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Non-Review Review: The Lion King

You said you’d always be there for me! … But you’re not.

– Simba rages at the heavens

The Lion King is my favourite Disney film. I don’t know if I could argue that it’s objectively the best or anything like that, as I imagine that there are a lot of external factors that contribute to making a person’s favourite Disney films – most of which are matters of timing, with the film appearing at “just the right time”, to borrow a cliché. I was seven years old when the film was first released, but I don’t believe that I saw it in the cinema (hence my trip to the cinema to see it on re-release), so perhaps I was eight or nine when I first caught Disney’s adaptation of Hamlet. It’s a dodgy proposition revisiting something you loved as a child, as there’s a risk that the finished product won’t quite live up to your memories of it – perhaps because you say it differently through younger eyes, or because time has marched on, or because you’ve become too cynical. So, I was taking a considerable risk as the theatre went dark, wondering if perhaps I had made a mistake.

I hadn’t. Sometimes some things areas good as you remember them.

"The fault, dear Simba, lies not in our stars... but in ourselves..."

To be honest, and to get this out of the way at the outset, because there’s so much more I want to talk about, I didn’t really care one way or the other about the 3D. I realise that it’s a necessary evil, and a way of turning the release into the event, but I didn’t really notice it too much. It wasn’t cheap or intrusive, but it wasn’t breathtaking. There were maybe a handful of moments where I really noticed the depth – scenes where characters move from background to foreground (there’s a lot of pouncing) or where objects float (whether on water or the breeze). I didn’t really notice that much – it didn’t add to the experience, but it didn’t take away from it. Then again, I wasn’t paying to see it in 3D. I was paying to see it in the cinema.

That said, the team of Disney look to have done a great job restoring it and making sure the production is top notch. Technology has moved on a lot since 1994, and the fact that the film matched the quality of the one playing in my nostalgia-tinted memory is a testament to the loving care put into it. I know that there was actually no physical way that it sounded as good as I remember it sounding when I first saw it, especially on a television set. Similarly the picture quality matches the depth and rich colour of my own internal reproduction of the movie, which was clearly beyond an old battered VHS to deliver back in the day. It’s rare that something you loved is as good as you remember it, and the restoration team deserve a lot of credit for their work.

The son also rises...

Then again, it’s worth considering what they were restoring. I mentioned at the start that The Lion King is my favourite Disney movie, and that it had something to do with the age I was when I first saw it. The “Disney Renaissance” featured any number of animated classics – The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast among countless others (let the debate wage over Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) – but I think The Lion King worked for me because it was a quintessential coming-of-age tale.

Indeed, giving the lead role to Matthew Broderick (forever associated with the child who refused to grow up in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) is the perfect piece of meta-casting, underscoring the central themes of the film. As much as we might have loved Ferris and his philosophy (which has more than a passing resemblance to “hakuna matata”), everybody has to grow up sometime, and The Lion King works so well because it captures the lessons we need to learn, both about the world around us and about ourselves.

Timone grabs some grub...

The lesson that Simba has to learn is disguised in “the circle of life”, but it’s not necessarily the circle of life itself. The concept of perpetual stability is a very important thing for anybody to come to terms with, but it really only serves as a vehicle for the more fundamental lesson that Simba has to grapple with. The idea that life and death are linked in an eternal circle – one feeding into the other in cosmic harmony – underscores the frightening realisation that every child faces when they reach a certain age: their parents won’t be there forever. It’s a terrifying thought, and one that forms the cornerstone of the movie.

“We’re pals, right?” Simba asks his father during one playful session. Chuckling, full of the joys of life, Mufasa responds, “Right.” Simba, without even realising the significance of what he’s asking, follows up with, “And we’ll always be together, right?” This isn’t a question that Mufasa knows how to answer, because he’s not sure Simba’s ready to face the possibility, even though he’s able to formulate the question. Try to fight back a tear when he’s unable to face the obvious as he stumbles across his father’s limp and lifeless body. “Dad? … Dad, come on. You gotta get up. Dad. We gotta go home.” Unable to fathom what has occurred, Simba tries to push himself into his father’s embrace, as if pantomiming fatherly love might resurrect his dad. “You said you’d always be there for me!” a fully grown Simba admonishes the phantom of his father, “But you’re not.”

Pride of Africa...

