In 1994 Disney released The Lion King to audiences full of children. It went on to become the highest grossing traditionally animated film of all time. To achieve this, an audience of more than children was required. Disney is well versed in grabbing the attention of adults and achieving such a high profit took a colorful subcontext to keep their attention. Deconstructing The Lion King provides insights into queer theory, postcolonialism, and gender. Further observations can be made utilizing classic narrative cinema, aesthetics, genre, structuralism, code, and gaze.
A young lion prince, Simba, is born to king Mufasa in Africa. This reduces Scar, uncle to Simba, to second in line to the throne. Scar plots with the hyenas to kill Mufasa and Simba, thus making himself king. The coup doesn’t go as planned, but nonetheless results in the death of Mufasa. Scar leads Simba to believe that Mufasa’s death was his fault. Believing his uncle, Simba flees the savannah for the jungle. There he meets friends, Pumba and Timon, who teach him to forget his troubles and live carefree. When old friends find Simba, he is grown and ready to become king. They convince him to take responsibility, return to the Pride Lands, and overthrow Scar.
A queer reading of the film focuses on the character of Scar, the antagonist to young Simba and his parry in numerous ways. Scar is laced with codes indicating homosexuality. Some of these are verbal, implied through, or demonstrated through mannerisms.
Early in the film Simba and Scar share a dialogue. Simba states, “Uncle Scar, you’re so weird.” To which Scar replies, “You have no idea.” The way in which Scar sees himself as “weird” is never clarified though it is elaborated upon. Leading up to the “Be Prepared” musical. The hyenas are conversing over their discuss of the lions; they go on to discard Scar as a lion, saying he is one of them.
Under Scar’s control, the Pride Lands fall under hard times. The once fertile, sunny land becomes dark and desolate. The symbolism is inherit and showcases homosexuality’s lack of reproductive capabilities. Furthermore, the ideology of the filmmakers is expressed in Scar’s defeat. It is here that Simba’s reestablishment of the heterosexual ideology restores full order to the universe of the film. Not only are the forms of animal life living in harmony, the ecosytem is rejuvenated; quite an amazing feat considering the minimal dynamics of lion agriculture.
Scar is labeled as the “other”, someone outside the circle of lions and taking with association with the hyenas. This makes him a more dynamic villain and easier to dislike because of the lack of mutually identifiable traits between the character and the target audience.
The shadows of colonialism are visible in The Lion King’s postcolonialism world. Most creatures of the world are granted the power of voice and audience. Their preferred means of communicating is no less than the English language. The characters appear oblivious to history or even humans. Since there is no mention of people, the language wasn’t learned from humans, but rather passed on through the animal kingdom and crossing interspecies lines.
But the use of English is not the first manner in which postcolonialism is manifested. At the opening, the sunrises and various animals come together through the use of what appears to be traditional African vocals heard with the accompaniment of Western instruments.
The status the lions receive as lords over the other creatures is directly tied to feudalism. This view is introduced alongside the introduction of Simba. There, varying species pay homage to their king. Their reasons for doing so, at first, don’t appear to be meaningful beyond the popular saying that the lion is the king of the jungle. On the surface, this layer of reasoning is enough for a small child to digest. As the film develops, the responsibility of the king becomes more evident. Simba learns of what the film calls “the circle of life”, in which each living thing is dependant upon another. Still this offers no logic behind why antelope, giraffes, and elephants should bow before a lion. Later Mufasa’s daily responsibilities are showcased. He actually has a staff of advisors. There are a variety of reports he must observe, just as an actual king. There is the morning report delivered by Zazu the hornbill and majordomo. This is soon followed by “news from the underground” delivered by a gopher. It seems that the activity of submissive species is of concern, often described as a herd on the move or intruders in the form of hyenas.
It isn’t simple enough to state that Mufasa, Scar, and Simba are lions; they are males. Their gender empowers them. Each of them shares time within the film as the king and in doing so they are a male figure of power. Most of the narrative does little to usurp the idea of having a male as an all-powerful figure. It is not till the final act that Scar is in charge and he calls upon Sarabi, Mufasa’s widow. She questions his authority, explaining that her hunting party has exhausted resources. She goes on to imply that Scar isn’t even half the king mufasa was. Though it goes unseen, this one scene explains that women are placed with the duty of providing food. This runs contrary to Western stereotypes, but is in order with the behavior of lions. Little else is done in the film to address woman issues and female characters are reduced to augmenting male decisions.
The Lion King fills the bill for many genres. At the most basic level it is animated. Animated features out of Hollywood are almost always geared toward children. Children can easily see the correlations between the bright colors of there television programs, and the similar images of these feature length adventures. This film is no different. Throughout most of the picture, the palette has bright warm colors; evoking sunsets, exotic flowers, etc.
