The Lion King opens with a musical set piece, “The Circle of Life,” that ranks among the most dazzling production numbers in Disney history. There is mystery and depth in this sequence: the shimmering sunrise; a parade of elephants, tiny in the distance, in the shadow of an enormous mountain; springboks leaping in the mist. The multilayered shots of soaring stands of flamingos, of leaf-bearing ants and trotting zebras. The gathering of animals builds, becoming more purposeful and dramatic.
High over the veldt, the King of Beasts (whom we will come to know as Mufasa) has a regal authority evocative of C. S. Lewis’s Aslan. The wordless initiation ceremony for the newborn prince touches on the ritual and religious impulses that are a ubiquitous part of human experience and imagination. There is the uncomprehending wonder of the newborn cub, and the joyous acclamation of the assembled beasts — a rare pop-culture celebration of obeisance or submission to sovereign authority.
Finally, the dramatic cut to the title — a promise that, alas, the movie that follows can’t deliver on.
The power of the opening act appears only sporadically in the rest of the film, and is undercut too often by lack of inspiration and obvious moves. Its appeal for audiences is undeniable, transcending its screen origins and launching an acclaimed long-running stage musical playing on Broadway to this day. Roaring back into theaters in late 2011 for a two-week engagement and held over due to high demand, the 3-D conversion topped the box office two weekends in a row. Still, in execution, if not necessarily in concept, The Lion King is a disappointment in my book.
Ostensibly Disney animation’s first wholly original film, The Lion King self-consciously draws on weighty sources of inspiration, including the Bible (the stories of Moses and Joseph) and Shakespeare (not only Hamlet, but also Henry IV and Henry V, with some Richard III as well). Yet archetypal patterns alone do not a great mythic tale make; see, for example, George Lucas’s Willow.
I’m tempted to dub The Lion King “Hamlet without Hamlet.” It’s got the big themes, the conflicts, the beats — but they all revolve around a boring, passive protagonist with none of the complexity or inner tensions of, say, Belle or Aladdin. (Or Kuzko or Lilo, for that matter.)
Hamlet didn’t act because he was paralyzed by conflicting impulses. Simba doesn’t act because he’s unconflicted until somebody does something to him. In Act 1, he just can’t wait to be king. In Act 2, he’s got no worries for the rest of his days. In Act 3, he realizes he has to go back (no song this time).
At almost every stage, Simba easily and unquestioningly accepts someone else’s account of who he is and what he should do. First it’s his father’s explanation that Simba will be king one day. Any unease about the weight of office? About living up to his dad’s example? About “the sun setting” on his father’s reign? Not that you’d notice.
Then perfidious Uncle Scar pulls off his fratricidal coup, and poor Simba, young and traumatized, unquestioningly accepts his uncle’s interpretation of his situation, and runs away. Never once in all that follows, until Scar’s gloating admission at the very end, does it occur to Simba to question his responsibility for his father’s death. I’m well aware that the false perceptions of childhood can survive unquestioned into adulthood, but it’s just one more way in which Simba never thinks for himself.
Then he meets Timon and Pumbaa, and accepts their “Hakuna Matata” philosophy. Any second thoughts, any regrets? Any sign of trauma over the tragedy that changed his life forever? Other than an awkward stargazing exchange, not really.
That is, not until Simba’s old playmate Nala comes along and gets in his face, which gets him down, causing him to flop heavily in the dusty grass, sending a seemingly insignificant cloud of dust billowing across the veldt with a hidden message for the likes of the mystic baboon Rafiki. Then it’s Rafiki — and, speaking from the heavens, Mufasa himself — who make it clear to Simba what he must do next. Here too there is little real conflict, only frustration with Rafiki’s eliptical guidance on the path to enlightenment.
Needless to say, once Simba decides to go back, he’s resolute. Any doubts or fears? Does his childhood memory of his uncle, or even the frightening hyenas, loom over him in his mind? Does he doubt whether he can do it? Not in any big way. A brief uneasy expression entering the elephant graveyard, and that moment of confusion as Scar presses him with his supposed guilt, is it. (An alternate scenario that’s always intrigued me: What if Simba’s childhood terror of the hyenas pursued him into adulthood? What if he encountered them first in the elephant graveyard, before confronting Scar — and recoiled in fear, still imaging them more powerful than he, until seeing that they were as afraid as he was? What if he then summoned the courage to stand up to them, and this triumph gave him new confidence…?)
Then there are the musical numbers. After the power of “The Circle of Life,” it goes downhill pretty quickly. “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is pretty insufferable — Zazu the hornbill’s running commentary is its meager saving grace — and the stylized animation and Busby Berkeley choreography follows jarringly on the awesome naturalism of “The Circle of Life.”
