Why has "The Lion King" inspired so much fanfiction compared to other Disney movies?
(my rambling thoughts on reasons for the existence of the large body of TLK fanfiction)
The inspiration for this essay has gradually developed as I have moved deeper into TLK fandom. Watching random videos on YouTube one day, I stumbled across some The Lion King clips, and watched the original movie for the first time in years. I then noticed links to approximately 10 billion related videos, and after watching some, realized that The Lion King has multitudes of devoted fans. This lead me to search for TLK fanfiction, of which I have now read what I estimate to be multiple thousands of pages (much to the detriment of my academic endeavors), which has in turn driven me to actually set up a profile on a Lion King-themed website and write this essay.
Looking in as an outside observer, I was somewhat puzzled by the large amounts of TLK fanfiction in existence compared to that for other Disney films. (Although I have no hard data to back it up, internet search results would seem to indicate that TLK and TLK 2 have some of the largest fan bases, measured by the number of sites and amount of fanfiction dedicated to the films, of any animated films, and almost certainly one of the largest and most active fan bases for films released 15 and 11 years ago.) After looking at the films analytically, I have decided that TLK lends itself readily to fanfiction primarily due to the self-contained nature of the universe created in the films, the anthropomorphic nature of the characters, and the very lack of canonical information on anything not explicitly shown in the films, rather than due to the plot and characters.
Dont get me wrong, TLK and TLK 2 have great plots and lovable characters, and I enjoy watching the films. If I werent a fan, I wouldnt be writing this. That being said, both films are based on Shakespeare plays and were produced for a primary audience of young children, and thus make use of classic character archetypes (the scheming relative, the wise father, the avenging son, the independent-minded daughter, the mistrusted lover, etc.), and have fairly standard, twist-free plots similar to those in many other films. (Realistically, after watching the first 30 minutes of TLK 2, did anyone doubt that Kovu and Kiara would fall in love? Did anyone doubt Simba would have a hard time accepting this? No, of course not, what we were interested in was how it would happen.)
However, other aspects of the films really create a perfect environment for fanfiction writing. Almost singly among Disneys animated films, TLK is based on an original plot (the Kimba the White Lion controversy and the influence of Hamlet aside) rather than a classic story or fairy tale and is not pegged down to any geographical location (other than a single mention of Africa, in the song I Just Cant Wait to Be King) or time period (i.e., medieval China, medieval France, early colonial America, etc.), and thus manages to create a fictional universe of its own. While I dont mean to suggest that Disney portrays their settings with the utmost accuracy, fanfiction writers for other Disney films are forced to consider whether their proposed plot is at least somewhat plausible in the given setting, whereas TLK fans are provided with a self-contained, if ill-defined, universe in which the writer determines what is possible and what is not.
This ability is greatly enhanced by the anthropomorphic nature of the characters. Although the characters are all shown to have human-like emotions, thoughts, and desires (there wouldnt be much of a movie if they didnt), they are also shown to hunt and live in a pride like real lions. Different writers can thus choose to incorporate aspects of real leonine society, and build their stories around such things as the banishment of young males or threats to the pride from other such rogue males, or to de-emphasize this and focus on human-like love and war/action plotlines.
This freedom of choice in writing ultimately derives from the very lack of canonical information given regarding the universe outside of the films. Other than confirming the names of Mufasas and Scars mother (Uru), father (Ahadi), and paternal grandfather (Mohatu), Disney has not provided any genealogical information for any of the characters, revealed any information about the customs or history of the Pride Rock pride, given any geography of the Lion King universe, or given any information regarding the pre- or post-film lives of its characters. (Compare this with the universe of J. R. R. Tolkiens The Lord of the Rings, which is described by maps and hundreds of pages of notes briefly describing events and people not mentioned in the main trilogy. In my opinion, the producers of The Lion King considered it simply another one of Disneys animated films, none of which really developed viable universes of their own.) Given this almost absolute lack of information, TLK fanfiction writers are able to develop their own theories as to what happens next/what happened before/what happened elsewhere/what happened to ______, with the only authority being public criticism and popularity. As each fan naturally has a different opinion as to what would make the best storyline, hundreds of TLK universes have developed in fanfiction, with the number being limited only by the number of new plot ideas.