Saturday, August 6, 2011

‘Cause Lions Ain’t the Kind You Love Enough

Seeing the new set of Lion King plush at the Disney Store last month set off a chain reaction, in which I bought all the plush dolls of Scar and the hyenas in order to satisfy a blind nostalgic urge, and then remembered just how crazy I had been about the film when it first premiered. I had shed this obsession years ago, both because there was nothing about the source material that held the interest of the person I grew up into, and because I was embarrassed about a period where I was as loudly obsessed as only a grade school kid can be.

This nostalgic reflex didn’t lead to any new appreciation for The Lion King. As I said, there’s very little about the movie that fascinates me anymore. Looking back, I can see the roots of my tendency to focus on some secondary characters while ignoring the main characters or even the actual themes of a work, but there’s also nothing about The Lion King that appeals to my current tastes and desires for fiction. It also can’t wriggle past my defences and still be likable in spite of that. In fact, when viewed in relationship to those same tastes and desires, I really ought to hate The Lion King, but I just can’t bring myself to.

Essentially, The Lion King is a film about the ways that altering preordained roles and causes destruction and doom. There is no room for individualism, subversion, or rebellion on a large scale. Even if the goofy comic relief are self-made exiles and happy hedonists, they’re a second branch to the main narrative, and we’re not supposed to take Timon and Pumbaa that seriously anyway.

The first subversion of the natural order is above reproach in terms of the villainy it represents. Scar messes with the secession rights by taking kingship through blatant fraud and fratricide; not much Unfortunate Implications there. However, one of the blackest marks against his reign is that he brings the forbidden hyenas into the lion lands. Scar even phrases this new integration as a “glorious future”, but it is presented as nothing but a bad idea. The Pride Lands become a waste, leaving everyone starving. It’s obviously intended that keeping the two species apart was a good thing, and only the bad guy would try changing this, because look-what-happens.

Because I was just a fourth-grader, I chalk my past up to being fond of hyenas, and that Scar has a wonderfully dark and expressive character design. Today, there’s not much interesting about their individual personalities. Scar looks cool and refined, but turns out to be a dumb coward when the chips are down, perhaps to reassure us that villains can’t really be that big a threat. Shenzi and Banzai are almost the same kind of “greedy thug/stupid minion” character, except for her being the leader and a little bit smarter, and Ed is just deranged.

(However, I still cared enough to be slightly dismayed at seeing the hyenas become even more anachronistic and anthropomorphic for the sake of comedy in the Timon and Pumbaa cartoon)

I’m also not about to re-interpret these characters as anything more palatable to my tastes, the hyenas as wrongfully persecuted, or Scar as the unjustly overshadowed sibling who hangs out with fellow exiles and altruistically helps them. The Lion King is so obviously stating that the hyenas live in rock and ruin because they somehow deserve to, and that Scar fucked up big time by bringing them into more prosperous areas, that it’s impossible to re-interpret the villains as victims.

There’s nothing in The Lion King that’s as unsettling as all this, but a few things come close. It bothers me that none of the lionesses seemed to be able to do jack until the adult Simba arrived, despite clearly being unhappy. Sure, it might be analogous to the way that real lionesses can do little when new males take over, but since lions in the movie do a billion other things that are contradictory to real lion behaviour, it’s hard to let that bit slide. The only apparent justification was that the lionesses apparently needed The King to bring them to action, since they easily subdue the hyenas in the final battle.

In terms of how the rest of the film demonstrates that pre-ordained order is above reproach, Adult Simba’s initial refusal to re-take the throne is of course set up as something that would make him look like a total dick if he followed through with it, but that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s a world where only the bad guys and the comic relief try to change their roles, and to reinforce the message, the hero is put into a position where to try to change his role means doom for everyone. Simba’s justifications for staying in the jungle, sprung from denial though they are, sound uncomfortably like the words of someone who actually has found a life that he, as an individual, desires. Of course it’s all a ruse to himself, and he really has to go back—no harm done.

In theory, I do like the idea of Simba being so psychologically traumatized that he runs away for years and tries to hide from his problems, still believing that it’s all his fault just for existing. However, he doesn’t feel so much like a flawed, crippled hero so much as one doing something for the plot’s sake. Before and after his self-imposed exile he functions perfectly as the standard male lead, and, though he has a character arc of sorts, it doesn’t feel like a very strong one. Li’l Simba leaves his post only because he is traumatized, and only re-learns his responsibility, not through his own initiative, but because Sky Dad and the others tell him to.

In addition, even if it’s breezed over by the “Hakuna Matata” number, we’re still dealing with a story where there’s a huge gap of nothing in its middle, a timeskip where Simba grows to an adult and nothing else happens. You can even play the Morality Card and get angry at the protagonist for living it up in the jungle while his home dies. Thus, I don’t quite accept the way that the plot moved Simba aside for enough time to grow into an adult, with little consequence after Simba decides to take his place in things.

