Friday, March 26, 2021

A King Needs a Mane

The Lion King, Disney's 1994 animated feature, wasn't just the highest grossing movie of the year, it's also the highest grossing hand drawn animation film of all time, by a wide margin--over 968 million compared to The Simpsons Movie at number two with 536 million. The box office for Disney's animated films had steadily increased since The Little Mermaid and The Lion King was the high water mark. Why did it do so well? Maybe it's the simplicity of the story, maybe it's the fact that its story is by far the most conservative of any Disney film. It emphasises the importance of personal responsibility, of honouring tradition and blood relation. Many people may also have liked the patriarchal model it presents of family and government. Some may regard some of its supporting characters as Queer-coded and consider the story as an instruction of how such people should rightly be integrated into society (not in decision making roles). It's even been argued that the story endorses racial segregation, which may be reading too much into it. It's also a notoriously derivative film, particularly in Japan, where its resemblance to Kimba the White Lion is unmistakable. But the simplicity of The Lion King's story, the resonance of its themes, and the brilliance of its songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, make it an undeniable triumph in its own right.

It seems like no-one expected it to be so successful by half. It was produced at the same time as Disney's subsequent feature, Pocahontas, and many of the best animators, including Glen Keane, chose to devote themselves to the human oriented feature. After all, hadn't the lesson of the Disney Renaissance been that audiences wanted stories about sexy young humans, not animals?

Of course, there is sex in The Lion King, arguably more than in any other Disney film. I'd be far from the first to point out the significance of the scene where adult Simba (Matthew Broderick) wrestles Nala (Moira Kelly) and she allows him to pin her. There's something Disney wouldn't have dared with human characters, it feels like the envelope is being pushed as it is. If you want a lecture about the connexion between Simba's viability as a mate and his acceptance of responsibility, you can watch Jordan Peterson's lecture.

Kimba the White Lion is the English title of ジャングル大帝 or "Jungle Emperor". One of the early working titles of The Lion King, notably, was King of the Jungle. Kimba/Jungle Emperor was a manga created by Osamu Tezuka in 1950 and remains relatively well known in Japan to-day. In fact, in the city where I live in Japan, Kashihara, I came across an exhibition of some cell art from the anime series that premiered in the late 1960s. The lion cub's name was originally "Leo" but he was called "Kimba" in the English language adaptation. It's the story of a lion king, if you will, in Africa who rules over all the animals. When the king dies, young Leo must take up the mantle of leadership. The story differs from The Lion King primarily in that Leo, like his father, leads the beasts in a struggle against encroaching human industry. The anime series' opening theme animation has a strong resemblance to the opening of The Lion King, including a shot of the king lion on a boulder projecting out from the side of a mountain and shots of various animals running together as though being summoned.

While Disney movies are very popular in Japan, and merchandise for many Disney movies can be found practically everywhere, I've yet to see anything for The Lion King, nor have I heard anyone mention liking the movie. Though, to be fair, Disney fans here tend to prefer films with pretty human princesses. Still, when The Lion King was first released, it drew widespread protest in the Japanese animation industry, including a letter signed by 488 cartoonists and animators asking Disney to credit Jungle Emperor. People involved with the production of The Lion King have claimed not to have heard of Jungle Emperor, which seems especially unlikely considering one of The Lion King's two directors, Roger Allers, had not only lived in Japan for two years but had also worked in the Japanese animation industry. Wikipedia notes that the Tezuka estate and company haven't pursued litigation and have made public statements denying significant connexions between the properties, which smells to me like the there was a quiet deal worked out between the two parties.

When I was at San Diego State University (from 2015 to 2017) in California, I was struck by how popular The Lion King seemed to be among the students. It wasn't Jungle Emperor they usually compared it to, though, but to Hamlet. I heard students randomly mention it in class so many times that finally, on one occasion, I asked, "Why do people keep mentioning this?" I received only confused silence in reply. It was only later that I figured out it was because students figured part of their grades were due to in-class demonstrations of independent critical thought. Who knows who, long ago, first mentioned The Lion King's resemblance to Hamlet, but the little oral crib note evidently passed from one classroom to the next like a legend.

