Revisiting The Lion King seventeen years after its original release, it is easy to see why it captured the imagination of audiences at the time. The operatic story of king-to-be lion cub Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas), whose father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) is murdered by Simba’s uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons), draws on centuries of classic mythology from the Bible to Shakespeare, most notably Hamlet. The animation still looks fresh and expressive, most of the songs still resonate and the comic relief provided by the comedy duo meerkat Timon (Nathan Lane) and warthog Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) is still very funny. It is also a film with a deeply disturbing ideology where rule by birthright and might is presented as acceptable within the film’s odd Zen/Darwinist Circle of Life philosophy.
The Lion King is part of a long tradition in Walt Disney feature animation films of unquestioningly accepting monarchical rule, where power and privilege is hereditary and seen as just. The villains in such films are those who would undermine such conventions, as is the case in The Lion King with Scar who is denied his chance to be king when Simba is born. While such notions seem to contradict the fiercely republican values of the American audiences the films are principally made for, Disney has always distanced itself from its monarchist values by associating those values as belonging to fantasy lands or foreign countries, usually within Europe. In this way the mythology can be enjoyed without being too close to home. Then again, the plutocratic attitudes exalted by many contemporary neo-conservative Americans suggest that desiring a society ruled by the wealthy is not a completely foreign concept.
In The Lion King the Pride Lands are ruled by Mufasa, who is brave and wise and good because he is the rightful king (and not the other way around). In the scene after Mufasa rescues Simba, by effectively invading the hyenas’ territory, he instructs Simba about the necessity of only being brave when required. In almost the same breath the pair then joke about how big and strong Mufasa is. It’s a remarkable combination of moralising and muscle flexing used to justify the might is right philosophy of the film. This is further established by the classic trope of Mufasa being the good brother for getting the brawn while Scar is the evil brother for getting the brains. This paradigm is presented as part of the natural order (the lion is the king of the beasts after all) with the later scenes showing the lands in decay when Scar deviates from the natural order by becoming king through cunning, albeit evil cunning, rather than birthright. The final touch is the inclusion of Rafiki (Robert Guillaume), the shaman mandrill, who represents divine approval on this ‘natural order’ of inherited privilege and benevolent dictatorship.
While the core ideology behind The Lion King is extremely problematic and stands out even more today than it did in 1994, there is still much to admire about the film. Simba begins as a likeably rebellious character and remains an engaging protagonist once he grows up into a long maned slacker adult lion, to then be voiced by Matthew Broderick. Rather than seeking revenge, his character arc is to accept his responsibility. Social order is established through violence, but reluctantly so. In terms of narrative construction, the sequence involving Mufasa’s death followed by Simba’s mourning and Scar’s tormenting is unexpectedly powerful. Disney films have used the death of a parent before to advance the story, most notably in Bambi (1942), but the sense of heightened tragedy in The Lion King is potent. The film then brilliantly introduces Timon and Pumbaa to lift the mood at precisely the right moment.
The songs have mostly held up well. ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’ and ‘Be Prepared’ are completely forgettable, but ‘Hakuna Matata’ is fun and as Disney love ballads go, ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight’ delivers exactly what it should. However, it’s the appropriation of traditional African music in the score and the song ‘Circle of Life’ that really distinguishes the music. The music contributes significantly to the stirring bookend scenes that open and close the film.
Don’t despair that this release seems to have occurred as a result of the film now being converted from 2D into 3D, a move that is only slightly less objectionable as colourising black-and-white films. Selected cinemas are screening restored prints in the original 2D format and seeing the film in this way does convey the wonderful craftsmanship involved in the animation. The early use of computer animation blends seamlessly in with the traditional drawn and cel animation to convey intense moments of spectacle and to finely render intimate character detail. This is a beautiful and expressive film.
The Lion King is still an excellent entry in Disney’s comeback in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The unfortunate questionable values at least offer a good post-viewing conversation point about how popular culture shapes ideology. If that’s too strenuous then instead attempt to figure out the original relationship between Simba and his mate Nala (voiced by Niketa Calame and Moira Kelly). Apart from Mufasa and Scar do we ever see any other adult male lions? Could Nala therefore be Simba’s half-sister or cousin? Keep in mind that royal families were often very incestuous.