Posted January 3, 2011 by editor in Retrospectives

Disney: The Lion King

With the famous opening voice of Lebo Morake against that red rising sun, Africa’s ordered and idyllic setting comes to life with all the colours of the food chain. The animal kingdom joins together in the common cause that binds all of their lives together: the “Presentation” ceremony of Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick), the newborn lion-cub and future king of the animals; the only son of Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Sarabi (Madge Sinclair). Whilst everyone knows the famous image of the young prince being stretched out in the hands of the shamanistic Rafiki (a mandrill-baboon voiced by Robert Guillaume), less remembered is the reaction to all this commotion on little Simba’s face. At first it could be cast off as mere childish incomprehension of the enormity of importance of the event taking place. Yet behind the innocent and pure look of incredulity lays the fear present in every watching human being who has been thrust into this world, set in their place, given their label, and told to keep turning that very wheel called “the circle of life”.

And there it is, what The Lion King, and Disney when at its best, do so magnificently: they deal with human behaviour through narrative in a way no narrative has since Shakespeare, and before that the Bible. It comes as no surprise then to learn that the story finds its inspiration in both the biblical stories of Joseph and Moses, and the Shakespeare classic Hamlet. However, the allusions aren’t restricted to the storyline. Like a Shakespeare play, there are scenes of high drama juxtaposed with base comedy; the scene that follows Simba’s escape from the chasing hyenas after Mufasa’s death (the most heart-wrenching scene in the whole film) is our introduction to the clowns of the films, Timon and Pumbaa.

Up to a point the film has an epic quality, in the sense that it tells a masterfully executed heroic story of great emotion and passion; the exposition and conflict is drawn up seamlessly, with any possibility of incongruence being swiftly avoided (such as near the beginning when Scar nearly eats Zazu, only to be rescued by Mufasa’s superbly timed entrance). Indeed the reds, oranges and yellows of Mufasa’s rein over “Pride lands” then get washed away with the pathetic fallacy of rain casting dark times ahead under Scar’s leadership, where the lions are forced to co-inhabit with the hyenas. All that is left towards the end is a grey wasteland no livelier than the hyenas’ original “elephant graveyard”.

However, the scenes with Timon and Pumbaa seem to put a dampener on this epicness and it seems to me that therein lays the misalignment of Disney’s 32nd Animated Classic. It’s not because they are comedic: witty dialogue and action is present before they even enter. It’s not because they sing: other characters sing songs before them. Rather, I would suggest it is the manner in which their scenes are carried out. For example, in “Hakuna Matata” the characters break the fourth wall with the line “not in front of the kids” gesturing the audience as Simba stairs the ‘camera’ in its face, not to mention the ‘spotlight’ that appears during the song, and the following montage as Simba goes from cub to teenager to adult, and bops as he gets choreographed off the screen. Unfortunately it doesn’t end there, as towards the end Timon and Pumbaa put on a “hula dance” as a distraction… now really? It seems altogether too crude. The element of Timon and Pumbaa is too loud and boisterous, and I can’t help feeling that their presence is merely to entertain the kids. In which case it’s as I feared: Disney sold out for the kids.

On the other hand, I guess it’s fair enough. At least it means this film can say it has something for all the family. Also in that sense it compares to Shakespeare: the Adults are the gentry and nobility who can appreciate the deeper themes, and the Children are the groundlings who need that smart-meerkat/dumb-warthog dynamic to keep them entertained. To be fair, some of the funniest dialogue comes from this pair in the form of wordplay (a trait no less inherited from Uncle Bill than any other). For example when Timon and Pumbaa joking with Simba:

“What’s eatin’ ya?” – “Nothin’ he’s at the top of the food chain!”
“Hakuna Matata! That’s our motto.” – “What’s a motto?” – “Nothing, what’s a motto with you?”

I would say that one reason for the Lion King being the highest grossing hand drawn animation film in history (having raked in $783 million worldwide during its release in 1994) is due to its animalistic portrayals combined with the inescapably human ones, such as when Simba and Nala fight as adult lions, only to be talking moments later when they realise who each other is. The characters of The Lion King have a perfect ratio of animal to human in them. Its anthropomorphic nature is not complicated by the presence of actual humans like other Disney classics, which ironically allows deeper empathy for the animal characters. When an emotional moment does come— such as with the death of Mufasa— although we feel sad in that moment for this young son who has lost his father, we are reminded of “the circle of life” to which all animals are subject. Furthermore, in a sense Disney prepared us for this with its last feature, Aladdin. Aladdin largely stripped down the anthropomorphic nature of its non-human characters. The Magic Carpet tells so much without saying a word, Abu the monkey only speaking through high pitched squeals and Raja the tiger through grizzly grunts. Iago is the main exception, but he is a parrot— an animal who in reality is known for ‘talking’.

In reality, whatever I think of this film, it truly is one of those pieces that speaks for itself. Not least in the multitude of awards  it received (notably two Oscars)or the legacy it leaves behind. Its songs (written by Elton John and Tim Rice) are known by millions worldwide, and its score (by Hans Zimmer) is critically acclaimed. In fact its soundtrack went on to be a Diamond (10x Platinum) record! No wonder it sparked two sequels (The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride and The Lion King 1½) and a hit Broadway/West End musical that’s still running. Best of all, it’s a family movie that does cater for young and old, and those of us in-between, with its sheer optimism despite the rather serious themes it deals with. It’s definitely one to educate as well as entertain.

Whitsun Thorne