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  • Writer's pictureBryce Chismire

The Lion King

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Tell me something: have you ever been treated to a movie as a kid, only for its values to be so meaningful to you that they just stuck with you for life? Well, it happened to me – not to gloat – when I was treated to the epicness and thematic resonance that came from watching The Lion King.

I had to think long and hard about not only what I saw in the movie as a kid, and not only what I just saw in it as an adult, but most importantly, what I, and I alone, liked so vehemently about The Lion King. So, with that said, let's look at the story.

In Africa, a young lion cub named Simba grew up learning about the Pride Lands and that he would one day be the next king. However, his jealous uncle Scar plotted to leave Simba and his father, Mufasa, for dead in pursuit of the throne. *SPOILER ALERT* While he succeeded in murdering Mufasa, Simba ran away and crossed paths with a pair of relaxed animals named Timon and Pumbaa, who encouraged him to forget about his troubles. However, it’s going to take a childhood friend and some wise guidance to help Simba snap out of it and return to the Pride Lands, where Scar became the next king instead.

There’s easily so many things that I like about this movie, I could go on about them forever. To start things off, the themes.

I adored how ingrained into African culture this movie was, and it allowed you to immerse yourself into the environment and feel its atmosphere. Even its lessons felt down-to-earth in a regional sense, like the Circle of Life and the fact that the animals all have some connection to each other within it in some form. Of course, the story carried even more parallels to traditional stories. The most obvious one is that much of the plot was taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. That may be where the edge of the Lion King came from, and it provided some terrific drama and interesting character turmoil. The story even took its cues from the Bible, most notably the stories of Joseph and Moses, and how they both went into exile for a short period of time before returning as part of a spiritual redemption. And of course, the coming-of-age aspects were right on cue. The main hero started off as a kid who enjoyed to frolic about in life only for an unfortunate event to intervene and change his life forever as he matured into a more observant adult.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the main hero, Simba. Now, I’ve read some people say they had issues with him because of how rambunctious and hardheaded he was, unlike, say, Bambi, who was more modest. They also probably weren’t fond of how gullible Simba was as far as his relationship with Scar was concerned; Simba was easily swayed by Scar into believing things that weren’t true, like how he was responsible for the death of his father. While I can understand their misgivings with this character, they're forgetting one thing:

Whether he's a lion or a human, he's just a kid.

He, along with Nala, acted pretty much like how I'd expect to see kids behave when they're out exploring the world around them or being adventurous without realizing they could be getting themselves into trouble.

Try to think of one kid you saw who did not show the rambunctious attitude, or the hardheadedness, or the overconfidence that Simba displayed at his young age. Also, think about it: if you were Simba’s age and you were told that you would one day rule an entire kingdom, how would you not have expressed even the slightest boasting about it like Simba did, if only by instinct alone?

And, by the time Scar fed Simba the lies about him being the murderer, he was still at an age where he bought every word said to him by someone he thought he would have trusted (I’ll elaborate more on that soon). And the guilt he felt over it would have stayed with him into adulthood because he was told about it at such a young age.

It also led to another stage of learning from mistakes on Simba’s part when Rafiki told him that as much as the past can hurt, he can either run from it, or learn from it. Upon first hearing, you would feel as if they were referring to Simba murdering Mufasa, even though clearly, that wasn’t true. Rather, that message would’ve applied more to how Simba was easily swayed by someone he shouldn’t have trusted, or that he ran away from his responsibilities. When you think about it long enough, however, this actually still carries some validity to it. Those were mistakes that Simba needed to pick up on to be a better lion and a better king, and we wanted to see him pick up on them. And as for the flaws that Simba exhibited as a child, that's what made the heroic acts done by Simba feel so much more rewarding.

After all, The Lion King hasn’t been called a coming-of-age movie for nothing.

This leads to the next character I’ll talk about: Scar. He was a fantastic villain, and his cunning methods of getting what he wanted really were devious. Not only did he easily play into Simba’s perception by manipulating him in a "supportive uncle" way that Simba would easily have related to (that's where Simba's 'trust' in him originated), but he was rather infamous by the time he murdered his brother, Mufasa, in cold blood. This was one of the few times a Disney villain successfully killed off the main character, and as you would have expected, it ended up being one of the most devastating deaths in Disney history. Some people said he was stronger in the first half than in the second half, but I found his rulership to be a good example of the dangers of being king for little other reason than for power. Compare this...

Simba: But I thought a king can do whatever he wants.

Mufasa: Oh, there’s more to being king than getting your way all the time.

...with this.