Reportedly the death of Bambi’s mother left such a scar on the national psyche that Disney banned the (relatively) graphic on-screen deaths of parents in their films, with Mufasa serving as a rare exception to the rule. Indeed, I think that the aftermath of Mufasa’s death is one of the bleakest few minutes in any Disney film, not only because Simba is alone, but because (thanks to the manipulations of Scar) he blames himself for the death of his father. Thank heavens that the plucky comic relief arrive when they do!

However, watching the film now, there’s an even crueller irony to that sequence, which really only dawns on me now. Simba feels responsible for his father’s death because he believes his roar summoned the herd that trampled Mufasa to death, but it’s Mufasa who tried to instill a sense of responsibility in Simba for the animal kingdom around him. “There’s more to being king than getting your way all the time,” Mufasa advises his son. “As king, you need to understand that balance, and respect all the creatures.” Mufasa is trying to teach his son that the king exists to balance and protect his kingdom, and Simba does seem to take the lesson to heart. When Simba is ambushed by the hyenas, he seems shocked that his father was afraid for him – that even a king worried about the safety of his family. “I guess even kings get scared, huh?”Simba observes, genuinely awed. It’s no wonder that Simba inherited the sense of responsibility from his father.

Solid like a rock...

While the “hakuna matata” moral that Timone and Pumba instill in the kid doesn’t represent an ideal way for an adult to live their life, the weight of responsibility that Mufasa taught to his son is no way for a child to live either. I think the complexity of the movie really jumped out at me again this time – it’s easy to discuss the father-son dynamic in terms of Simba and Mufasa, but that really misses one of the core points of the film. Simba must learn to make his own way, taking onboard philosophies from all walks of life, including the weight of responsibility passed down from his father, and the capacity to forgive himself espoused by Timone and Pumba. Although the film sees Simba reconcile himself with his father, he becomes his own man.

“You are more than what you have become,” Mufasa’s ghost advises him. “You must take your place in the Circle of Life.” Note that he doesn’t suggest that his son replace him – he asks only that Simba take his own place, rather than stepping into a void left by his father. Although Simba owns up to his inheritance, he does so with the help and support of his surrogate family, built up around him. Assuming his role on Pride Rock, Simba stands side-by-side with Timone and Pumba, not ignoring what he learned from them, either. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and it’s telling that Simba is guided on his quest by so many figures – from his father to the two surrogate parents who take him in to the trickster baboon, Rafiki. As much as the film as about the relationship between Simba and his father, it’s also about the child learning to definehimself and his own identity.

The mane event!

Timone and Pumba are two of the more interesting comic relief characters in Disney films. I’d argue that they’re one of the most wonderful depictions of a same-sex parenting couple that I have ever seen. I don’t want to get drawn into a debate over their sexuality, but the pair are partners in the truest sense of the word, sharing a life. They sleep together, for crying out loud. I don’t care about their sexuality or anything like that, because we’ll never get an answer on that and it’s immaterial. All that matters is that they complete one another, and it’s sweet. Neither makes a decision independently, with Pumba pleading with Timone, “Can we keep him?” They’re like a family adopting a pet. Even when Simba arrives, it’s very clear that the dynamic is different – Simba isn’t an equal partner in the relationship like Timone and Pumba. They’re a family, but Timone and Pumba are more of a couple. When the trio are discussing the stars in the sky, Timone and Pumba seem to put forward what can only be described as “a joint front.” Pumba tries to coax the lion to share with them, “Well, come on, Simba, we told you ours… pleeeease?”

Timone and Pumba are outcasts. They’re disenfranchised, even among the animal kingdom. The hyenas might be bitter about being exiled from “the circle of life”, but Timone and Pumba cope in their own way, refusing to give into bitterness. “When the world turns its back on you,” Timone suggests, “you turn your back on the world.” Live and let live. Hell, they even shun and mock the spirituality that so many take for granted (“you mean a bunch of royal dead guys are watching us?”), which probably contributes to their status as exiles. While Mufasa taught the kid too much responsibility, this couple teach him too little. But they love him, and they teach a poor and frightened kid what he needs to learn in order to live with himself. What could be wrong with that?

Lion down...

