The Lion King: A Subversive Masterpiece

I always have a number of topics/ideas in drafts and this is one I’ve probably had for the longest time. I usually get around to them eventually and the fact that this has now been written is proof of that. As you shall see, it is a good time for me to complete it now. 

Disney has been out of ideas for a long time and if not for Pixar, it is hard to imagine that their animation studios would still exist today. They have been steadily remaking many of their better known animated movies as live-action spectacles. Most recently was Aladdin and July will see the release of The Lion King. These remakes are pointless at best, but they at least give a reason to look back at the original films.

The 1994 release of The Lion King was one of the most significant film events of my childhood. The other two would be the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Jurassic Park. I still remember going to see them and they are all films I still enjoy today. The equivalent for literature would be having books like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Secret Garden and The Magic Faraway Tree read to me by parents and teachers. As I observed with TMNT a little while back, viewing these films again as an adult gives you a knew appreciation. That is assuming they were made to be more than quick cash-grabs for children which these films were.

The Disney corporation has arguably always been insidious but it was only really in the latter half of the nineties that this really started to show. It is easy to forget that before what became known as their renaissance beginning with The Little Mermaid, the animation studios were in big trouble and could well have been closed. This has been pretty much the case for both Hanna-Barbera and the original Warner Bros. Studios; attempted remakes/reboots notwithstanding. While the corporation mostly gets by selling filth today; the profit motive once prevented them from doing this exclusively. This renaissance essentially peaked with The Lion King and whether intended or not, there is a lot more to the movie than I noticed as a child.

Growing up I had a very distorted vision of Africa. This was owed largely to the media I consumed which was conflicted.  One one side, you had World Vision advertisements featuring starving children living in huts and then there were films like The God’s Must Be Crazy. A big family favourite was Coming to America starring Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall. This movie featured the fictional African Kingdom of Zamunda with an obscenely indulgent yet benevolent royal family presiding over a peaceful and wealthy nation. It was not surprising for me that the King of Zamunda did the voice of the King of  Pride Rock in The Lion King. I came to associate James Earl Jones with Africa.

There is a lot of beauty and good in Africa but the reality is far from any of the fictional visions I was shown when I was young. Thankfully it is also not as bad as World Vision would have people believe either. What is largely missing from Africa, as in much of the world today is a sense of order and tradition. And these themes are strong in The Lion King.

The film’s famously moving opening was not merely the result of impressive new animation techniques combined with a rousing score. The audience was immediately introduced to an ordered and beautiful kingdom with a clear authority. Where the reigning king’s succession was made visible to all when he was anointed and held up before them. This was done without any of the lazy exposition present in most films today too. The audience – adults and children – knew all they needed to know about the Pride Lands before the film’s title screen was shown.

We are soon introduced to the young Simba, who is already aware of his inheritance but naturally completely ignorant of the responsibility that goes with it. We then meet his stern but loving father. Something to notice about Mufasa is the way he speaks to Simba. He takes his questions seriously and answers them directly, only simplifying them when necessary. Simba is not yet fully able to understand why his world is the way it is but his father doesn’t sow any early seeds of resentment by failing to take him seriously or lying to him. Mufasa is thus an excellent model of a father for children to see while their own may fall short.

Immediately following the title screen we are also shown the opposite of Mufasa manifest in his brother Scar. In contrast to Mufasa, Scar is idle, cynical and avoids his responsibilities. He isn’t direct in his speech and treats Simba as an ignorant fool. The exchange between Mufasa and Scar is effectively conveys this. Scar is passive-aggressive and though clearly feeling entitled to Mufasa’s position, is unwilling to directly challenge him. As we soon find out, he is a liar and a schemer too. Jeremy Irons who does his voice plays villains very well and I think this is one of his best performances. One might quibble with the such a stark portrayal of villainy but it is appropriate for a film aimed primarily at younger audiences.

Simba is tricked by Scar into disobeying his father and heading to the Elephant Graveyard. While he is certainly misled by Scar, it is still made clear to the audience that Simba chooses to disobey his father. Even when we know what is wrong, we may do it anyway and we have to take responsibility. Scar’s motive is of course to have Simba killed while avoiding the danger of being linked to the crime. Simba is trapped with his friend Nala by hyenas but saved by Mufasa. The way Mufasa deals with Simba’s disobedience following their rescue is worth reflecting on. He is certainly angry – and righteously so – and Simba is terrified: as he should be. Mufasa never flies into a rage or hits Simba though and he explains to him exactly why he is so disappointed with him. This is the last on-screen advice we see given to a young Simba by his father but though sped along, the audience can see that Simba is being properly brought up for the responsibilities he will one day inherit.

