Released during the era of the Disney Renaissance (1989-1999), The Lion King (1994) was the studio’s first animated film to feature an original story, as its previous films were all based on pre-existing stories. However, writers Irene Mecchi (Brave), Jonathan Roberts (Monsters, Inc.), and Linda Woolverton (Maleficent) took inspiration for the plot of The Lion King from classic sources, including the biblical tales of Joseph and Moses.
The Old Testament’s Book of Genesis features the story of Joseph, the overconfident young son of Jacob. His ten older brothers, aware that he is their father’s favorite, conspire against Joseph and sell him to slave traders, telling Jacob that his favorite son was mauled to death by a wild animal.
Like Joseph, Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick) is his father’s pride and joy. Although the young lion has no siblings to contend with - he is the only son of the the lion king Mufasa (James Earl Jones) - he unknowingly attracts the envy of his uncle, Scar, who lusts after the throne. As a young cub, Simba sings “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”, not knowing the troubles of his future position, which will necessitate the death of his father. After Scar (Jeremy Irons) kills Mufasa and orders the three hyenas to kill his nephew, Simba - like Joseph - goes into exile from his homeland and is long believed to be dead.
Once Joseph finds himself in Egypt, he is sold to Potiphar, one of the Pharaoh’s officers. Things then get even worse for the biblical figure when he is imprisoned for being falsely accused of advances towards his master’s wife. But Joseph is later released from prison and rewarded with overseeing the lands of Egypt when he deciphers a troubling yet prophetic dream of the Pharaoh’s, thus protecting the nation from famine and starvation.
Simba's homeland faces a similar threat to its prosperity. Under the leadership of Scar, whose new social policies place all of nature's creatures on equal footing with the lions (even the preying hyenas), the Pride Lands go through a miserable period of devastation and starvation. All vegetation dries up, echoing the years of Egyptian famine prophecied by the Pharoah's dream. It is only after Simba returns to de-throne his uncle and take his rightful place as king that the region can return to its glory days. Likewise, Joseph ends up in a position of power that allows him to punish his brothers and be reunited with his father, restoring order to the land and prosperity to his family.
The Lion King also displays elements of the story of Moses in the Book of Exodus. Anyone who seen The Ten Commandments (1956) knows that Moses is sent adrift in a basket on the Nile by his mother, Jochbeded (or Yochabel, as Cecile B. DeMille’s film refers to her), when the Pharaoh orders the deaths of all firstborn Hebrew males.
After traveling down (in the film version) the world’s longest river, Moses is taken in by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah. Having lost her husband, the Egyptian princess has given up hope of having a child, so she raises Moses as her own. Moses matures and gains a respectable place in Egyptian society.
Similarly, Simba, after escaping the clutches of Scar’s band of hyenas, soon finds himself in the company of Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), who teach the young cub their hippie-like philosophy of life. Like Moses, Simba finds a peaceful place to live with his adopted family. For the time being.
But both the adopted prince and the young lion find their comfortable situations interrupted when the injustices oppressing their peoples are revealed through supernatural means: God speaks to Moses through a burning bush on Mount Horeb, while Mufasa speaks to Simba through the night stars overlooking the African outback.
From that point on, the stories differ. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, parts the Red Sea and gets his Ten Commandments, while Simba retakes Pride Rock from his evil uncle and rebuilds the kingdom. But both fulfill their pre-ordained destinies by rescuing their peoples from oppressive rule.