Most responsible for the animated motion picture is Disney. The success of the first animated feature, Snow White, left a blueprint for success through the decades. Hailing from the same lineage, The Lion King holds true to many of them. The story’s plot is sometimes driven through musical numbers. This engages the audience and exploits the realism of the film. During these musicals, the impossible and unlikely become realized. The first song, “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”, is a fine example. The grandeur of colors suddenly brightened by a radiant beam emitted by Simba during a single pounce, are the first break from the narrative as a straight forward world. This beam of palette change spreads to nearly everything within the number, all landscape is altered and some previously unvocal animals are given throwback cartoon eyes and teeth. Keeping with Disney tradition, many backup singers are provided in the form of unrelated characters. Animals join in uninvited, and perform song and dance with Simba with all the precision of a German automobile. Granted, talking lions have little to do with reality, their concerns and values were firmly planted in human ideas. However, with the introduction of song and dance, their plight is lightened and the serious tone the film sometimes conveys is starkly contrasted.
Disney does throw in the occasional adult reference. These are allusions or impersonations from history unbeknownst to the youngest viewers. The mildest in the case of The Lion King is seen when Rafiki effectively channels Bruce Lee while fighting hyenas. He suddenly becomes a kung-fu master, shrieking away as he pummels the opposition. Two quick movie references are pulled together when Pumba confronts a hyena who called him a “pig”. Pumba begins his retort by doing De Niro’s famously overused Taxi Driver “You talking to me” monologue. Then he finishes with Poitier’s In the Heat of the Night, “They call me MISTER Tibbs!” But the version belted by Pumba has a twist, “They call me MISTER Pig!”
The most shocking references placed in the film have political and social connotations. The first is an allegory that ties Scar to Adolph Hitler. During his “Be Prepared” song, Scar climbs to a rock overseeing a sea of hyenas. Organized, they form into grids of goose-stepping soldiers eager to follow the plans of their king. The imagery bares a striking and unmistakable resemblance to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of Will. Moments later Scar is lifted into the night’s sky by volcanic activity thrusting his platform higher. Behind him a crescent moon is visible. The same moon is seen again when Scar assumes the duty of king. It isn’t a naturally occurring shape, but a stylized design seen in the flags of Muslim countries. The association of Scar with Nazis is universally read as coding him with evil; evidenced by the German defeat during WWII causing their history to be written by the victors. Tying Scar’s cause to Islam, an active religion used across the world, seems to be an attack on the practitioners. In making generalizations, the Nazis and Islamic fundamentalist have a common enemy in the Jewish people. By combining the two into one figure, Scar becomes read as an anti-Semite. The hyenas make no mentions of Pride Rock as being their former home, but hesitance to leave in times of famine, indicate a bond with the location. Mixing further metaphors can lead to the conclusion that Pride Rock (Isreal) is at risk of falling into the hands of the hyenas (Muslims).
Disney films are criticized for being highly predictable. This falls in line with the classical Hollywood narrative. The sides are clearly defined as good or bad in a world with no room for gray area. The coding is simplified to be easily comprehended by children. Since the inception of the Disney film, the bad or evil characters are unsympathetic. Their lives are not depicted in a manner in which they hold the gaze of the audience. They represent everything the protagonist is against. Here the conniving Scar is coded through the use of color. His mane is darker than that of any other lion. The rest of his coat is darker compared to the light beige of both Simba and Mufasa. Children are taught from an early age to associate dark with something with which to fear. Today this seems to be the doing of the media. Shadows are associated with horror films and children learn from knowledge passed on to them to fear the dark and the unknowing of what lurks within it. The perception of danger associated with darkened images extends to the lair of Scar. Shadows follow Scar as he changes residency. The dark land outside of the control of Mufasa, known as the Elephant Graveyard is home to Scar’s lackey hyenas. It is almost built out of morbid colossal bones and has not even a hint of backstory. Since the hyenas populate this zone, it would seem that they are in number powerful enough to slaughter numerous elephants.
While not all scenes include the protagonist, they relate directly to him. Scar’s activities, when shown, depict his train of thought as he plots to kill Simba. Pumba and Timon share a song which features a flashback, while singing to Simba. Finally Rafiki, the witch doctor baboon, is always seen thinking of Simba or drawing him for the sake of historical records. Going solely by what is depicted, the plot of the film always concerns Simba. Our hero figure is also given a love interest, Nala. She goes absent throughout the second act, but emerges almost out of thin air to provide story-driving exposition. It is there that she is subject to the gaze of Simba, encouraging him to return home. A feminist perspective can read Nala as having to rely upon him. It wouldn’t be impossible for the remaining female lions to defeat Scar, and if the situation was as bleak as depicted, it would be expected of them. Instead they preach responsibility to the ostracized Simba, and not being responsible in their own right. Regardless, the formula persists with Simba removing Scar from power. Scar is then killed just off frame by the betrayed hyenas. This is as close as the hyenas come to redemption. At the film’s final sequence, all the animals on friendly terms return to Pride Rock to see the presentation of Simba’s cub; no hyenas are visible.
The Lion King is a film laced with imagery, metaphors, and symbolism. Different readings can produce a variety of interpretations. Through structuralism, it is understandable to see how a variety of interpretations exist. With this concept in mind it is possible for each viewer to create his/her own reading of a work of cinema. ***