It is a little bit like Hamlet, in that it features an uncle, in this case Scar (Jeremy Irons), who murders the king, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), in order to claim the throne. And then the son, Simba, is visited by his father's ghost and urged to remember his inheritance. But Hamlet is about the ambiguity of knowing what one's responsibility is--there's no sign that Claudius wants to kill Prince Hamlet and Hamlet's reluctance to kill Claudius is not due to any fear of his inherited responsibility to rule Denmark. While The Lion King has some superficial details reminiscent of Hamlet, the underlying theme of responsibility is matched my more closely by Henry IV, and Simba's compulsion to ignore royal obligation in favour of the Hakuna Matata lifestyle is much more like Prince Hal wasting his time with Falstaff and Poins. It's interesting to note that King Henry IV's anxieties about his son's apparent failure to accept the dignity of his birthright are related to the fact that Henry IV deposed the previous king, as seen in Shakespeare's Richard II. The Lion King emphasises the importance of bloodline far more than Hamlet or Henry IV.

When Scar takes over, he shockingly proclaims that the lions and hyenas will now live side by side--I think there's some merit to claims that the film is showing racial or at least ethnic integration to be a bad thing. The hyenas are shown to be uniformly evil, though considering the lions and the hyenas both kill and devour their fellow beasts, it's not clear what literally makes the hyenas worse than the lions, unless it's the fact that they join in Scar's strategies of winning via lies and schemes. I would attribute this more to laziness on the part of the writers rather than outright racism.

It's not clear why the land turns dry and dead under Scar's rule, but that's okay. It's basically like the health of the land mirroring the health of King Arthur.

I've talked about the underlying Royalist ethic behind Disney movies all through my reviews of the canon and certainly we can see its full expression in The Lion King, even as we can also look at it as an illustration of Aristotle's concept of relationships between ruler and subject being replicated down through instances in social strata. You're watching a movie about a king and a prince, but it's really about a dad and a son and the kingdom is the household and family. The film wisely spends a lot of time showing the relationship between Mufasa and Simba before the king is killed.

Jeremy Irons as Scar is almost too broad, oozing lethargic menace. The resentment of the family's confirmed bachelor--unlike Gertrude in Hamlet, Simba's mother doesn't end up wed to the murderous uncle--is directly tied in dialogue to his unusual lack of physical strength. This mirrors the film's other arguably Queer characters, Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella). Both represent paths outside of the traditional order and it's significant that Timon and Pumbaa become heroes in the climax due to their willingness to accept Simba's authority. Timon, Pumbaa, and Scar aren't fit to rule the kingdom any more than Nala or Simba's mother--they're not strong enough. Everyone accepts that implicitly except Scar.

It's his weakness and misfit quality that differentiate Scar from Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, an altogether more menacing villain. Jeremy Irons' performance is almost like a parody of George Sanders as Shere Khan. Great new villains were at one time one of the chief assets of Disney animated films but the Renaissance has three movies in a row where the villain is essentially a copy or parody of one from another movie--Gaston is a broader version of Brom Bones, Jafar is a less complicated version of Jaffar from The Thief of Bagdad, and Scar is a slightly homophobic version of Shere Khan.

The simplicity of its underlying themes is The Lion King's chief asset and most viewers are able to ignore some of the lamely conceived plot elements, like Simba's accepting the blame for his father's death at the end--followed by the equally lame moment where Scar compulsively confesses his guilt like a cheap Bond villain.

There's still plenty to recommend the film, especially the songs. The Lion King is available on Disney+.


This is part of a series of posts I'm writing on the Disney animated canon.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Saludos Amigos
The Three Caballeros
Make Mine Music
Fun and Fancy Free
Melody Time
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Alice in Wonderland
Peter Pan
Lady and the Tramp
Sleeping Beauty
101 Dalmatians
The Sword in the Stone
The Jungle Book
The Aristocats
Robin Hood
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
The Rescuers
The Fox and the Hound
The Black Cauldron
The Great Mouse Detective
Oliver & Company
The Little Mermaid
The Rescuers Down Under
Beauty and the Beast

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