Simba has a lot to learn. And Mufasa, his roaring royal pop and the Pride Lands’ Lion King, is eager to teach him.
Mufasa takes time to help Simba explore the vast African valley that is their kingdom, a land that stretches for as far as the eye can see. He explains important subjects, including things about the balance of large and small, good and evil. Mufasa lays out a tapestry of an ever-renewing existence, birth and death, a circle of life.
Simba hears his father’s words. Some of them he takes to heart. But often, he’s more concerned with the fun stuff of life: romping in tall grass, chasing small birds, rollicking with best bud Nala.
Unfortunately, choosing a steady diet of silly fun over wisdom can sometimes land a young cub in trouble, even if he is the crown prince. It can lead him into threatening shadows and make deadly foes take notice. When a prince doesn’t heed his father’s words he might also find himself misled by those who want to manipulate him.
Simba’s power-hungry and sly-eyed Uncle Scar, for instance, would like nothing better than to quietly deceive a witless cub into being bait in a trap. What kind of trap? It’s a snare made up of sheer cliffs, a narrow gorge, nipping hyenas and stampeding antelope. A trap that might even kill a king, and in turn give power to the king’s wily brother.
And even though that hateful uncle masterminds the whole terrible thing, he’s engineered his plot so cunningly that he can turn to his princely, foolish nephew and exclaim, “Simba, what have you done?!” And, of course, a young purblind cub might be instantly certain that he indeed is the one to blame—running away to hide from the guilt and shame of his deeds.
Yes, Simba has a lot to learn if he’s going to reclaim the Pride Lands’ throne from his usurping uncle, Scar. Then again, after Simba bumps into a carefree warthog and meerkat duo, he’s not sure he really wants to become the Lion King after all.
Mufasa strives to teach his young son the importance of respect and wisdom. “A king’s time as ruler rises and sets like the sun,” he tells Simba. “While others search for what they can take, a true king searches for what he can give.” He also talks of their responsibility to protect the Pride Lands, as well as helping his son understand the lion pride’s place in the circle of life.
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. (Various other characters throughout the film, including Nala, Simba’s mother and eventually Simba himself all make brave, self-sacrificial choices to protect others.)
Much later, Simba realizes that he must return home and admit his cowardice in running away. He recognizes he must embrace and emulate all the virtues that his father had royally embodied. In doing so he regains the respect of the pride and begins to set things aright. Simba gradually learns that life requires more to be happy than simply doing whatever you want. It requires that you show responsibility toward others, that you stand up and do what’s right.
Simba’s meets two new friends, Pumbaa (the warthog) and Timon (the meerkat). They teach him the song “Hakuna Matata,” which means “no worries.” That carefree philosophy is in some ways a healthy one, as this pair of friends really doesn’t worry about much of anything. (But I’ll return to this theme later in my review.)
When Scar takes over as king, he lets the hyenas move into the Pride Lands. The result? The land begins withering, and the herds of other animals are hunted down and chased away. The movie aptly uses that repercussion as a metaphoric illustration of how turning from light-centered wisdom to dark and selfish choices eventually leads to the corruption of everything.
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.”
The vast realm of the Pride Lands is permeated by a generic tribal spirituality in many ways. We see it represented by the baboon shaman, Rafiki. He performs several small rituals that involve fruit juice, colored dyes and other bits and pieces of nature. He studies the crawling forms of insects on a tree stump for signs and portents, for instance. And he perceives messages of Simba’s wellbeing and whereabouts that come to him on the wind.
When Rafiki is ultimately reunited with Simba, the baboon tells the maturing young lion, “I know your father. He’s alive and I’ll show him to you. … You see, he lives in you.” Likewise, Mufasa tells Simba that the stars are actually “the great kings of the past looking down on us.” Indeed, there’s a clear sense of an afterlife, though at times these spiritual proceedings drift toward feeling like ancestor worship as well.
Elsewhere, we hear about how the lives and deaths of various animals are all a part of nature’s natural cycle—a cycle that gets knocked out of balance by Scar’s selfish and greedy mismanagement of the Pride Lands. [Spoiler Warning] But when Simba returns and reclaims his rightful throne, the rains come and the land grows green and fertile once more, as if in symbolic harmony with a land where things have been made right again.
At one point, Pumbaa and Timon suggest that living with no worries means eating, drinking and living a “meaningless life of indifference.” Life isn’t a circle, in their perspective, but a straight line. And some day you get to the end of the line and everything ends, meaninglessly. (The film’s own spiritual worldview rebuts this bleak outlook, however.)
