Part-Time Review: The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King represents to me the pinnacle of classic 2D Disney animation. It is a gorgeously animated and scored film telling a biblical style epic set amongst the animal kingdom on the African savannah. Scanning the messages of Disney animated films today, the film's full-hearted embrace of a very traditional morality feels refreshing and quite radical. It's a beloved Disney film that is well deserving of its reputation. I didn't always feel that way however.

I was eleven years old when The Lion King released in theaters and it was a massive cultural moment. It came with great expectations as it was following in the footsteps of several massive Disney releases: 1989's The Little Mermaid, 1991's Beauty and the Beast, and 1992's Aladdin. Adding to expectations was the bold choice of using the film's opening "Circle of Life" sequence as its trailer. It was such a confident and effective sequence that you could sense Disney knew it had the goods. The film was an instant success breaking animated box office records and was all over pop culture - including the many ear worm songs featuring Elton John. I really liked the film then, but it never quite hit me like it hit others. In fact, my biggest memory of the film from that time period is a joke comment my Uncle made after his family saw it. When asked what he thought of the film he replied sarcastically, "I don't know...there sure was a lot of licking and petting." However, my like for it has recently blossomed into a love after some recent viewings. To explain let me get into the film a bit.

The Lion King is set mostly in a part of the African savannah known as the Pride Lands. These lands are ruled over by the lions and they are headed by king Mufasa (James Earl Jones). His newly born son Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas & Matthew Broderick) is heir to the throne, but Mufasa's jealous brother Scar (Jeremy Irons) has plans on taking the throne for himself. Scar, along with his hyena conspirators, hatch a plot to kill Mufasa and Simba in a stampede. It's a complicated and moving sequence, but it ultimately results in Mufasa's death. Simba, distraught at the death, comes to believe he is responsible for it and can't go back home to face up to others. With Simba in self-imposed exile Scar assumes the throne his rule lays waste to the land. After years in exile and denial (summed up by the "Hakuna Matata" catch-phrase of his new pals Timon and Pumba) Simba is eventually convinced he must take responsibility, return to the Pride Lands to face down Scar, and restore balance back to the world.

The broad outlines of a cocky and selfish young man learning to accept a role of responsibility for his family, tribe, and world is a universal theme that hits on some of our deepest human desires. It's not surprising that the film has been noted as taking inspiration from Shakespeare's Hamlet, African folk tales, and the biblical stories of Joseph and Moses. More specifically, I see (intended or not) very strong allusions to the first few chapters of Genesis. Three sequences really highlight the basic moral landscape of The Lion King and its connection to the first few chapters of Genesis: the opening sequence and two pivotal discussions between Simba and Mufasa (one with young Simba and one with older Simba). 

The opening "Circle of Life" sequence is one of the greatest cinematic openings of all-time. It's a feast for the eyes, engages your emotions, and introduces the audience to a lot in its four-five minutes of runtime: the beautiful natural sights of the Pride Lands, the 'circle of life' hierarchy between the lions and the animals, the central character of Simba as an important future king, and that epic mythical quality of the story that says something deeper is going on beyond just a newborn being presented. Yes, the movie is not shy to say that some of these animals are natural predator/prey and that the lions do kills many of these animals. However, when Simba is presented at the top of Pride Rock and the animals all cheer and bow while the "Circle of Life" music crescendos the film isn't making an endorsement of survival of the fittest, it's a mythical way of showing how the rest of the animal kingdom recognizes and submits to the importance/authority of the role Simba is designed to take on.

The opening chapter of the book of Genesis is about the creation of the universe, but more specifically it's about God's ordering of the universe: what goes where and what role it is meant to play. It is no accident that humans are created on the final day of creation and placed in an already ordered/designed world. God calls these humans his "images" and commands them to be fruitful and fill the earth. Being God's "image" doesn't mean we are a mirror image of him physically. The cultural context makes it clear that a central part of being his image is to be his representative - his image on earth. Think of an ambassador to another country - for all intents and purposes the ambassador is there representing their country, they are the image of the country to others. 

Humans are created to be God's co-rulers on earth, to follow the design he has set, and to ensure its flourishing. In other words, imagine God has created and designed a beautiful garden and then set us as his co-gardeners not meant to exploit fruits of the garden, but to enjoy and ensure its flourishing. When the animals bow down to Simba in this opening sequence there is an acknowledgement of the important role Simba must play - not to exploit the Pride Land or his place at the top, but to ensure its flourishing. The film's short hand phrase for this will be "circle of life." It would be easy but foolish to read a Darwinian or new age view into this message with language like "circle of life." The concept that lions are designed in a "system" to be at the top and to use their position and strength to have a responsibility to care for its delicate balance is to claim an metaphysical "ought." Words like design and responsibility and obligation fit much more comfortably into a theological framework like Christianity rather than a purely naturalistic framework like Darwinism. 