Worst is “Hakuna Matata,” a feeble thematic retread of a vastly superior musical celebration of carefree animal life in the wild from Disney’s golden age: The Jungle Book’s jumpin’ “The Bare Necessities.” “Hakuna Matata” is barely a song at all; it’s basically a chorus with a bit of vaudeville attached. At least they didn’t try to turn “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” into a big set piece.
Scar’s production number, “Be Prepared,” is competent but not especially memorable, paling beside the likes of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and “Gaston’s Song” (and it suffers from the same stylistic problems as “Can’t Wait to be King”). “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” isn’t bad, although it follows awfully closely on the heels of Nala’s arrival. Not much chance for building romantic tension like The Lion King’s predecessors.
It’s true that Mufasa remains a powerful presence throughout the first act, and James Earl Jones’s rumbling delivery provides all the paternal warmth as well as all the leonine authority and gravitas one could wish for. His death scene has a primal power rarely seen in Disney since the death of Bambi’s mother, and the pathos of little Simba wiggling under his father’s paw is devastating.
As Scar, Jeremy Irons’ ironic line readings are every bit the equal of Jones’s; the self-amusement of “You have no idea” and the disdainful diffidence of “some father-son … thing” put Scar at least on a par with Jafar, if not the Sea Witch.
On the other hand, the females — Nala and Simba’s mother Sarabi — are given little to do. Nala’s liberated but not empowered; she pins Simba no fewer than three times (and when she winds up on her back during “Can You Feel the Love?” it’s willingly), but her biggest contribution to the plot is to unsettle Simba and soften him up for Rafiki. As for Sarabi, her big scene consists in her head high under Scar’s dystopian regime. Not the sort of tale I want my daughters to grow up with.
Chronologically, The Lion King stands between the striking triumphs of the early Disney renaissance (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin) and the bumpy deterioration of the latter 1990s (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, etc.). One way or another, it’s at the turning point between Disney’s creative renewal and its eventual decline. Fans might locate it near the pinnacle, along with Beauty and the Beast, but I don’t feel the love.
Newly available in a number of multi-disc “Diamond Edition” multi-disc Blu-ray/DVD box sets, The Lion King looks and sounds better than ever on home video. Fans of the 3-D conversion will want the 4-disc set, which also includes a digital copy. Mad completists may have to spring for the 8-disc edition of the “Lion King trilogy” featuring two direct-to-video sequels.
Notable bonus features include an audio commentary by the directors and producer Don Hahn and a pair of retrospectives (one 40 minutes, one 20) featuring the filmmakers and others (including Broadway director Julie Taymor, who created the successful stage version of the story). Kids can watch the movie in sing along mode, and animation fans will appreciate the art gallery and storyboard/film comparison.
There are also a number of “deleted,” “extended,” “alternate” and even “abandoned” sequences, along with a Pixar-style “bloopers and outtakes” reel. The directors introduce a number of deleted scenes, which include a bit of banter between Mufasa and Zazu in which they joke about having Scar killed by a charging rhino (“How much are the rhinos charging these days?” cracks Mufasa) that might have cast a more ambiguous light on the power struggle between the two brothers. There’s also a not-great song written for Mufasa (of course, most of the songs that made it aren’t great either, but I appreciate the filmmakers watching out for Mufasa’s dignity).
There’s also an icky scene in which Scar, as king of the pridelands, chooses the grown Nala as his queen — an exhausted cliché that takes away Nala’s initiative in fleeing the pridelands to search for food and to find help, since Scar winds up exiling her when she refuses. It also weakens the film’s naturalism, since a pride comprises a male and a number of females who are all the male’s mates. Understandably, the finished film glosses over this, emphasizing Mufasa’s relationship with Sarabi and Simba’s relationship with Nala as if they were monogamous relationships. Still, I appreciate that the film doesn’t explicitly establish this.
Incidentally, note that we see Nala as a cub with her mother (named in the credits as Sarafina) — but who is Nala’s father, Mufasa or Scar? If it’s Mufasa, you’ve got a serious Luke and Leia thing going between Simba and Nala. And if it’s Scar, then that deleted scene becomes much, much more messed up. (According to Allers and Minkoff, a version of this sequence wound up in the stage version; I wonder how it plays there.)
Alas, the mission wasn’t to improve The Lion King, only to mount it as realistically as possible. Favreau wasn’t hired as a creative, but as a taxidermist.
It’s just like the opening act of Favreau’s Chef: Favreau is literally Carl, and Disney is Dustin Hoffman.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.