lullaby” are both villain songs. “Hakuna Matata” and “Upendi” are both lighthearted non-lion songs with Swahili titles. “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and “Love Will Find A Way” are both the romantic resolution songs. Finally, “Not One of Us” is on its own in the second movie, and — spoiler alert — it’s the best song of the bunch.
Okay, so from here, it’s easy, just compare the songs. Apples to apples, right? Because life is easy and simple and clear-cut. If you couldn’t hear the sarcasm through the words on the page, there are differences between these pairs of songs that make them difficult to compare. For example, “Circle of Life” is truly a sunrise song, reflected in that iconic chorus that you’ve probably heard someone sing poorly even if you’ve never seen the original movie. In contrast, “He Lives in You” is more of a this-tragedy-happened-but-we’ll-learn-from-it-and-move-forward song, reflected especially in the crescendo before the chorus. I can make similar distinctions for the rest of the pairs, because they really aren’t as similar as they seem (or as similar as the new “Mary Poppins” songs are to the original ones), but that difference is the key to the comparison here.
The first “Lion King”’s music is, across the board, more carefree. The songs reflect the internal, often whimsical, desires of the characters, and they feature upbeat, catchy tunes. The second “Lion King,” in comparison, features — with the exception of “Upendi” — heavier music about the characters trying to live up to or escape internal and external pressures. If you listen to “Be Prepared” and “My Lullaby” you can instantly hear the difference between the rather nonchalant but still power-hungry Scar and the fallen-from-grace Zira, who is desperate to use her son Kovu to avenge Scar. Because the creators of “The Lion King II” took the themes of the first set of songs and expanded them to fit the new Romeo-and-Juliet-inspired plot — because why stop referencing Shakespeare when you don’t have to? — the new songs aren’t just remakes of the old ones, they’re fully-fledged songs that have more intricate themes than the originals. Each song is a journey, in a way that the songs from the first movie simply … aren’t.
All six songs in “The Lion King II” are representative of a struggle between the internal and external motivations of the characters. Rather than catchy monologues, they’re important conversation tools and glimpses into the inner psyches of the characters. Yeah, Simba can’t wait to be king and do whatever he wants, not knowing what will happen to Mufasa, but Kiara is learning an important lesson that she then uses to resolve the conflict at the end of her movie in a rather epic role reversal.
If I can’t convince you that the songs are more narratively meaningful in the sequel with all of that, you’ll never be convinced, so let’s talk about technical musical stuff. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about that — if you couldn’t tell by my calling it “technical musical stuff” — so let’s just call it a draw there – because Disney music is great and all of the songs are beautifully composed – and move on to the one song that seals the deal in favor of “The Lion King II”: “Not One of Us.”
If the name isn’t a dead giveaway and you haven’t watched the movie, this is an exile song. It isn’t just any exile song. It is the best exile song. I highly suggest that you listen to it right now. It’s so dramatic and emotionally charged and it lets you truly experience the moment when Kovu is exiled (20-year-old spoiler alert). I literally can’t describe in words how amazing it is. This is the song they included in the sequel on top of the songs that were similar to the original. This masterpiece sung by an amazing cast at the climax of the movie is what they add to its soundtrack to truly improve on the original foundation.
For these reasons and more, the second “Lion King” has better music than the first. And you can trust that. Because a random Grind writer (named Kiara) said so.
Contact Kiara Harding at kiluha ‘at’ stanford.edu.