When I was a kid, millions of other children and I watched the movie The Lion King, but I did not think really about what the movie meant. I can recall being engrossed in the characters and, to this day, I can repeat the choruses to Hakuna Matata,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” and “Be Prepared,” even though I probably haven’t heard those songs in twelve years. Of course, as we know, that does not mean the movie didn’t have a message. Filmmakers, writers and editors bake political and cultural messages into their works, even if they do not attempt to or specifically state they don’t. These messages filter into the minds of their audiences, shaping their worldview and perspective on reality. The Lion King specifically as a children movie, influences how children (as I did) see the world. In one point of the movie, the writers even seem to admit this, when Timon scolds Pumbaa for telling a joke about farting, “in front of the kids.” For this reason, I will reexamine the movie and look at the messages it relates.
Let’s start with some positive messages from the movie.
1. The Circle of Life
The movie opens with the song of “The Circle of Life,” a theme central to the movie. It basically states that people need to live in balance. That all animals live collectively to survive, and that even when they eat each other, they remain in this harmony, relying on each other. Scar becomes the central enemy because he disrupts this vision and destroys life in the pride.
I think we can read this as a positive message. All things are connected, and working together not just with humans, but all forms of life, helps us achieve a better existence. It tells us to care for our environment,o live locally and to understand the impact we have on the world around us. Instead of viewing society as a collection of individuals, we view society as lives inherently connected. Of course, this borrows from the central beliefs of non-Western people, and so could be a form of cultural appropriation that Disney profited off of. In this sense, the idea may not be as positive as it seems on face value.
2. Death Isn’t the End
A lot of people feel terrified of death. In fact, we view death as the end, a complete blackness of nothing. The Lion King offers another vision. We live on. In our descendants and in our actions, we contribute to the world. Simba becomes inspired by his father Mufasa, who even talks to Simba through his reflections, and Mufasa communicates his place in the present far after he has passed away. This connects to the idea of the circle of life; we never die, we just keep getting recycled into the earth and nature.
I also see this as a positive message. After all, we often take our fear of death to the extreme, driving us into making decisions about what we need to accomplish. People spend all their time regretting what occurs, because they see death as an obstacle that robs them of time. Instead, the Lion King pushes us to accept that one day we all die, but that does not mean the end, and that we always contribute to the world, not simply race against death and use it to motivate ourselves.
Now onto aspects of the film that seem flawed:
1. Passing Down the Power
The political situation in the kingdom seems pretty messed up. Mufasa rules as a monarch, and the film basically celebrates the idea of monarchy, as Simba gets chided for questioning it. The song, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” seems to suggest that Simba will break the traditions of the empire. After all, the whole idea comes from the fact that he does not actually want to marry Nala. Yet, by the end of the movie, he ends up just fulfilling the title of his father. No change really occurs in that way and his destiny, against his wishes, becomes reality. In fact, Simba seems to get crushed under the pressure of fulfilling his responsibility, not wanting to go back and become king. The film asserts that because his father ruled as king, he should also be king, and so he becomes labeled as a failure for not continuing a completely arbitrary political system. While celebration of monarchs probably does not stick with anyone, the idea that you should fulfill your parents’ wishes just because they want you too seems pretty negative. I mean, if you want to go wander around the jungle all day like Pumbaa and Timon, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Of course, people still have an obligation to their community and the people who raised them, but, the film denies the merit of people deciding their own paths for themselves.
2. The Good v. Evil Thing
For some reason, all content that children consume must be put in this good versus evil paradigm. Scar and the Hyenas are evil. Simba and Mufasa are good. We simply instill these values into children, that we can label some people as evil, and others as good. This never occurs in the real world, as all conflicts have enormous layers of complexity. After all, Scar attempts a coup, trying to overthrow an established hierarchy that clearly leaves groups such as the hyenas alienated. These hyenas are unhappy about living outside the kingdom and have little food to eat, begging scar for food. They even criticize Scar after he takes over for not fulfilling his promise to feed them.
On other hand, the lion pride, portrayed as good, does not work together with the hyenas. They want the power to themselves, which spurs conflict when Scar takes over and they refuse to hunt. The political situation seems pretty contentious before Scar takes over, and, while he worsens the situation, it cannot all be attributed to him.
