The Lion King

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The Lion King

The Lion King, the Walt Disney Company's 1994 animated feature about a young lion cub in Africa, ranks among the most popular and most profitable films of all time. When it came out in the summer of 1994, The Lion King set off a craze among Americans young and old alike, eventually becoming the third-fastest film to earn over $100 million dollars at the box office, and bringing in millions more through creative marketing tie-ins. Combined with a massive marketing campaign, the film's dramatic plot, stunning animation, and lively score attracted audiences of all ages. Several of the film's themes—family responsibility, interconnectedness, inner direction—seemed to resonate with 1990s audiences, making the film one of the most revealing cultural documents of the decade.

Although Disney presented The Lion King as the first of its thirty-plus animated features to be an original work, the script owes artistic debts to numerous classic literary works, including Hamlet, The Adventures of Huck Finn, and Disney's own animated film Bambi. As in Bambi, The Lion King traces the travails and triumphs of a young prince—named Simba—from "holy" birth to mature adulthood. As a young child, Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and Matthew Broderick as an adult) learns of the delicate balance of predators and prey within his kingdom, the "pridelands." In a Shakespearian turn, the young prince's evil, stereotypically gay uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) dupes him into believing that his practice-roar has caused the death of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones). Guilt-ridden, Simba foregoes his royal inheritance in favor of self-exile among a merry bunch of jungle-dwelling, bohemian misfits, whose motto, "hakuna matata"—meaning "no worries"—became a hit song. Eventually, however, after intense soul-searching, Simba realizes that he, like Huck Finn before him, cannot run from his social obligations. Upon returning to the pridelands, Simba finds that Scar and his hyena henchmen have upset the delicate "circle of life" that holds the kingdom together. A climactic struggle with Scar leads to his restoration to the throne as well as ecological and social renewal. The film concludes as it begins, with the birth of a new heir.

Comparing The Lion King to Disney's 1942 classic Bambi —also the most profitable film of its decade—illuminates exactly where Disney's father-son story stands in American cultural history. Whereas in Bambi, Walt Disney selected an innocent deer to be king of the predatorless animal realm, in the 1990s, perhaps reflecting American acceptance of its own power in the post-Cold War world, Walt Disney's heirs make a predatory lion into the ruler of an animal kingdom full of predation. The Lion King's vision of the family also differs from Bambi's in significant ways. Bambi's parents represented the ideal of mid-century parents: he the classic military father, awesome and aloof yet reliable and protective; she the consummate feminine nurturer, demure and self-sacrificing. In The Lion King, however, Simba's father Mufasa epitomizes the sensitive 1990s "dad"—the loving, involved father who wakes up early on the weekends to spend quality time with his son. Simba's mother, as many feminist critics have pointed out, barely plays a role in the family. Few audiences missed The Lion King's messages about family and responsibility—the most vexing issues of the decade, according to one critic.

As in Bambi, the world in The Lion King divides into two camps—one clearly pure and good, the other wicked. But as opposed to Bambi's gun-toting hunters, in The Lion King it is evil gangs of unmannered hyenas from just outside the realm who threaten the security of the "pridelands." In the context of the Los Angeles uprisings of 1992, the O. J. Simpson case of 1994, and a decade-long debate over welfare reform, many critics saw a racial subtext to the villainous outsiders, noting that the racialized voices of the hyenas hewed to hackneyed stereotypes of African American and Hispanic threats to nice kids from the suburbs who stray too far from home.

The Lion King also ignited a lively debate among newspaper columnists, educational pundits, and parents around the nation about the role of violent death in children's films. While some argued that The Lion King included no more violence than the six o'clock news, other critics, most notably Terrence Rafferty in a much-quoted New Yorker article, argued that Disney's latest film would traumatize those children who could not easily distinguish between fiction and reality. The Lion King also received numerous complaints about its representation of nature. As Bambi did before it, critics like Ted Kerasote of Audubon magazine argued, the film eliminated any acceptable human role in nature, except perhaps as "passive ecotourists watching an Eden in which we play no part." Given its popularity despite these criticisms, The Lion King is well on its way to becoming the classic family story for post-Cold War America.

—Thomas Robertson

Further Reading:

Kerasote, Ted. "Disney's New Nature Myth: The Lion King."Audubon, Vol. 96, No. 6, 1994, 132.

Rafferty, Terrence. New Yorker, June 20, 1994, 86-89.

Ward, Annalee R. Journal of Popular Film and Television, Vol. 23,Winter 1996, 171-78.