The Lion King: The Crown Jewel of Disney’s Traditional Age of Animation

The brilliant sun breaks on the African Savanna beginning a new day for the countless animals that live on the broad grassy plains of the Pridelands. It’s a day that begins as many have before it, but there is something new in the air on this day. Giraffes, antelope, elephants, and every sort of creature imaginable are making a journey to the stone sentinel in the center of the plains… an imposing feature known as pride rock.

Atop the massive rock outcropping, there stands a lion. A proud regal figure surveying the Savanna. As he stares proudly towards all those in the Pridelands, a bird swoops down and lands at his feet. The bird, a colorful hornbill, bows gracefully and the lion returns a broad and warm smile adding the virtues of fairness, humor, and love to his already impressive characteristics.

Gathered at the base of Pride Rock, the many animals of the Pridelands gather. The menagerie is parted by a lone figure… a wise old Baboon carrying a walking stick onto which are attached talismans and trinkets to ward off evil and bring good fortune. The old creature climbs the monolith with grace and agility that never once betrays his true age. The baboon and the lion regard each other for just a moment and then embrace. This truly happy day is about to reach it’s climax, and besides, station could never be a barrier between the two old friends.

Away from the commotion of the congregation of animals and nestled securely and warmly in his mother’s paws, a small cub sleeps soundly. A gentle lick from his mother awakens the newborn who opens his small eyes and regards the baboon – a creature he has obviously never seen before – with sleepy curiosity.

The old baboon smiles and gives a blessing by waving his stick in front of the cub who instinctively tries to swat it with his paw. The baboon holds a melon towards the rising sun and breaks it in half, rubbing a small streak of its juice on the wary cub’s forehead. Next, as a final blessing, the shaman picks up a handful of earth and sprinkles it on the baby who shattered the somber mood by sneezing.

The cub’s mother and father can’t help but laugh.

The wise old baboon, as he has done many times before, gently takes the cub from his mother and holds him as if he is the most precious object in all of Africa. After a reassuring smile to the waiting parents, he takes the child to the tip of Pride Rock where the kingdom eagerly awaits their first glance of the new arrival.

Triumphantly, the Baboon thrusts the cub into the air and holds him there. Instantly, the Savanna comes alive with elephant trumpets, the howling of monkeys, and the neighing of Zebras. The cub watches them all with fear and curiosity never knowing the true significance of the day.

A new king has been born.

The circle of life has begun again.

And so begins The Lion King, one of my favorite movies of all time and the number one traditionally animated Disney box office champ. For me, The Lion King means many things: A fall from grace and the fight for redemption. The need to find your place and understand your role in the world. The need to take responsibility by showing that there are consequences to inaction. Ultimately, I believe that the heart of The Lion King can be summed up in four words: The circle of life. The idea that all things are connected and when one thing is thrown out of balance, the entire system falls apart.

It was something that Mufasa understood, Scar didn’t, and Simba finally realized. When Mufasa ruled, everyone was happy. When Scar ruled, everyone was miserable, and when Simba reclaimed his crown, the Pride Lands began to heal.

In fact, it was the fact that the movie came full circle, from the birth of Simba to the birth of Simba’s daughter, Kirara, that drove the concept of the circle of life home. It was an environmental cartoon without the embarrassing one-liners of Captain Planet. Genius through subtlety.

The main character of The Lion King, Simba, grows quiet a bit from his first appearance as a young cub to his final appearance as a father and a king.

When his father tells Simba not to venture into the Shadow Lands, Simba says, “I thought a king could do anything he wanted!” Obviously, he doesn’t understand the responsibility of what lies ahead of his.

For young Simba, there are no consequences or repercussions… at least not at first. Once he and Nala narrowly escape the hyenas, he begins to learn that he just can’t get away with anything.

As a cub, Simba is a mildly spoiled child always testing his boundaries and going to explore everything he’s told not to. Like most children, Simba suffers from an immortality complex. He just honestly believes that he will never die… and he also believes that those he loves will never die.

Simba’s illusion is quickly shattered when Mufasa is killed and he his chased from the Pride Lands by Scar and the hyenas. At this point, the pain of what he had lost too great for him, Simba turns his back on the Pride Lands, his responsibility and his father’s legacy adopting the philosophy of his new friends, Timon and Pumbaa, Hakuna Matata… no responsibility… no worry.

At first, Simba jumps head first into his new lifestyle and it appears that he has left his past behind him but as he matures into adulthood, he becomes aware that something is missing in his life and becomes depressed… a slump that not even the comic duo of Timon and Pumbaa can break him out of.

It is only when a figure from his past, Nala – now grown into a ferocious hunter, accidentally discovers him and reminds him that he does have responsibility. Simba reclaims his crown and completes the circle of life.

