The Secret Rivalry Between Pocahontas & The Lion King

In April, a reddit user who identified themselves as an "ex Disney inbetweener" started a thread about The Lion King and Pocahontas. This user, Voltusfive2 (who did not divulge their gender), claimed that while working as an entry-level animator, they witnessed a clear bias against The Lion King. According to Voltusfive2, “certain cuts” from The Lion King were shown to the animation team as “examples of how not to animate.” The user also claimed that during their time as an entry-level animator, “most senior animators at Disney chose to work on Pocahontas” as Disney had “little faith” in The Lion King. When asked to elaborate by other reddit users, Voltusfive2 declined, pointing to a confidentiality agreement. What’s surprising about Voltusfive2’s thread is that it suggests Disney’s top animators didn’t want to work on what was to become a colossal box-office smash. While Pocahontas (which went into wide release 20 years ago today) was a $142 million hit, The Lion King turned out to be a veritable colossus, raking in $987 million worldwide and inspiring a musical that is now the highest-grossing show in Broadway history, with box office receipts topping $6.2 billion. Intrigued by the juicy reddit claims, we found five former Disney animators who worked on both films. They offered their perspective on the rivalry between two of the most beloved animated movies of all time. Ahead, our industry insiders' take, featuring:
Broose Johnson, animator for The Lion King's Young Simba and Pocahontas' Percy
Aaron Blaise, supervising animator for TLK's Young Nala, animator for Pocahontas
Tom Bancroft, animator for Pocahontas and TLK's Young Simba
Chris Wahl, animator for TLK's Mufasa and Pocahontas' Thomas
Trey Finney, animating assistant for The Lion King, animator for Pocahontas
Photo: Courtesy of Disney.

Why was the animation team split up?
Bancroft: “It was an interesting time. The head of Disney Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, decided we should up production on the animated features and do something that hadn’t been done before at Disney: Produce one animated feature a year. To do that, the animation staff had to be broken into two groups. One group would work on the further-along-in-production Pocahontas, and the other group would work on the film that was just getting started in story (and I think still called just Lions), what would become The Lion King.”

: “We had just gotten off of Little Mermaid, Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. It had really taken a toll on all the artists doing that much work. Heart attacks, broken homes, all sorts of stuff. [Disney] said, 'This can’t continue, we’ve got to come up with another plan.'"

Why would an animator not want to work on The Lion King? Is there any truth to what the reddit user was saying?
Johnson: “The Lion King went into production right away, and there were two new directors, Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. Both were extremely respected artists, but they were first-time directors. But on Pocahontas, we had Mike Gabriel, who had already directed Rescuers Down Under, and Eric Goldberg, who just came off the huge success of the Genie [in Aladdin]. So, the sense was that Pocahontas was a slightly favored production [because] it had two bigger directors. At that point, it really wasn’t a big deal. But then when they split up the cast and Glen Keane — the supervising animator for Ariel, the Beast, and Aladdin — went on to Pocahontas, that really swayed people’s thoughts that [it] might be slightly favored. There was this sense that Pocahontas had a lot of the A players.”

: “The best animator in the studio at the time was Glen Keane. He’s world-renowned, everybody wanted to work with [him.] At the time, Keane was assigned to Pocahontas. So right off the bat, everyone thought, Well if Keane is on Pocahontas, that must mean that’s the more important film because they’re really using their top dog for that. He was the supervising animator of Pocahontas, the character. And it’s a really strong, American story. I think that was a big part of it as well. The Lion King had been struggling quite a bit. It was an original story kind of loosely based on Hamlet, but it was struggling. So when the two of them were going at the same time, Lion King hadn’t really found its feet yet, and quite frankly, it was a bad movie. It just wasn’t good yet.”

: “Then you add the fact that the music on Pocahontas was really, really strong. It had already been recorded by the time the animators got on it. And frankly, when Elton John’s music came in for The Lion King, it sounded too much like pop music. It didn’t have that Broadway flare. And it certainly didn’t have the African flare that Hans Zimmer added to it later. So the music really wasn’t doing it for people, either.”