It’s possible for something to be well-made but that I disagree with, yet even disregarding the subtext, The Lion King just feels like a film in which so much effort was put into animation, music, and art, but so little into story, trusting to archetypes and formulas to win the day, with that huge gap in the middle.

I’m not completely heartless about this movie: the film is still artistically gorgeous, with excellent animation and some great songs. It’s easy to be swept away by it all: despite what I said about Scar and the hyenas today, the “Be Prepared” number is still visually wondrous, and demonstrates much of why I once thought these characters were cool. In short, I can easily see why The Lion King received all the accolades it did, yet its hold on me can’t ever be that strong again. I can’t go for long without sighing over the various subtexts in the film, and realizing that I don’t deeply enjoy any of the characters anymore.

As time has passed, I’ve also come to admit that Disney does look to have ripped off Kimba the White Lion for this movie. I’ve never seen or read any of the various works in the Kimba pantheon, but the borrowing of imagery and certain character/animal roles is too obvious to ignore. It’s almost horrifying, to wonder how so many crew members could pull this shit off and get away with it, and to realize that even when Disney tries for a relatively original story, it still borrows from someone. However, it’s not enough to make me shake off the childhood cobwebs for good, even as, in the intervening years, I’ve become a big fan of Osamu Tezuka’s more mature manga.

The Lion King also reminds me of why I bought into the hatred of the Disney Monopoly. Today it’s easy for me to forget how much they overshadow the rest of American animation, but here they are…so many pretty films, a lot of them buying into the same type of story, yet they are still seen as the alpha and omega of our local cartoon content. I count some Disney movies as my favourites, and no formula is inherently bad, butut when one company dominates a local medium to the extent that animation dominates Disney in North America, it’s souring. I try to forget this rage and focus on the other animation North America has to offer, but it’s still true.

Years ago, I watched the sequel, The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride, which wasn’t...horrible, but it suffered hugely from a couple of things. The first is that it’s built on a premise that had no evidence in the original film: that there were lionesses who supported Scar, and were kicked out when Simba assumed the throne. Now they are are now back for revenge, which leads to a forbidden romance between Simba’s daughter Kiara and one of the evil lionesses’ sons, Kovu.

The Outlander’s reasons for supporting  Scar are never explained, and indeed their existence is so contradictory to the “spirit” of the first film, the writers look to be scrabbling for something to base their plot on. The idea of Scar having supporters is a great idea if one were starting a story from scratch, but here it’s just tacked on, the themes of the film series contradicting themselves—why present rule from an “unnatural” king as absolutely hated, and then retcon in supporters, unless you’re really starved for content?

However, funnily enough, The Lion King 2 still has more in the way of themes that appeal to me. The exiles (fellow lions, this time, which probably helps explain it on multiple levels), are allowed to return to prosperous lands instead of their exile being part of The Way It Is. Kovu specifically decides that he does not have to live the legacy that’s been created for him. Having Zira, Kovu’s biological mother, be the main villain, in a way that pulls almost no punches, is also refreshing.

That doesn’t make this a good film, though. Besides its thinly-supported premise, The Lion King 2 also falls prey to many of the clichés of works that depict former protagonists as parents: Simba and Nala’s original personalities are almost entirely subsumed into cardboard parent roles, and Simba, being the father character, gets all the focus, and is over-protective rather than free-wheeling like he once was. It’s possible to balance old and new protagonists in a character-family, and not have anyone’s personality left behind, but The Lion King 2 isn’t where one should go looking.

Secondly, though Scar’s design was wonderful in itself, the “evil” lionesses are designed around the same mentality: that the antagonist lions must look leaner and longer and nastier, so that the audience knows who to root for. It makes them stand out even more in comparison to the generic, voiceless lionesses of the rest of the original pride.

And of course there’s the main hero, Kovu, who is not supposed to be Scar’s biological son but his selected successor, despite growing up to look like Mufasa with Scar’s colouring. This is supposed to have resulted from the production staff belatedly realizing what convoluted incest would result when Scar’s son got involved in a romantic relationship with Simba’s daughter, although you think somebody would have noticed before Kovu’s design was finalized. As a result, the film looks awkward in another, entirely different way. And who the hell is Kovu’s father, then?

All in all, I’ve ended up with a film/franchise that I loved as a child, but have been finding it more and more difficult to accept into my current world, but also difficult to reject on those same terms. The Lion King is impossible to forget, but hard to love consciously for a long period. I can get swept up in the art and music of the film, but it fades. The characters that I used to love I find wanting, and the messages of the film can get unsettling, though I know this wasn’t their intention.


  1. I was thinking about this movie a few weeks ago, and I came to the conclusion that it is a rewrite of Hamlet, but with even fewer pirates.

  2. The official byline is that TLK was inspired by Hamlet, just as the sequel was inspired by Romeo and Juliet and the midquel was inspired by "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead". And I can see that.

    But the inspiration from Kimba is pretty obvious, and goes far beyond the name and being about lions.