Scar: I’m the king. I can do whatever I want!

As demonstrated with his intention to have the lionesses do nothing but hunt for him and the hyenas, his lust for power brought a huge imbalance onto the Pride Lands and left it barren. It hit home how important it was for Simba to learn from the mistakes of his past if he was going to be the rightful king. The king that Scar decided to be was similar to how Simba envisioned being a king to be like, so it helps for us to point out who's matured and who hasn't.

Timon and Pumbaa were delightful and funny, but also flawed. Their hearts were in the right place, such as when they tried to help Simba when he escaped the Pride Lands, but their methods of doing that were askew. They encouraged Simba to live under a philosophy that they lived under called Hakuna Matata, meaning ‘no worries’. However, for all of its promises of shelter from the bad times, that was all that it promised: an escape from reality. It actually put Simba’s life on a standstill before Nala helped light the way for Simba. So, it's true that Timon and Pumbaa's method of philosophy was doing them more harm than good, and it doesn't help that unlike Timon or Pumbaa, Simba had a role in regal society with responsibilities to uphold. But at the same time, they didn't know that since Simba never told them about it. And, who can fault them for wanting to share such similar hospitalities if that was all it took to make themselves and Simba feel better? It also helped that they eventually caught on to the more dire situations at hand and were willing to do anything they could’ve done for Simba’s sake; it worked for them as effectively as it did for Simba himself. Also, like I said, they were funny – not laugh-out-loud funny, but quirkily funny – mostly when Pumbaa’s modesty and hidden smarts clashed with Timon’s egotism.

Nala was a sweet, if also underdeveloped, character who had respectable pursuits, such as when she left the Pride Lands to find help at a time when she was expected by Scar to be hunting with the other lionesses. In fact, this made her look like how Simba would have been like if he had learned from his mistakes sooner. Also, she and Simba shared an incredible, adorable chemistry, whether it was as best friends when they were kids, or as romantic partners after they reunited as adults.

The rest of the characters in the movie were really diverse and delightful.

Mufasa was a terrific father figure who had the presence of a king, as well as the respectability that such a king deserved. That’s part of why his death at the hands of Scar was as shocking and saddening as it was.

Zazu was also fun in that he tried to live up to his duties as a royal majordomo, only to be foiled more than once, especially by Simba.

The hyenas were also cool to watch. They established the aggression typical of hyenas as well as the slight clumsiness typical of a villain’s henchmen. Shenzi had the brains, Banzai was the most reckless in the trio, and Ed...well, he was an absolute moron.

Rafiki was awesome. He’s a shaman and was wise, but he was also wacky, purposefully eccentric, and it never once felt out of character; they went hand-in-hand with his simian characteristics.

The voice acting in this movie is just one bullseye after another. Whoever rounded up the actors for this picture really knew what he was doing, because their voices fit almost all the characters like a glove. Jonathan Taylor Thomas gave the young Simba the showoffiness that highlighted his more adventurous side, and Matthew Broderick provided the robust yet soft and vulnerable aspects of the adult Simba’s conflicted personality. James Earl Jones’ performance as Mufasa is probably his second most iconic one yet, after Darth Vader. His voice lended him the booming power that’s expected from a mighty king, as well as the tenderness that comes from a loving father. Jeremy Irons was slithery and boisterous as Scar, and it helped to shape up his character into the fascinating villain we know and love. Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella put in effort into amping up the personality traits of Timon and Pumbaa while also tossing in a sweet respectability to them. The rest of the actors also did a good job, but these are the prime examples I found to be worthy of mention.

The music is some of the finest I’ve ever heard in a movie. Not only did Hans Zimmer’s music perfectly capture the spirit and naturality of Africa, but it also embellished itself depending on the mood it's in. When it’s upbeat, it’s very cheerful. When it’s deep, it can be very powerful. When it’s triumphant, it goes all out with it. And when it’s melancholy or, it can be just downright soul-stirring.

The songs by pop superstar Elton John were not half bad, either. Circle of Life was an amazing, epic song, and there’s no more proper way to start off a story about life in Africa than with this song. I Just Can’t Wait to Be King is what I would call a child’s fantasy if it was made in the form of a musical number. Be Prepared is almost like the evil twin of Circle of Life: aggrandizing, but in a sinister and chilling way, and satisfactorily so. Hakuna Matata emphasized the laid-back and cheery aspects of Timon and Pumbaa's lifestyle, and made it sound fun in spite of its logical flaws. Can You Feel the Love Tonight is your typical love ballad, but its breeziness and passion give it weight. Not only that, the movie version of the song had quirky beginning and ending numbers sung by Timon and Pumbaa, and yet it fit.