: “Long story short, all the most experienced animators wanted to work alongside Glen on the ‘for sure hit’ Pocahontas, which left all the inexperienced (but hungry to prove themselves) animators on The Lion King, with two exceptions: Andreas Deja and Ruben Aquino. They were the two top animators that were either asked or volunteered to go onto The Lion King. This split of the animation team set up a (friendly) rivalry between the artists and these films that made them both better.”

: “As far as the animators, I think a lot of them just thought it wasn’t going to be very good. For me, [Lion King] was the first film [where] I was promoted to animator. I like to draw animals, so I was so psyched. I didn’t care if it was a terrible movie. I know that Mark Henn and Ruben A. Aquino didn’t have a problem with it. They were excited about it from what I can remember. I was kind of young. I was just so excited because I wasn’t going to be doing clean-up anymore. I was going to be animating.”

: “To make matters worse, at an animation staff update meeting for both films (about mid-way through Lion King), Jeffery Katzenberg told the crowd that Pocahontas was a ‘home run’ while Lion King ‘would be a base hit.’ That statement embittered the Lion King animators, directors, and story people and made them work even harder to make it a better film. Personally, I don’t think it was a slip of the tongue. I think Jeffery did it on purpose.”

: “I don't remember more hype one way or the other. I know when I first heard of Lion King, it was referred to as ‘Bambi with Lions.’”
Photo: Courtesy of Disney.
Did you have any say in which projects you worked on?
Bancroft: “Yes and No. Disney would ask you what you’d like to do next — which character, and which film even. But it was your ability and talent on the last film you animated that gave you any leverage to actually get what you requested. Disney was, and still is, a very competitive environment with artists vying for the ‘juicy assignments/characters,’ just like in live-action films. In the end, the superstars got first choice while the newer artists got what was left.” Johnson: “I worked with Eric Goldberg on the Genie in Aladdin, and he became one of the directors for Pocahontas, so he asked me to come over with him to do some story work, story development, character development. I was flattered that Eric chose to have me come over with him, so I didn’t argue with that. I don’t remember people saying, 'I wish I had been on one or the other.' After a while when things were developing, animators said, 'Can I go over to Pocahontas?' They said, 'No, we need to finish [Lion King].' Now that you mention it, I do remember some people trying to go over to Pocahontas, but it didn’t happen.” Wahl: “Depends. Sometimes people try and get on a character they want. Sometimes people are drafted onto a character by the directors or lead animators. On Lion King, I asked to work on Mufasa because it had a great lead, Tony Fucile, and great voice actor, James Earl Jones. (Darth Vader, how can you go wrong?) But since the character dies early on in the movie, there wasn't a lot of footage of Mufasa, and I think they already had a crew by the time I asked. But they made room for me.” What was the biggest difference between the two films?
Blaise: “The biggest difference by far was that they shot Pocahontas in live action first. The directors would direct it just like a live-action film and they would print out every frame. They were pretty strict about saying what was approved and wanted to stick to that. We talked about it a lot as animators and artists, that we had to search hard to find that thing that made us feel like we were contributing in a big way creatively to this film, because it was already shot. One of the big draws to being an animator is that you're acting out the scene — you’re doing it with your pencil. You’re the actor, so when someone says, 'Here, it’s already acted, we just want you to trace it basically,' that was a little harder to accept and find creativity in it. Eventually we did and we were able to get in there and make it better, but it was a much more subtle approach creatively than The Lion King was.” Bancroft: “Pocahontas was what I call a ‘drawing’ film while Lion King was a ‘performance’ film. Lion King had us doing a lot of animal anatomy and movement research while Pocahontas had us going to figure-drawing classes (in order to get our female anatomy/gesture drawing chops up) and studying [Native American] culture. But the big difference between the two was in the animation process. For Pocahontas, the directors chose to shoot extensive live-action footage reference for almost all of the human characters (which is most all of the film). It was a laborious process. For Lion King, we didn’t have talking lions, warthogs, or wildebeests, so while we needed to get them to walk and run realistically, the reference used was just reference. Every scene needed to be completely invented with your pencil and paper, which is what animators love to do.”
Photo: Courtesy of Disney.