You get the sense that they are surrogate parents, and that they’re more than a little insecure about their status – perhaps because they don’t feel that they have any “blood” ties to the kid. Timone and Pumba might act like they don’t care, but they feel genuine trepidation when they discover Simba has gone home to his “real” family. “Gone back?” Timone asks, “What do you mean?” Even the song Can You Feel The Love Tonight? betrays the insecurity that they’ll somehow lose their adopted child, if to a girlfriend, a perfect stand-in for the sorts of parental anxieties we saw in the Toy Story films. “I can see what’s happening,” Timone sings, “and they don’t have a clue. They’ll fall in love and here’s the bottom line: our trio’s down to two.”

And yet, despite all that, the two stand by Simba no matter what. They don’t think much of Pride Rock (deeming it “a fixer-upper”), but there’s something genuinely sweet in Timone’s observation, “Well, Simba, if it’s important to you, we’re with you to the end.” Despite Timone’s insecurity about Simba’s royal blood and, thus, his biological family (Timone tries to stop Pumba from “gravelling” at the prince’s feet, insisting “he’s not the king”), the pair go to great lengths, risking their lives for their adopted son. It’s fitting that, even after he assumes his rightful position, Timone and Pumba aren’t forgotten about or discarded like convenient plot points. They stand with him on the rock.

Oh, brother!

And then there’s Scar. Scar is probably my favourite Disney villain. Sure, he’s not the most physically threatening, nor is he the most evil. He isn’t especially clever when measured against some of the more memorable Disney foes. However, I’d argue that he is the most fundamentally tragic, and simultaneously the most despicable. “What have you done, Simba?” he asks, approaching his brother’s dead body, and proceeds to blame the young child for the death of the king. He doesn’t kill the child personally (even the off-hand “kill him” command he gives to the hyenas seems like an after-thought), but he does foist responsibility for a horrible act on to the shoulders of this young boy, after throwing his own brother to his death. That’s pretty bad, even by the standard of Disney villains. “Run away, Simba. Run… Run away and never return.”

And yet, Scar remains pathetic throughout. His reign isn’t tyrannical or evil, but it is incompetent. He’s just not cut out to be king, failing to understand the necessary balance, and hunting the pridelands to the point where the ecosystem seems on the verge of collapse. Although he spends the first half of the movie as an outcast, much like Simba spends the other half, it’s interesting to contrast their approaches. Simba forms a meaningful relationship with two creatures cast out of the “circle”, while Scar simply tries to exploit another disenfranchised group. The very fact that the hyenas exist outside the circle of life, a grouping that includes lions and giraffes and gazelles, hints at some form of inequity beneath the shiny surface, and it’s easy to see why they’d feel frustrated.

Zebra crossing!

There’s something very tragic about Scar. Given the movie’s exploration of the relationships between fathers and sons, it’s interesting to contemplate what made Scar the way that he is. Somebody gave Scar that distinctive mark on the side of his face, and Mufasa seems to actually care for – and even pity – his brother. Why else would Mufasa tolerate such an obvious malcontent with his eye on the throne? On one level, Mufasa is consciously aware of his brother’s malformed character, but he also seems to harbour a belief that there’s a decent individual inside. There’s a moment when Mufasa realises that his brother conspired to assassinate him, and the look in the king’s eyes is heartbreaking. He knew Scar was broken, but he somehow believed that his brother was better than this.

Scar seems particular disdainful of Simba. On one level, the reason is obvious: Simba is now next-in-line to the throne. However, when Scar exploits Simba’s love of his father to lure him into an ambush, notice the sheer venom with which Scar expels the words, “This is just for you and your daddy. You know, a sort of… father-son… thing.” It seems that the concept of a “father-son… thing” is alien to Scar. Earlier on, when arguing with Mufasa, Scar concedes, with a hint of self-hatred, “When it comes to brute strength… I’m afraid I’m at the shallow end of the gene pool.”Given that lions are known for their brute strength, it’s easy to imagine that proving quite the disadvantage for the son of a king.

Scar was always the sharp one...

It’s easy to draw these strands together to create an image of Scar’s childhood. Not only was he second-born, he was also scrawny. It’s easy to imagine his father neglecting him – consciously or otherwise – and that feeding into the poor child’s inferiority complex. I suspect he resents Simba as much for the relationship he has with his father as for the obstacle he poses on the path to the throne. It would also explain why Scar can hate Mufasa so much (seeing him as a rival who had everything handed to him on birth) and why Mufasa has pity on his flawed brother (guilt over the fact he monopolised paternal affection). Naturally, it’s all a bit of a leap, but it’s fun to think of such things.

