A young lion has a lot to learn.
Simba is the son of the Prideland’s king, Mufasa. And this cub would do well to pay attention to what his royal pops has to say. After all, there’s a balance in their animal kingdom world that Mufasa is patiently trying to explain. It’s a balance of large and small, good and evil. And that’s big stuff. Life stuff. Simba, however, is more concerned with the fun he might have in an elephant graveyard. So he purposely disobeys his father’s wishes and ventures into the dark land of the giggly but very nasty hyenas.
Thankfully, Dad shows up just in time.
Simba could also use a little wising up when it comes to his sly-eyed Uncle Scar. Being manipulated by that power-hungry cat could be even worse than messing with hyenas. At least you know when they’re trying to hurt you. Again, Simba is more concerned with practicing his roar than sharpening his wit. So he lets himself be used as bait to draw Mufasa into a horrible trap. A trap of sheer cliffs, a narrow gorge, nipping hyenas and stampeding antelope.
And there’s no one to save the day this time.
Even though Scar masterminded the whole terrible thing, he turns to his nephew and moans, “Simba, what have you done?” And, of course, the young prince is instantly certain that he indeed is the one to blame. He’s convinced that he must run away. Run away from his guilt and the pain that will fill his mother’s eyes. It’s just the reaction Scar is counting on.
Will the guilt-ridden cub ever learn what it takes … to be a lion king?
Mufasa tries to get his young son to understand the importance of respect and wisdom. “There’s more to being king than just getting your way all the time,” he tells Simba. “Everything you see exists together. There’s a balance to the world and nature. … You must respect all the creatures.” He talks of their responsibility to protect the Prideland and their being a part of the circle of life. (Even though lions hunt other beasts of the field, for instance, when the lions die they go back to the earth and are part of the cycle of growth that feeds the antelope and deer.)
Mufasa points out the foolishness of Simba’s disobedience and false bravado with the hyenas. “Being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble,” he says, backing up his words with actions. Because when it comes to saving his son, there is no limit to Mufasa’s bravery as he sees to the boy’s safety before trying to save himself. Much later, Simba realizes that he must return home, admit his wrongdoing and emulate all that his father had proved himself to be. In doing so he regains the respect of the pride and begins to set things straight. It’s exactly as the baboon shaman Rafiki tells Simba, “The past can hurt, but you can run from it or learn from it.”
Simba’s pals Pumbaa and Timon teach him the song “Hakuna Matata,” which essentially translates to “don’t worry.” They state that this is their life philosophy. And it can be a good one, actually, even a biblical one. (But not exactly in the way Pumbaa and Timon practice it.) Simba later clarifies the idea with, “Sometimes bad things happen and there’s nothing you can do about it, so why worry?” And we’re not left thinking we should skip merrily and obliviously through difficulty. Rather, it’s made clear that while ignoring the pain of life isn’t necessarily positive, standing up and doing what’s right is always the best choice.
When Scar takes over as king, he lets the hyenas move into the Prideland. The result? The land begins withering and the herds of other animals move away. The movie aptly uses that repercussion as a metaphoric illustration of how turning from light-centered wisdom to darkness leads to the corruption of everything in your life. [Spoiler Warning] Thus, when Simba returns and routs Scar and his hyena charges, the rains come and the land grows green and fertile once more.
When Simba faces down the evil Scar, the older lion fears that his nephew will kill him. But Simba states, “No, Scar, I’m not like you.”
There are a number of Christian parallels in The Lion King story—from repeated references to the goodness of light vs. the corruption of darkness to a focus on a king’s son “coming back from the dead” to redeem his people. When a baby Simba is presented to the kingdom, all the animals bow. And at one point a doubting Simba sees a heavenly vision of his father swirling above him in the clouds like a spirit. It encourages the young lion to “remember who you are … you are more than you have become … you are my son and the one true king.”