Are there truly errors in The Lion King that make it poorly animated?

Blaise: “No, not at all. I strongly disagree. First of all, they’re completely different projects. Stylistically, we try not to repeat ourselves. And I really think that’s an example of two films that are really, really different from each other, both in their storytelling style and visual style. So I think with both films, there are things I would have done differently personally and things I’m incredibly proud to have been a part of. I can’t say one is better than the other. Personally, I think I like The Lion King better. I think it’s a bigger coming-of-age story, and I like animals. So that’s just a personal preference. Pocahontas is a wonderful, true American story that you can’t take anything away from either. For me, artistically I don’t agree with [comparing movies] like that. It’s like saying an oil painting is better than a watercolor painting. It’s just not true.” Finney: “Yes. The crew was young, most of it. You could argue also that Beauty and the Beast had way more mistakes than The Lion King. Aladdin had more mistakes than The Lion King. People don’t realize this, but it’s very difficult, especially if you’ve got family. It’s a lot of hours. You’re making cartoons and yes, it’s fun, but the deadline is the deadline regardless of the changes made. If someone gets sick or fired, the slack needs to be picked up. Towards the end of the picture, you may work anywhere from 60 to 80 hours per week. Sort of at the end of my career, I was burnt out at being a production animator. When I did my internship, I thought I could do this, but all of a sudden, you throw yourself into the context of deadlines and management. It becomes a lot more pressure.” Johnson: “Between The Lion King and Pocahontas, I don’t see a big difference. It’s a different style, but in terms of quality, everyone gave it their all. Everybody, especially when it comes to in-betweening, they have to go super fast. I don’t want to diss in-betweeners because that’s how I started out too, but they’re just doing lines between lines as fast as you can do them, so of course you’re going to get some sloppy stuff. But Pocahontas and Lion King I think are actually some of our best in terms of quality of animation.” Bancroft: “Both films have plenty of quality animation, and had talented animators attached to both. The only difference between them is we didn’t think they were equal in talent in the beginning. The newer animation leads that got their first chance to be leaders on Lion King really rose to the occasion on that film, and it became more than anyone thought it would, both in story and in animation.” What was your reaction to Lion King’s monumental success?
Wahl: “Well, I always thought Pocahontas was a bit boring. Lion King had more fun in it. When they handed out bonuses for Lion King, my eyes bugged out and my jaw hit the floor on seeing the amount. Ah, the good old days. Lion King's success kind of ruined every film afterwards, cause if the film didn't make 'Lion King money' it wasn't considered a success.” Finney: "I wasn’t surprised. For me, I liked Lion King better. It had nothing to do with the quality of the animation, it’s just how it came down. Also, Little Mermaid sort of set the formula, and Lion King followed that formula. Lion King I think had better songs. I’m not really a musical type person, but for me, I liked those songs better. But the Pocahontas songs were powerful, too. Christina Aguilera came and sang at the wrap party. Oh, that was Mulan. Never mind." Blaise: “It’s funny, we were really young back then, and I was in my mid-twenties. It was the only job I had ever done, from an animation standpoint. So when we started doing these films, and they did well right off the bat, it felt like that was just how they’re supposed to do. At the time, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. It was really cool when it came out, like, oh, it was really popular. I wasn’t looking so much at the monetary change at the box office, but how popular it was — to see little girls carrying their backpacks and lunch boxes. It’s really gratifying to see that. It’s funny because, way back then, for a film to go over $100 million was a huge success. Nowadays we don’t really think much about it, but back then it was a big deal. And still, every film we were making was going at least $120 million. I’m not sure how much Pocahontas did, but anyway, either way, we always looked at it not from a box-office standpoint, but from an artistic standpoint. You feel so relieved and so proud. It’s like giving birth. We lived with it for a year, and then you let it go and then you work on the next one. Every single one holds a special place.”

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