In the next few scenes we see Scar’s treachery result in the death of Mufasa and the exile of Simba. It is worth stopping here to contrast Simba with Aladdin, the protagonist of the previous major Disney release. Simba is led to believe he is responsible for his father’s death and genuinely thought he was at fault. He is mistaken and even if he were not, this guilt leads him entirely on the wrong path. Today, it is a little jarring to me the way this is resolved so suddenly in the climax but t it keeps with the necessarily truncated length of a children’s movie. Aladdin comes from the opposite background to Simba and presumably lost his father around the same age though I don’t recall this being mentioned in the film. Aladdin’s major fault as a character is the way he would lie shamelessly out of pride. This bothered me even when young to the point where I would say that I really don’t like the character. After discovering the Genie, Aladdin doesn’t have any problems that couldn’t be solved by being honest and the final act rushes on, taking away the character’s opportunity to overcome this. Aladdin hasn’t held up as well as The Lion King partially as a result of this.

Simba’s descent into sloth and nihilism is today a generally expected aspect of adolescence that I was certainly guilty of. This should not be assumed for all children though and had events followed the natural course, it is doubtful this would have happened to Simba. We are to infer that Simba is led astray not only by his bohemian friends but also to escape both the guilt he feels about his father and the responsibilities he knows he has as heir to the throne. As critics have observed, The Lion King owes a lot to Hamlet and this is certainly made apparent in the second and third acts of the film. The parallels with his uncle usurping the throne and his indecision are obvious though this being a Disney film, it naturally doesn’t end in tragedy.

At the same time as Simba’s exile we are shown the results of the disorder Scar’s rule has brought. It is hard not to be reminded (and I’m sure this was an influence), of the twentieth century despots who promised prosperity for all and delivered famine on a scale never before seen – even in ancient history. Scar’s rule shortly violated the order shown in the film’s opening and the kingdom becomes a wasteland.

I’ve seen jaded critics lazily compare this film to Bambi only with Lions or take issue with its similarity to Kimber the White Lion. I have never watched Kimber but it seems very likely it was a heavy influence on the film. I would argue though that there is more in The Lion King than those criticisms alone would allow.

One aspect that is a common topic for me is that of immigration. In the globalised world we inhabit, the idea of borders and nations are not generally taken seriously by the elite. Mufasa’s earliest action as king that the audience sees is dealing with a border incursion by hyenas. He immediately responds to this and leaves his son with Zazu to do so. Scar uses the hyenas to usurp power and allows them to flood the Pride Lands which destroys the food supply. Whether in the natural world or in any civilisation, an influx of invaders will destroy the order that exists. One wonders if this aspect of the film will be toned down in the remake as the comparison with the real world experience – especially in the United States – might cut too close. In the West, the population is essentially denied control over their nation’s borders. Rule is arbitrary though still drawing legitimacy under the guise of what was the legitimate order.

The wider theme explored is the fragility of civilisation in general. Conflict in a lot of literature is order being broken and restored in the climax. This is the general structure of The Lion King. We are shown the ordered kingdom, that order is shattered and the protagonist has to restore that order. Part of that order is the notion of leadership as service and not merely as power. This is something Mufasa is seen trying to teach Simba. “There’s more to being king than getting your way all the time.” There is also a higher, religious aspect to all this which Mufasa describes using the stars. The stars are said to be the great kings of the past and though the audience may not believe this, Mufasa gives no indication that he does not. There is the idea present of kingly power being instituted from above and not merely the result of the competition for power we witness today in election cycles. Simba’s role as king exists regardless of whether he wants it or not. It is divinely ordered and something he abandons at his and his nation’s peril.

This order is also found in the gender roles. Although Nala is portrayed as spunky and strong female character, the females in the film are still subject to the males. From what I understand about lions, the females are strong and do hunt so lions are not directly comparable to a human society but males are still dominant in both – if rightly ordered. Nala herself wants Simba to take charge and lead despite her independent streak. One could again contrast Aladdin, where Princess Jasmine insists on having things her way – something that certainly would not have been tolerated in Persian society of that time.

The Lion King is also something of a coming of age story. As observed before, Simba falls into an adolescence that is all too typical today. However he is shown the emptiness of his adopted philosophy by Rafiki who is a mixture of priest and philosopher. Mufasa’s apparition after Simba sees his father in his reflection was perhaps too literal but helpful to the younger audience. And in a world where the spiritual world is abandoned or ignored, it is arguable a more welcome addition than it was the at time.

For a twenty five year old children’s film, The Lion King is a lot deeper than I ever see it given credit. Even when compared more simply to the other big Disney films of the time such as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. These two films along with Aladdin tone down the themes of their inspiration that would unsettle but are still beneficial to the young audience watching. The Lion King on the other hand shows death, destruction, suffering and redemption while still managing to include the light-hearted moments and quirky characters you expect in children’s films. It is one of those films that one has to wonder how these themes got in and whether many will survive in the remake.

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