Anybody who grew up on Disney movies definitely has a soft spot for The Lion King. The 1994 animated feature-length film about a young lion learning his place in the world and accepting his duty to lead his people resonated with audiences worldwide. it made nearly a billion dollars at the world box office, and is currently the (at the time of writing) 29th highest-grossing film of all time.
It wasn't just audiences that the film resonated with either. Critics worldwide applauded The Lion King, and it became one of the company's most prolific releases. Elton John received an Oscar for the film's theme song "The Circle of Life" (which he continues to close his shows with to this day), and composer Hans Zimmer did the same for his score.
The movie has been enshrined in the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," and Disney even has a CG remake lined up for 2019. In short, The Lion King is a big deal.
It might surprise you then, that at one point in time The Lion King was actually not held in very high regard by the studio. During its development, many of the senior animators actually jumped ship for another project, leaving much of the film in the hands of junior staff who had never worked on a film before!
Not only that, but the script went through several significant rewrites before ultimately becoming what it was, which much of the production staff actually weren't happy with. Several writers left the project as well, and ultimately writer Burny Mattinson said to a coworker "I don't know who is going to want to watch that one."
So what project was so much more appealing to much of the Disney staff you might ask? Pocahontas. No, we are not kidding.
Click to the next page for the full story on why Disney had so much more faith in Pocahontas than The Lion King.
In 1994, Disney was really gunning for Academy gold thanks to the success of Beauty and the Beast, which was nominated for Best Picture (as Best Animated Film was not an award yet) but didn't win. The studio thought they needed to make a film in the vein of what the Academy tends to like; a period piece with some kind of "socially conscious" message. Enter Pocahontas.
It and The Lion King began production roughly around the same time in 1994, but most higher-ups in the studio believed Pocahontas to be the more significant project while writing off The Lion King as just another kids movie. Head of Story Brenda Chapman even commented that she was reluctant to accept the job on The Lion King "because the story wasn't very good."
Fortunately, much of the younger staff really believed in the project. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Producer Don Hahn commented:
"The Lion King was considered a little movie because we were going to take some risks. The pitch for the story was a lion cub gets framed for murder by his uncle set to the music of Elton John. People said, 'What? Good luck with that.' But for some reason, the people who ended up on the movie were highly passionate about it and motivated."
As for Pocahontas, the film spent much longer in development and had a budget a full $10 Million higher than The Lion King, and ultimately opened to incredibly mixed reviews from critics. Aggregate website RottenTomatoes cites; "Pocahontas means well, and has moments of startling beauty, but it's largely a bland, uninspired effort, with uneven plotting and an unfortunate lack of fun."
Not only that, but the film drew considerable criticism from First Nations peoples of North America, who found it to be an incredibly sanitized and distorted view of the real-life genocide inflicted upon them by European settlers. Pocahontas ultimately made about a third the money that The Lion King did, and history doesn't remember it kindly.