Now, The Lion King is not an intentionally Christian movie. That said, we can still find some parallels between this story and the Christian one. We hear references to the goodness of light versus the corruption of the darkness. We hear about a king’s son “coming back from the dead” to redeem and renew his people. And when a baby Simba is presented to the kingdom, all the animals bow. Much later, a doubting Simba sees a memory of his father swirling above him in the clouds like a heavenly vision. 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.”
When Simba and Nala are young they’re told that someday they are destined to be mates, but the two cubs balk at the idea. Later, though, as adults, the attraction between them is evident and they nuzzle together. After Mufasa’s death, Scar makes an overture to Simba’s mother, Sarabi, to become his mate and, in turn, unite the kingdom. Sarabi refuses.
Though never bloody, there are several sharp-toothed, claws-out battles in the story mix. And when between very real-looking snarling animals, those fights and growling, bared-tooth threats, can feel incredibly—and surprisingly—intense.
In an early scene, slavering hyenas crawl out from their dark, steaming boneyard to threaten Simba, Nala, and Zazu, a talkative hornbill who serves as Mufusa’s majordomo. The dangerous hyenas surround them, and the hyema leader, Shenzi, speaks joyfully of eating Simba. Just before disaster strikes, Mufasa charges in and bats the hyenas violently about. Later, we see a group of hyenas swarm in and start gobbling the haunch of a dead animal that Scar has been pulling bits of meat from.
An older Simba and the pride’s lionesses growlingly tangle with a pack of glowering-eyed hyenas, filling the screen with snarling, snapping teeth, scratching claws and leaping flames. Simba and Scar pummel each other. Just as he did with Mufasa, Scar digs his claws into Simba’s paws.
One of the more frightening, peril-filled scenes for younger viewers finds Mufasa and a Simba struggling to evade a flood of stampeding wildebeests. Mufasa gets kicked, stomped and sent careening back and forth by the herd as Simba hangs perilously from a dead tree branch. Mufasa lifts Simba to safety but, thanks to Scar, tumbles backward into the surging mass of animals. We later see Mufasa’s dead body (bloodless) as a shocked Simba crawls in to lie between the lion’s lifeless paws.
Comedically, Zazu is bumped back and forth by a variety of animals during a musical number. Simba, Pumba, Timon and a number of other animals slurp up scores of scurrying insects and munch on them. Pumba agrees to be “bait” for Simba’s plan to reclaim the throne. He and Timon run for their lives as hungry hyenas give chase. The generally cowardly Pumba uncharacteristically flies into a fierce, tusk-swinging fury at one point, crying out, “I will always fight a bully!”
We hear a couple uses of “jeez.” Pumba sings out the word “fart” in the midst of a song.
Timon and Pumbaa sometimes take their “no worries” attitude to extremes, fleeing from anything that smacks of work or responsibility.
Several toilet-humor gags show up, most of them focused on warthog Pumbaa’s air-befouling tendencies. Toilet humor of another stripe shows up in the form of a dung beetle rolling a large ball of excrement.
There are always going to be some fans left frowning when you make a new version of a classic movie. You may even be dimpling your brow right now over the idea of a “live action” Lion King. That said, let me start by assuring you that this pic’s photorealistic CGI animation and sweeping soundtrack are astonishingly impressive.
At our press screening of the movie—after the opening “Circle of Life” sequence soared to a triumphant close, with a cinematic field full of joyously celebrating animals—the whole theater sat in silent awe. And one lone kid down front squeaked out a truly impressed, “Whoa!”
We adults were thinking the same.
However, there’s a caveat built into the film’s immersive imagery. The fact is, that incredible realism comes with some perhaps unintended consequences. Parents need to be aware that in this beautifully realistic mix, bared claws and teeth look far sharper, dark shadows filled with snarling enemies are far scarier. Those roaring, screeching clashes between anthropomorphized beasties can be far more intense and heart-wrenching. And Mufasa’s death scene feels even more tragic and heartrending than it did in the animated 1994 version.
All in all, this prideland morality tale packs the exact same emotional wallop and fable-like lessons of the beloved original. But some sensitive younger viewers may not be prepared for the full impact of this version’s … Whoa!
As Simba grows up, he discovers his life purpose and realizes how important good choices really are. Similarly, we can help our children seek their purpose from God first, directing their focus toward eternity. These Focus on the Family resources can equip you to encourage your kids in their true life purpose:
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.