After Mufasa's death, Simba runs from the Pride Lands and eschews his responsibility. The trauma of his father's death and the guilt he feels over it are too much for him to overcome. In his exile he encounters the characters of Timon (a meerkat) and Pumba (a warthog). Their life motto is hakuna matata - which means "no worries" or "no troubles." For Simba, the embracing of this motto represents the justification to ignore his past trauma, reject his designed responsibilities, and focus solely on making himself happy. While Simba grows up in his self-focused bubble the Pride Lands suffer under Scar's rule. Scar is a perfectly written villain for a story like this. He represents the complete rejection of design, balance, and the responsibility to see others flourish. Scar believes he deserves to rule, that others should serve his needs ("quid pro quo"), and is willing to do whatever conniving it takes to get there. He is the perfect anti-Mufasa, someone who rejects the design of the world and brings chaos to its order. His rule unsurprisingly brings death and destruction to the Pride Lands. It's perfect storytelling that Simba must face down this kind of "chaos" threat if the Pride Lands are to retain their order and life.

A series of events in the narrative work together to challenge Simba to reject his selfishness and take on his designed role. The return of the character Nala in Simba's life gets the ball rolling, the arrival and wisdom of Rafiki furthers it, but Simba's final encounter with his deceased father is the final push. Simba has an encounter with his deceased father (who appears in the nighttime sky in the form of clouds) where Mufasa says to him, "You have forgotten who you are, and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the circle of life." 

Given the current crop of animated films whose messages are aimed at "being who you are" and "follow your dreams" it would be easy to see this as some kind of appeal to Simba's inner feelings or for him to seek out his authentic self. Again, that would be easy, but it would be foolish. That's actually what is being rejected here. Remember that Simba's acceptance of "Hakuna Matata" is a negative step back, a retreat from his true self according to the story. If there's a character who truly represents "Hakuna Matata" to its extreme, it's Scar. He eschews his responsibilities, upturns the world's design, and is focused solely on himself without worrying about the destruction he leaves in his wake. Given the context of the film, Mufasa's final challenge to Simba is an appeal to accept the design of the world and take responsibility for his role in its flourishing - to follow in the footsteps of his father. 

The first few chapters of Genesis contain the same theme. Humans have been placed as God's images in his creation to enjoy it, rule over it, and see to its flourishing. When humans reject this good design (as they do in the passage about the tree of good and evil which unsurprisingly features a character to connives them into their actions) chaos and destruction is brought into the world. The stories throughout the rest of Genesis (and the Bible to an extent) all revolve around the following theme: when humans accept their God-designed role there is redemption and flourishing, but when humans usurp their God-designed roles there is chaos and destruction. 

The ultimate example of this is of course Jesus Christ who the Apostle Paul calls the "new Adam." Jesus's life is a perfect representation of how an image of God is meant to be lived out even to the point of dying for all of us. Jesus' challenge to our broken selves is essentially, "You have forgotten who you are, and so have forgotten me. You are more than what you have become." Like Simba, we have obstacles challenging us from accepting our true design and these range from our own selfishness, our traumas, our self guilt, and more. There is something truly epic and monumental about those willing to face up to these obstacles and accept responsibility our designed roles. It's a challenge the Bible says every human faces and it wasn't until my most recent viewing of The Lion King that I could see how clearly this film embraces that basic human tension.

Accompanying this epic biblical story is some of Disney's most beautiful hand drawn animation and a musical score from Hans Zimmer that just might be one of the top five greatest film scores of all time. The songs are great and memorable, but it's the musical score that I think elevates this film to a higher plane. For some reason I've always paired Aladdin and The Lion King together (probably just their chronological proximity in my childhood) and in the past I've always seen Aladdin as the superior film. After recent viewings of both, I still think Aladdin is a strong animated film that tells a fun story with an enormously likeable turn from Robin Williams - but it just doesn't hit those mythic qualities like Lion King does. 

When I finish a viewing of The Lion King now I feel like I've encountered an epic biblical story highlighting the human struggle to take up our roles God's images or usurp his design for our own ends. In an interesting way, one could even view Jesus' exaltation on the cross as the ultimate "Circle of Life" opening sequence. As he is voluntarily raised up on the cross and presented to the world, it is the ultimate demonstration of a human putting aside everything for the flourishing of others. The question the Bible poses is whether or not we will submit to this King or whether, like Scar, we will seek to reject and usurp him. Will we follow in Christ's footsteps? That story feels perfectly supported by a Disney at the peak of their animation and musical powers. It's a really unique combination, one that I think will likely prove unique. For while Disney may technically be capable of better animation today, I do wonder if they are capable of telling a story like this again.