The Lion King (1994)

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Has any other movie’s opening ever given me chills the way the way the beginning of The Lion King does, even to this day? I don’t think so.  The slowly rising sun as the song begins with a flourish swept me back to my childhood in a way no other Disney film has so far.  This is likely because The Lion King is the pivotal Disney movie of my childhood.  It’s the first Disney movie (and possibly first movie, period) I remember seeing in theaters. I can still recall crying like a baby at Mufasa’s death, yet loving the music and the overall story. This film is one of the definitive moments of my childhood, but can it possibly live up to the epic proportions I’ve built it up to?

Truthfully, yes. This film is still as magical and emotional as ever, with new levels of weight added to the story when viewed as an adult.  The story of Simba’s loss and Scar’s rise to power is just as emotionally charged as ever, with the viewer sympathizing with Simba’s pain even as we simultaneously yell at the screen that his father’s death wasn’t his fault.

The film can be broken into two halves. The first focuses on Simba as a child, making typical childish mistakes and learning valuable life lessons from his father.

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The lessons Mufasa passes onto his son feel just a tad heavy-handed as an adult viewer, but they’re actually great ways for young children to learn about life and death.  Mufasa explains the circle of life, and the way all creates on the plains are connected.  I never thought of this as unnecessarily adult content, but rather felt like I was watching a film that was somehow grown-up and “adult” yet still being okay for a kid to watch. It has far more range and depth than, say, The Rescuers, and not once does the film talk down to its target audience.  It presents the story in an emotional yet matter-of-fact way, allowing viewers to react to the story without exposing them to something that would be traumatizing.

This is really the crux of the film, and a fine line that Disney walks magnificently.  Upon reflection, I realized that this is only the second Disney film to feature the death of a main character (who’s not a villain), the first being Bambi.  The Lion King is unique in its portrayal of death though.  In Bambi, Bambi’s mother is killed off-screen, indicated by the sound of gunshots, and while we see Bambi calling out to his mother for a few seconds, this is essentially the end of that part of the story. His father shows up and leads him away, and that’s the last we hear of dear old Bambi’s mom.  The Lion King not only kills a parent, but shows that dead parent on-screen, creating what is perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching scenes Disney ever made.

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Try and tell me you don’t still cry at this scene.  Not only is Mufasa’s death blatantly depicted on-screen, it winds up being the crux of the film, causing Simba to run away and try to forget his past life.  Never has death been such a major theme in a Disney film, and this could easily have sparked outrage among parents.  Instead, Disney handled the death with the amount of respect and realism needed, while still keeping it from being too devastating. After all, what better way to expose children to the concept of death than through the death of a cartoon animal?

This is essentially the end of the 1st act. The 2nd act begins as Scar has taken over the pridelands, while Simba is taken in by Timon and Pumbaa, the wise-cracking sidekick characters akin to Abu from Aladdin.  The pair essentially adopt Simba and raise him, with little changing as Simba grows from child to adult.

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His life is care-free (Hakuna Matata, and all that) until Nala shows up and begs him to return and take his place as King.  Simba refuses, fearful of the repercussions of being responsible for his father’s death (I’m punching a pillow at this point screaming at the t.v. IT WASN’T YOUR FAULT YOU DUMMY!!!!).  It’s not until Rafiki shows up and lets Simba experience some sort of odd connection to the other side, in which Mufasa berates Simba for turning his back on who he is, that Simba realizes what he must do and returns home.  By all accounts this scene should have seemed silly and overdone, and yet it doesn’t.  Mufasa’s appearance carries the amount of weight one would expect, marking a turning point in Simba’s life as he is able to overcome his guilt and do what’s right.

This is pretty heavy stuff for Disney. Can we just take a minute to acknowledge that?  Since when does Disney deal with life and death in such serious terms?

Simba returns and overthrows Scar, but not before Scar is forced to admit to the pack that he killed Mufasa.  The film closes as the pride lands return to their former glory, and Simba assumes his role as King.

…Man oh man, this movie is an emotional roller coaster.  There are plenty of laughs, but they’re interspersed between truly heavy moments and discussions about the nature of life and death.  This feels like yet another example of a movie that would never, ever be made today, as parents would likely be up in arms over the “adult” nature of the story.  Thank god this came out in the 90s, when parents had no such qualms.  I don’t remember any specific moment in which I had a “nature of life and death” conversation with my parents, but I remember seeing this film when I was only 5 or so, leading me to believe that this movie was likely my first encounter with the concept of death.  It’s a brilliantly safe way for kids to be exposed to the concept, if they’ve been lucky enough to avoid it in real life up until that point.  Like AladdinThe Lion King is a beautifully done film, and while it’s a bit heavier on the subject matter than Aladdin, it’s still an enchanting movie.  So yes, even as a 27-year old this movie still gives me chills that are virtually unparalleled by any other Disney film I can think of.  If that’s not a hearty recommendation, I don’t know what is.

-Jess

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