Yet the creators of the Lion King try to force the hyenas into being absolute evil. Take a look at this picture:
Yeah, Disney actually did that. They intentionally tried to make the hyenas look like Nazis, literally basing it off propaganda. They took absolute evil and put it into the movie.
In fact, many have seen the hyenas as a racist stereotype against black people or other minority groups. Black actors voice both these parts, even though in a film about Africa, the producers cast almost all the other voices with white people. They portray the hyenas almost as savages. Scar attacks them for lacking intelligence and the portrayal of one hyena, Ed, is the worst. He talks in weird noises that seem “incomprehensible” to the audience, chews on his own leg, suggesting some sort of cannibalism, and laughs absurdly the entire time. This raises enormous issues about who the characters represent and what groups the film may be targeting.
3. The Female Characters
Only two female characters appear in this movie: Nala and Sarabi. Sarabi, Mufasa’s wife, barely makes an appearance, standing up to Scar at the end of the movie, but then gets assaulted in a pretty cruel manner for a children’s film. The suggestion that she would be Queen, or anywhere equal to Mufasa, never occurs. Additionally, in lion prides, lionesses hunt, which the movie actually mentions several times. Of course, they then don’t actually portray the strength and effort of these lionesses, failing to show them as strong characters who provide for the family.
Nala plays a far larger role. She physically matches the strength of Simba and even pins him down several times. Unfortunately, for some reason, she cannot challenge Scar for leadership despite her strength. She runs off and “looks for help,” even though she is stronger than Simba, who is able to defeat Scar. In addition, she basically just plays the role of Simba’s love interest. Sometimes she asserts herself, such as when she distracts Zazu, so they can go to the elephant graveyard, but mostly she relies on Simba.
4. The Nuclear Family and Heteronormativity
This one is pretty straight forward. Zazu expects Simba and Nala to marry, even when they do not want too. Though they live in a Lion pride, which seems to be completely opposite of a nuclear family, they still portray the family of Simba as having a mom, dad and child. Scar’s evilness stems from the fact he possesses no family. It almost suggests those who live outside of the typical family will pursue outrageously evil acts because they do not have“traditional family values.” Also, Simba’s life with Timon and Pumbaa is considered unnatural in the film. He must leave this family, which he enjoys a lot more, to live with Nala and the lion pride, in his natural state.
5. Africa As One Big Giant Country
The creators of the Lion King mix a lot of different cultures and languages into the film. Swahili names for characters and Zulu spoken in the background of “The Circle of Life” are two examples. The creators went to Kenya to scout out areas that could be used as a setting for the film, but the scenes stretch a lot of different climates and environments. Their portrayals mythicize African culture – Rafiki can be seen as some kind of African shaman, not entirely of any one culture. While some have argued that the Lion King shows a pan-Africanist vision, it really lumps all of Africa together conveniently into a movie.
The countries of Africa contain an incredibly amount of diversity. Vast differences separate one part of the continent from another, but the film recognizes none of this. It would rather portray Africa as a single entity, devoid of complexity and nuance. In this way, Africa’s culture almost becomes presented as blankly “primitive” and the creators don’t focus on giving a better cultural description.
6. Ummm…. Is Something Missing?
Something seems missing from the Lion King. Oh right, there are no people. For some reason, Disney decided to portray Africa as having no people, just being full of animals. Unfortunately, I think that this has entered into the popular imagination of Africa. The Lion King represents one of the most widely seen portrayals of Africa in Western society. Yet it misses the people who live there, as if it only exists in some romantic notion of wildness. This fits with a colonial version of Africa, where the people only play a background role, and the landscape needs to be conquered by white men and technology.
In addition, it serves to legitimize current resource exploitation practices. If no one lives there, who cares if Western products use African resources? Who cares where if the Coltan in your iPhone came from the DRC, which was made under poor conditions that have helped to destabilize governments and allowed continued atrocities to take place? That kind of thinking only happens when you take away the voices of the people who live somewhere and replace them with cute animals.
In conclusion, I think The Lion King may not be the best movie to keep watching or, if we want to watch it, it requires some serious conversation afterward. I mean the movie uses stunning color and art, and the songs by themselves really emotionally capture the ideas they explain. Maybe Disney could produce a similar film with better messages and created by people who actually live there in the place depicted, but for now, maybe it’s time to stick to something else or talk about the film in an entirely different manner.