Eventually, just like Aladdin before it, The Lion King won the Oscars for Best Score for Hans Zimmer and Best Song for Elton John. Though, I will admit, even though the song Oscar it won was for 'Can You Feel the Love Tonight', I think 'Circle of Life' deserved it more.

The animation was a marvel to look at. The shapes and movements of the animals were really accurate and well done, and it just felt smooth and very natural. The bright colors also helped to bring the movie to life, whether it was from the African landscapes or the characters. And, it was balanced off cleverly by a lack of color when the Pride Lands became ravaged by Scar and the hyenas.

You know the phrase, "let's build bridges, and not walls"? Well, I mostly think of kids as just doing their own childlike things without a shred of concern for what will be in store for them when they grow up. And I usually think adults are easily prone to toss aside their childlike sensibilities in the hopes of being as adult as others expect them to be.

Well, The Lion King felt like a well-constructed, nicely sturdy bridge.

It is silly enough for kids to have fun with it, but also mature enough to take them seriously. And, while it does allow adults to revisit their childhood, it also allows them to uncover traditional or relatable treasures from within. That's what good family entertainment is supposed to do: to entertain with enough to satisfy both children and adults in equal measure, and perhaps mean something more to the kids once they've grown up. That's also why I believe animation is a very underrated craft: it is dismissed too often as a kids' thing when really, it should be embraced as just a different craft of filmmaking that can open endless possibilities in film (take Sausage Party, for example).

For those reasons, The Lion King left its mark on many people like me as the king of our childhoods, and it is still among the top 5 of my favorite movies of all time. Again, no shame in saying that out loud.

Long live The Lion King!

Additional Thoughts

— There was something about how headstrong, energetic, and ready to fight off against danger Simba was that drew me to him, much like Aladdin did. In fact, whenever I thought of cool kids from the 90s, I thought of them as being good-hearted, optimistic and opportunistic, but also daredevilish to a fault. I guess anyone who decides to face up against adversities without question while also acknowledging the tolls this could possibly take are the kind of heroes I would root for any day.

— Also, I admired how adventurous and willing he was to face off against danger, only to find out that was easier said than done. It was demonstrated best during his and Nala’s run-in with the hyenas or during the wildebeest stampede. It would've taken guts to really step up your A-game in order to be courageous. Mufasa even told Simba himself that he's only brave when he needed to be.

— Something I also caught onto was the fact that in this generation (as of this writing), there are so many people who wanted to stay away from the grips of reality, or who were basking in the luxuries of laying low away from them. This actually makes Simba a much more flawed, yet also stronger, role model today than he was in the 90s.

— Just so no one gets the wrong idea, the phrase ‘Hakuna Matata’ wasn’t invented for this movie. It is a Swahili phrase from East Africa that similarly means ‘no troubles’ or 'no problems', and it existed for a while before The Lion King made it popular. I’ll wager $10 that the people in Africa who say that use it in a typical, friendly, conversational manner as opposed to make an entire lifestyle out of it.

— Not too long ago, I remember watching a Nostalgia Critic video on The Lion King - he's pretty much my guilty pleasure; I watched some of his reviews in my spare time (warning: those are for mature audiences only) - and he had an issue with the delivery of the movie's message, particularly when Simba returned to Pride Rock and had to confront Scar. As expected, I didn't agree with his complaints over it, and had to spell out my thoughts on it in the comments for him and anyone to see, and it goes:

"He goes back to Pride Rock ... he confronts his past, takes responsibility, and it blows up in his face."

And exactly HOW does it "blow up in his face" as you put it?

With Scar bringing up the lie about Simba killing Mufasa, which he planted in Simba's head when he was a kid, IE when Simba was at his most impressionable. Simba still carried that scar (no pun intended) with him into adulthood, and once it was brought up, Simba still believed it was true, hence admitting it as such to the lionesses. And, the lionesses stood there in disbelief, shock, and even in slight denial that Simba could've committed such a crime that Scar was saying he was responsible for. Almost like they weren't sure whether to trust Simba or Scar once those (alleged) news came about. But even before this occurred, Simba was still willing to confront his past and take responsibility; Simba finding out the truth about Scar killing Mufasa was all it took to seal the deal. It just took some bumpy trails to get there.

That demonstrated not only how amazing Scar was as a villain for his manipulation, but also how, in my book, the message. Still. Feels. Valid.

My two cents. And besides, the idea is that we should share our opinions, not shove them down other people's throats...or make a debate out of them.

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