Twenty Years Later, “The Lion King 1 ½” Is Still the Gayest Disney Movie

What if Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were a wise-cracking meerkat and a kind-hearted gluttonous warthog? That’s the basis of Timon and Pumbaa, the insect-loving comedic duo who stood out in The Lion King. During Disney’s Michael Eisner era, any animated movie that broke the box office received additional flicks for the home video market and sometimes even a television series. In the 90s, Timon & Pumbaa had near Minion-level popularity, spurring a spin-off series from 1995-1999. Then, in February 2004 –– 20 years ago, jeez––a feature-length direct-to-DVD spin-off graced them: The Lion King 1 ½ (or Lion King 3: Hakuna Matata for ya European readers).

Inspired by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (yes, the Tony award-winning Tom Stoppard play) and framed in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 format, The Lion King 1 ½ follows Timon and Pumbaa as they recount the events of The Lion King from their perspective. The movie reveals how they were present at every plot point — while exploring the origins of their budding, affectionate relationship.

There’s no better way to put this: The Lion King 1 ½ is the gayest Disney movie of all time.

From the get-go, the film establishes Timon as a gay-coded, Jewish-coded — his mother calls him a meshuggah at one point — Disney princess. He’s tired of his meerkat species living in the clos– er, I mean, underground and at the bottom of the food chain, in fear of hyenas. Like every quintessential Disney princess, Timon even sings his own “I want” song: “That’s All I Need,” which had The Lion King’s original music scribes Elton John and Tim Rice returning to pen. Wanting to break free from his provincial surroundings, like every queer midwesterner in a hetero-filled hometown, Timon moves out and embarks off on a quest to find his forever home in paradise.

On his journey, Timon encounters Pumbaa, whose protective instinct kicks in upon seeing Timon small and alone. Timon, at first, embraces Pumbaa as his protector from predatory animals. But, as they comically trek across all the recognizable settings and plot points from the original film to find Timon’s home, their bond deepens.

During their most intimate scene, Timon learns Pumbaa himself doesn’t have a home and just won’t admit it. Timon insists Pumbaa stay with him and says he’s his best friend in the world. They look into each other’s eyes lovingly. Andrew Haigh, take notes, sir.

Timon and Pumbaa have an affectionate bond unlike any other Disney comedy duo. Their synonymous Hakuna Matata-fueled lifestyle and shared interests in eating insects and living fancy-free with each other makes them feel like a gay, old, married couple. Timon and Pumbaa are outcasts who find solace in each other’s company. They’re each other’s home and, by the night’s end, Timon snuggles himself on top of Pumbaa’s belly as if it were his bed.

Timon’s voice actor, Nathan Lane, is indeed a gay icon, and his rapport with Pumbaa’s Ernie Sabella is jovial and buoyant. Even if they are at odds, they never resort to violence, even for slapstick. They’re big softies, using their wits and farts to overcome any situation.

That is until they decide to rescue Simba, who challenges them to a new level. To quote Timon’s narration directly, “Rescuing Simba was a cinch. Then came the really scary part… *dramatic sting* parenthood.” The flick frames Timon and Pumbaa as Simba’s two gay dads. Through a series of comical montages,Timon acts like a bossy mom tending to all Simba’s needs as the enforcer and protector. As Simba grows up, he calls Timon “pops”. Need I say more?!

The queer subtext isn’t the only reason the movie transcends the direct-to-DVD Disney franchise movies of the time. Long before Deadpool, The Lion King 1 ½ felt fresh with its meta format. At least, it taught me the definition of a 4th wall break. (Sorry, I was born after Animaniacs was canceled.) Timon and Pumbaa’s constant riffing on and offscreen through their varying comedic stylings keeps the film moving in perfect rhythm. It has long-winded gags, decent slapstick, musical theater references––like Timon and Pumbaa starts singing the opening verses to “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof — and somehow it all works.

Plus, as a very “ahead of its time” topper, the film’s credits close out on Raven Symoné’s stellar neo-funk cover of The Friends of Distinction’s version of “Grazing in the Grass.” One of my formative childhood memories was watching the music video on my The Lion King 1 ½ DVD. My late dad went on Limewire and burned the song — among other childhood favorites — onto a blank CD. I titled it “Rendy Mania,” a riff on the DisneyMania albums from back in the day. Elton John and Raven Symone on one soundtrack? That’s queer culture!

As Disney still stumbles through their “exclusively gay moments,” The Lion King 1 ½ is a reminder that sometimes subtext is better — especially when it’s this texty. Two decades later, it’s time we declare The Lion King 1 ½ a queer animated classic worth revisiting or watching for the first time. To quote Timon and Pumbaa’s iconic phrase, “Hakuna Matata”

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Rendy Jones

Rendy Jones (they/he) is a film and television journalist born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. They are the world's first gwen-z film journalist and owner of self-published independent outlet Rendy Reviews, a member of the Critics' Choice Association, GALECA, and a screenwriter. They have been seen in Vanity Fair, Them, RogerEbert.com, Rolling Stone, and Paste.

Rendy has written 8 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. I appreciate this review and the writer dusting off an old classic! I swear there is a REASON why so many of us queers had crush-feelings activated by these animated characters. So much hidden queer storytelling, or at least queer-adjacent outcast stories.

  2. “diggah tunnah” is a song that gets sung by the two gay moms in my house. i babysat for a kiddo who was obsessed with this movie, and i have to agree that it’s Disney camp at its best.

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