Perhaps by favorite Disney character, Mufasa is a bold, regal, and caring figure made powerful by the booming voice of James Earl Jones. An oddball as far as Disney fathers are concerned since his is portrayed as a powerful figure and not a small little bumbling white haired man as seen in Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and most recently in Tarzan. It seems that the folks at Disney never seemed to have very much respect for the father figure… except in The Lion King which, I think, makes the movie that much more special.

Instead of coming off as a hard nose, Mufasa is caring, nurturing, and even playful as he teaches his son to pounce in the middle of a royal debriefing. This makes him an even more enjoyable authority figure.

My favorite Mufasa moment would have to be after he rescues Simba and Nala from the hyenas and he orders Zazu to escort Nala home so that he can teach his son “a lesson”.

As Simba timidly creeps towards his doom, his foot lands in his father’s paw print and is literally swallowed. Compared to the cub, Mufasa is huge. Intimidating, not only to Simba who appears to be on his way to receive punishment… but to repeat viewers who realize that the little cub has some big shoes to fill.

Simba takes his place next to his father and prepares for the worst. Mufasa wears a grim mask of anger on his face, but soon he closes his eyes and disappointment washes over him… almost as if he is conceding that he has failed as a father.

After a mild scolding, Simba learns that his fearless father does indeed have one fear… the fear that he might one day loose his son. Simba grins. “Oh… I guess even kings get scared sometimes, huh?”

Mufasa nods.

“But you know what?” Simba whispers.

His father draws closer. “What?” he whispers back.

“I bet those hyenas were even scareder!”

Mufasa laughs. “That’s ’cause nobody messes with your dad! C’mere!”

Mufasa grabs Simba and the two begin wrestling under the broad starry Africa sky. Father and son have reconciled.

Later, Mufasa sacrifices his life to save Simba’s after Scar causes a stampede of Wildebeests. There is no death scene… no parting words or final raspy breath, he is simply gone. Not only does Simba feel his father’s death, but the audience does as well. It’s one of The Lion King’s most emotional moments. A character we all care about has been taken in one quick swoop and the result is devastating.

Though Simba ultimately blames himself for his father’s death it is Scar, Simba’s treacherous uncle, who sets up the king’s assassination. Scar is, to me, a grown up version of what young Simba could have been. If Simba had never listened to his father’s teachings and had never been exiled from the Pride Lands, I do believe that he would have become another Scar. Consider this exchange:

Simba: I thought a king could do anything he wanted.
Mufasa: Well, being king doesn’t mean getting your way all the time.

Later in the movie, after Scar takes over the Pride Lands, he has an exchange with Sarabi.

Sarabi: You can’t do that!
Scar: I am the king! I can do whatever I want!

See? Simba understands the responsibility of being king, and Scar only sees it as a chance to be in charge.

Scar is essentially the bitter second in line for the throne. He sees himself as the intellectual superior of Mufasa and the overall superior of Simba. He can’t believe that a “little hairball” is going to become the ruler of everything that the light touches and becomes determined to take what he believes is his.

What makes Scar such an effective villain is the fact that he is a real threat. He is smarter than Mufasa and Simba… if only in mind and not in practice. Even though it is obvious that Mufasa could easily defeat Scar is battle, Scar beats Mufasa by outsmarting him and, for over half the movie, he is victorious. He becomes king.

While it’s true that when it comes to brute strength, Scar landed on the shallow end of the gene pool, he is still dangerous when backed into a corner as Simba learns in the final battle. Until the end, Scar fights with cunning, guile, and treachery. One of Disney’s most vile villains.

Simba’s introduction to the world of Hakuna Matata comes from the comic relief characters of Timon and Pumbaa. While most comic relief characters are needlessly stupid and awkward when it comes to storytelling (as was the case with Tantor in Tarzan), Timon and Pumbaa actually integrate well into the narrative.

If they were human, they would be old hippies drifting from city to city. No responsibility at all. One of those “new age” kind of things.

However, as Simba grows and accepts his responsibility to succeed his father, Timon and Pumbaa also accept responsibility to help him overthrow Scar and reclaim the Pride Lands. So much for Hakuna Matata, huh?

It’s often been the consensus that Timon and Pumbaa are Disney’s first gay couple. Personally, I think people are reading too much into this movie, just like the people who compared Scar to Hitler and the Hyenas to black street gangs. Could they be a gay couple? Possibly. The movie doesn’t follow them 24 hours a day. Personally, I see them more as Laurel and Hardy. Pumbaa’s the big fat dumb guy and Timon’s the conniving, manipulative, but good-hearted straight man.

There are other marvelous characters in the movie. Rafiki who seems to border on wisdom and mania, the strong and noble Nala, the uptight Zazu, and the proud and defiant Sarabi.

The Lion King is a movie I never tire of watching. The brilliant colors, touching writing, and memorable characters combine to form an unforgettable movie and, of course, the songs are all amazing and, as the years go by, the picture quality and cinematic experience has only gotten better with the unfortunate exception of the addition of “The Morning Report” which, thankfully, is missing from my digital version from Youtube.

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