And, like Claudius in Hamlet, Scar finds no peace in his victory. He’s haunted by Mufasa, banning the king’s very name in his kingdom. “You know the law: Never, ever mention THAT name in my presence,” he warns his subjects. “I… am… the KING!” When Simba returns to take back the throne, Scar doesn’t see the nephew he framed, but the brother he killed. “Mufasa? No. You’re dead.” Simba’s mother makes the same mistake, but she’d just been bashed across the head. I think that’s a large part of why Scar is so compelling: he gets everything he claims to want, and he’s still unsatisfied. All while Simba is able to find inner harmony eating bugs in the middle of nowhere with two unconventional parents.

On the prowl...

The set pieces in the film are superb, and they look as good now as they ever did. The elephant’s graveyard is one of the most atmospheric settings I have seen in a Disney film, and Be Prepared is my favourite Disney song – borrowing from Riefenstahl was unnerving, even to my younger self without a knowledge of German history. The other sequences hold up well. I adore the bright pop-art design of I Just Can’t Wait to be King, calling to mind African fabric designs and Circle of Life is one of my favourite Disney “theme” songs, right up there with When You Wish Upon a Star.

The cast is uniformly fantastic. Jeremy Irons steals the show as Scar, but the casting of James Earl Jones as Mufasa is inspired. If casting Matthew Broderick taps into a generation watching Ferris finally grow up, then giving James Earl Jones the role of Mufasa finally allows Darth Vader to be a real father. Even outside of the performances, there’s a wonderful way that the meld Jones’ voice with the growl of a lion, to create something that sounds truly formidable.

By the way, and I’m not quite sure what I make of it, but I find it fascinating that – in a movie dominated by father-son relationships – the female characters manage to be so strong. Despite the fact that Simba never seems to miss his mother (who, admittedly, didn’t die in front of him), it’s the lionesses who back up Simba’s bid to reclaim the throne. Nala is always stronger than Simba, both as a cub and as a grown-up. Even the hyenas are led by a dominant female. I’m fairly sure that there’s been a lot written about the role of gender in The Lion King, but I like the idea that the female characters form the basis of efficient animal society (“it’s the lionesses’ job to do the hunting,”Scar suggests, trying to absolve himself of the responsibilities of being ruler), while all the men are caught up in their petty feuds and bitter skirmishes.

Now who's laughing?

The Lion King is my favourite Disney film. I’m not quite sure I did it justice, but I was just delighted to get a chance to see it on the big screen after all these years.

7 Responses

  1. Very interesting review, especially the point about Timone and Pumba being same-sex surrogate parents.

    To be honest, I never bought the comparison of Lion King and Hamlet. They’re so radically different in every way other than they both have a usurping uncle. Hamlet’s motivations, including resenting being displaced by a more alpha-male in terms of both power and his mother’s love, seem pretty unrelated to Simba’s coming of age story.

    • Yep, I think the Hamlet comparison is an easy one to make with the father/uncle/son thing, and I imagine that’s why it has caught on. There various other similarities between the tale though, ones that are more closely linked with basic plot than key themes (the protagonist’s father’s ghost for example, or the two quirky friends, even though both examples play out decidedly differently). I think the Lion King is infinitely simplified and even “Disney-fied”, but but it’s arguably no more or less dissimilar than any other classic tale that inspired a Disney film. I imagine the producers confirming the inspiration has also led the comparison to catch on.

  2. The 3D conversion, while it looked great, was entirely unnecessary. I’d say a sound argument for Lion King as the best Disney film could be made. I’d say “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “the Beast” take top honors, however.

    My personal favorite, “The Black Cauldron” is certainly not the best but it’s wonderfully atypical for Disney.

    • Is The Black Cauldron good? I’ve never seen it, and it seems to have a definite “cult” thing going on among the Disney canon.

  3. I find it interesting that one animated movie raises so many issues that are still part of the society. Same sex couples, kids without dads/moms, racial differences etc. It’s like animations teach us more than other movies. I love Lion King as well, my first Disney movie I saw.. And watching it again as a grown up I thought that I must have learned something from it – balance of life. Really enjoyed your post and a great blog!

  4. Love your blog, but just wanted to point out that he is called ‘Mufasa’, not ‘Mustafa’ :p

    • Fair point. I’ll correct that now!

      (I had a friend in Ghana named Mustafa, so that’s probably where the association came from.)

      Cheers!

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