A Study in Disney: ‘The Lion King’ (1994)

| January 14, 2022

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Everything the Light Touches Is Donald Glover's – The Geekiary

The Lion King just might be one of the most potent coming-of-age stories ever written for the screen, though admittedly you have to really look to see it.  This was the first Disney animated feature that wasn’t based on a previous work though there have been heavy comparisons to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the Biblical tale of Moses and, most abundantly, to Bambi.  The “Hamlet” comparison really only comes from the fact that Simba’s father is murdered, and that the murder is committed by the protagonist’s uncle.  The Moses angle would seem to come from the fact that Simba goes into exile and returns to free his people.  And the Bambi comparison arrives largely because all of the characters are four-legged animals and a child witnesses a parental death. Those comparisons are not invalid, but it is important to look at The Lion King away from its allusions to literature. 

Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton, the story is largely original, telling a coming-of-age story that is really much deeper and much more functionally sound than the critics had claimed.  Much like Bambi it sees the protagonist through the prism of the natural order, but where the earlier film saw it through the passing of the seasons The Lion King sees its hero through the stages of life from infancy to childhood to adolescence and into adulthood.  It is an archetypal story, a bold example of The Hero’s Journey but a well-told story of a unique individual growing up, yet it is important to recognize that Simba’s story is a fable, a hero’s tale, for we know that a real lion’s journey would be less regal and far bloodier.  With regards to this film, let us examine Simba’s experience in the four stages:

The famous opening of the film, of course, begins with the sunrise following the birth of Simba, who is the only son of the lordly Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones) and the mother Sarabi (voiced by Madge Sinclair).  The scene establishes a broad interpretation of infancy, an omnipotent stage of our development in which we are the center of our parent’s world.  For Simba, the omnipotence is doubled by the fact that he is also the central figure of the pride lands that he will someday inherit.  His proper upbringing represents its future.  He is not only the center of his parent’s world but is the once and future king.

The fact that the balance in the kingdom leaves little to challenge young Simba in childhood means that when the challenge comes, it falls harder because he is now bereft of a father figure.  Up to this point, Simba, like all children, has a very broad and naïve outlook on the future.  Since he has been protected (and unconsciously assumes that he will continue to be protected), he sees his destiny as clear and present, as illustrated in the song “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” in which he illustrates that his reign will be essentially just like that of his father.

Yet, the course of Simba’s destiny is diverted early on when he loses his father, a challenge that alters what the young cub thought might have been inevitable.  That challenge, of course, is the betrayal of his uncle Scar (voiced by Jeremy Irons) who organizes a plot not only to murder Mufasa but also to then kill Simba.  The cub escapes but is bereft of the tools of what to do about the situation.  Had Mufasa lived, then the sole element of imbalance in the kingdom brought by Scar would have been a challenge that would have followed Simba into maturation.  Without the protection of his father now, Simba has nowhere to go.

The alteration in Simba’s destiny is also brought on by a realization that he is not the strong figure that his father was, that he will never be the same kind of leader.  Early on, he disobeys his father by entering into the elephant’s graveyard that his father had warned against and is attacked by hyenas.  Here his bravery fails him.  Now, he thinks that he has failed his father and caused his death.  Resentment, guilt and the overbearing pangs of responsibility more or less forces Simba into his stage of adolescence.

Exiling himself from the Pride Lands, Simba’s entrance into adolescence breeds a normal, but rather unhealthy mode of thinking.  So much burden was placed on his shoulders early on that he chooses to reject his purported destiny and become, essentially, a dropout.  He leaves the past behind and enters into a lackadaisical mode of “Hakuna Matata,” of relieving himself of his past troubles and turning his focus to something more immediate.  In other words, he leaves behind the notion of looking toward the future and instead decides to live in the moment.  This is true to the adolescent stage of life in which the child who emulated and admired the parent now begins to distance themselves, moving toward to a more solitary and independent way of thinking.  Simba, who admired and emulated his father’s manner, now lives away from the Pride Land where he eats bugs and lives with creatures who are not lions.  Simba’s worldview, through the death of his father, has altered his thinking and he now thinks that since he failed his father, he will inevitably fail his kingdom.  Therefore, he chooses not to try.

Yet, the mistakes of the past are a massive burden on his shoulders.  It might have been easier if, early in life, Simba’s omnipotence was only seated in the comfort of his mother and father, but as he pushes toward adulthood he realizes that he has exiled himself from an entire kingdom that is now under the control of his uncle Scar.  The transition from Simba’s adolescence into adulthood is probably the most profound and most powerful moment in the film.  When his childhood friend Nala (voiced by Moira Kelly) finds him, she lets him know what has happened to his kingdom, that Scar has let it fall to rot and ruin, that the animals of the Pride Land are suffering because they lack a strong, empathetic leader.  But Simba rejects the notion of going back because he thinks that his failure to his father will befall the kingdom as well.  It is at this moment, struggling with his own self-identity that Simba is awakened to a realization that he never thought that he had.  Symbolized beautifully by Simba making his way through a thicket of twisted thorny bushes, and then seeing his father’s reflection in a pond, he comes to realize that he doesn’t have to be who is father was, but must forge an identity for himself.  He comes to realize that he need not replace his father so much as carry on his father’s best traits while forging his own sense of self.  This is the lesson that propels him out of self-doubt and into a larger sense of himself that will allow him to face down Scar and restore the kingdom to glory.

The journey of Simba is one of the most palatable that Disney has ever created, the story of an individual who represents the struggle in all of us, the notion of pulling away from the comforting nest of our upbringing and facing the challenges of life not by being our parents, but by using the tools and lessons that they have given us in forging and molding our own identity.  That’s a powerful message for a movie like this but, possibly, one of the most important.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.