There is also a hybrid of tribal spiritualism represented by the baboon shaman Rafiki. Other animals kneel in respect as he passes. And he performs several small rituals that involve fruit juice and other bits and pieces of nature. On the day of Simba’s birth he rubs sticky juice on the cub’s brow and sprinkles him with dirt. Later he tosses gathered leaves and seeds in a bowl and studies them for a message about Simba’s wellbeing and whereabouts.
Rafiki tells Simba, “I know your father. He’s alive and I’ll show him to you. … You see, he lives in you.”
Simba and his betrothed counterpart Nala rub their heads together and share kisses in the form of licks. Simba’s meerkat pal Timon dons a skirt of leaves to “dress up in drag” and dance the hula.
Though never bloody, there are several sharp-toothed battles. In an early scene, the slavering hyenas crawl out from their dark, steaming boneyard to threaten young Simba, Nala and Zazu, who is the king’s majordomo. They stick Zazu in a lava pit in an effort to cook him (he rockets off with a smoking trail) and then lunge with snapping jaws at the scurrying cubs. Simba scratches a hyena’s face in defense of Nala. Just before disaster strikes, Mufasa charges in and bats the hyenas violently about. Scar tosses his hyena friends the haunch of a zebra and the creatures quickly begin eating it offscreen. (Scraps of striped skin dangle briefly from their gobbling mouths.)
A massive tussle between an older Simba and the lionesses and scores of glowering-eyed hyenas fills the screen with snarling, snapping teeth, scratching claws and leaping flames. Simba and Scar pummel each other in slow motion. Just as he did with Mufasa, Scar digs his claws into Simba’s paws.
One of the more frightening and peril-filled scenes for younger viewers finds Mufasa and a young Simba struggling to escape from a flood of stampeding antelope. The lions are kicked, stomped and sent careening back and forth by the herd. Mufasa lifts Simba to safety but, thanks to Scar, tumbles backward into the surging mass of animals. We later see Mufasa lying still, seemingly unscathed but undoubtedly dead as Simba tries to nudge him awake.
Comedically, Zazu is bumped back and forth by a variety of animals during a musical number. And he ends up pinned beneath the ample rump of a female rhino. A hyena falls into a briar patch and emerges covered in barbs and stickers.
Several uses of “geez.” A hyena calls his barb-covered fellow a “cactus butt.” A yell substitutes for an unspoken profanity when we hear, “Why do I always have to save your AHHHH!”
Timon and Pumbaa sometimes take their “no worries” attitude a bit too far. And they say it will “solve all your problems.” Several toilet humor gags show up, most focused on warthog Pumbaa’s flatulent tendencies.
At first glance, The Lion King appears to be an African folk rhythm-laced tale about a lost cub/prince who returns home to reclaim his father’s kingdom. But if you look closer you’ll see a lot more woven into the colorful fabric of this Disney musical.
Indeed, this is a story with solid Shakespearian underpinnings, including a duplicitous uncle who guilefully disposes of the rightful monarch, an angsty Hamlet-like hero who runs from his woes, and even a dash of madness in the character of Rafiki. You can also see in it the clear thread of a social morality tale. Young Simba must decide whether to take Pumbaa and Timon’s easier, head-in-the-sand approach and live a carefree but pointless existence or … face up to his fears, admit his wrong, and fight for the wellbeing of his family, his friends and his community.
Add in the insightful spiritual components (and initiate dialogue about the “earth-worship” tendencies of Rafiki) and families can certainly find benefit by soaring through this bright land full of cuddly and comically creepy critters. Soak up the sweeping crescendo of “Circle of Life” and the romantic, Oscar-winning strains of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Then dodge the scary/semi-brutal moments with younger members while pointing out the examples of self-sacrifice and bravery.
A 3-D UPDATE: A 2011 3-D re-release of this 1994 film has freshened the color palettes and added depth to some of the story’s grander scenes. It’s the same movie I saw with my little ones way back when. But now it actually feels just a smidge wiser. The music seems a bit sweeter. The sky-high views a touch more breathtaking. Oh, and the running beasts kick up dust clouds in your face.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.