‘Hakuna Matata’: Elton John’s Playful Lion King Hit

The witty and wise song was so much more than comic relief.

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Lion King soundtrack album cover
Cover: Courtesy of Disney

The songs of Disney’s 1994 animated blockbuster The Lion King had it all. “Circle Of Life” was a philosophical introduction to the story of Simba, a young lion, and his journey as he succeeds his father as King of the Pride Lands. “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” is a highlife-infused romp, “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” introduces some romance to proceedings, and “Be Prepared” is a slinky and foreboding slice of villainy. But all great Disney films need some comic relief, and there’s few better examples than “Hakuna Matata.”

The Lion King’s songs were written by rock great Elton John and the celebrated lyricist Tim Rice (Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph & His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat). Rice was no stranger to Disney, having contributed lyrics to composer Alan Menken’s songs for the 1992 hit Aladdin after the passing of original lyricist Howard Ashman. When it came to writing the songs for The Lion King, Menken was otherwise engaged, so Rice turned to John. In his 2019 autobiography, Me, John recalled Rice’s original pitch, “Ten years after we’d last written a song together, Tim Rice phoned up out of the blue, asking me if I was interested in working with him again. Apparently, Disney were making their first animated film based on an original story rather than an existing work, and I was intrigued…. The songs had to tell a story. The plan was that we wouldn’t write the usual Broadway-style Disney score, but try to come up with pop songs that kids would like.”

Listen to The Lion King soundtrack on Spotify or Apple Music now.

The pair struck gold with “Hakuna Matata” – an upbeat ditty sung by a meerkat named Timon (voiced by Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa the warthog (Ernie Sabella). The song features at a pivotal point in the movie, with Timon and Pumbaa offering Simba advice while he grows from a cub to an adult lion. “It had to introduce them, had to be about their way of life [and what] they wanted to teach Simba, an impressionable young cub,” Rice told Vulture in 2014. “They represent a different aspect of life. It’s not all about lions and prides.”

When John agreed to the collaboration, the pair cooked up material for The Lion King (initially known as “King Of The Jungle”) from their respective locations, faxing lyrics and sending demos across the Atlantic. But “Hakuna Matata” took some time to get right. Director Ron Minkoff revealed in a 2014 interview with Projector And Orchestra that the first version of the song was called, “He’s Got It All Worked Out,” “which was a similar idea, but Timon was singing about how Pumbaa had mastered the idea of taking it easy.” Another early version was called “Warthog Rhapsody,” a song that shared lyrical and melodic ideas with “Hakuna Matata” and eventually appeared on Rhythm Of The Pride Lands, a Lion King sequel album released in 1995.

The turning point came when Rice looked to Disney’s past for inspiration, as Minkoff recalled, “We ended up in a big meeting with Tim, trying to figure out what the new song was going to be about. Tim said, ‘What we should really have is like a ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’ [a beloved song from the Cinderella soundtrack]. Roger, who had been in Africa on a research trip, said, ‘There’s this great expression – Hakuna Matata.’ Tim said, ‘That’s a good idea. Sounds good. Rolls off the tongue.’ So he went off and wrote a new lyric, sent it to Elton, and Elton wrote a new demo.”

Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo (from Cinderella)

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The team knew they had it. “Hakuna Matata” is a phrase in Swahili, a common language spoken throughout Kenya and Tanzania, that means “no worries” – the ideal motto for Timon and Pumbaa. John wrote a jaunty, catchy melody to accompany Rice’s witty lyrics. Finishing touches were applied by composer Mark Mancina.

Hakuna Matata (from The Lion King)

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“Hakuna Matata” was a highlight of The Lion King and became much loved in its own right. It was nominated for Best Song at the 1995 Academy Awards but lost out to “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” not a bad result for John and Rice. Writing about the song in Me, John was typically wry, “At the risk of being big-headed, I’m pretty sure that in a list of the greatest songs ever written about warthogs who fart a lot, mine would come in somewhere near the top.” But the singer was clearly proud of the film, later telling Rolling Stone, “The Lion King changed my life. “It gave me the opportunity to write for the stage. It gave me more strings to my bow. Up until that point, I was just doing records, videos, and touring. Of course, nobody knew it was going to be this big. I’m so proud to be involved in it, and I have Tim Rice to thank for it.”

Listen to The Lion King soundtrack on Spotify or Apple Music now.

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