Friday, November 4, 2011

Revisiting The Lion King

  The Lion King is aptly titled, because it is the crown of Disney animation's already stunning record. When this visionary take on a Shakespearean tragedy became a worldwide hit in 1994, I did not have the privilege of seeing it in the theater because I was actually in Africa at the time. Once my grandmother sent us the VHS however, it was played more times than I can count. Shortly thereafter, my family acquired the cassette tape soundtrack and our car was filled with melodious Alan Menken songs. Now, twelve years later, The Lion King makes its comeback to theaters in 3-D, DVD, and Blu-Ray, with just as much grandeur as its debut in 1994.

    Some things that were so sweet in childhood are not nearly as impressive in adulthood, but this is certainly not the case with The Lion King. The characters are every bit as charming or chilling, the songs still catchy, and the score still inspiring and appropriately majestic. When "the Lion King" was released in 1994, I was far too young to appreciate the things that strike me now in adulthood. For example, over the years I have developed an inclination for movie music composed by Hans Zimmer. I had no idea until more recently that he was the master behind the gorgeous score of The Lion King. Apparently my love of Zimmer goes further back than I realized. And I must add that the opening sequence "The Circle of Life" recaptures the wonder and magic of Africa that I have missed so much in the last few years since moving to the USA. Watching the gorgeously animated images of various East African animals and especially the shot of elephants walking through the morning mist in front of Mount Kilimanjaro was strangely emotional, because I used to be able to see that same mountain from my house. Very few films have ever adequately captured that enchantment, but "The Lion King" hits the mark bull's-eye.

     On a less personal note, as an adult it strikes me that the story of The Lion King, although cushioned in peppy tunes and lovable characters, is actually an extremely heavy plot. The fact that animals are used somehow makes it a little easier to bear, but at its heart we have a story about a child who is deceived into carrying the weight of his father's accidental death, forsaking his birthright to hide from the truth that would set him free. The themes woven into what is largely marketed as a children's or family feature are far above the usual overtones that run throughout other cartoons. Instead the writers reach deeper, hitting strongly spiritual and psychological notes.

     As a Christian viewer, Simba's conversation with his deceased father was particularly moving as Mufasa declares with sterling conviction, "You have forgotten who you are and so forgotten me. Look inside yourself; you are more than what you have become!" His father's words are far from edifying, but they call Simba to take his place, be who he was meant to be, and stop running. In facing his past, Simba not only learns the freeing truth about his father's death, he liberates an entire kingdom from the tyrannical rule of the evil Scar. As a child Simba could not have understood how his decisions would affect so many, and when confronted with the ramifications of his choices as an adult, he is initially content to continue thinking like a child. His kingdom is starving, his own subjects are suffering and dying, and yet Simba attempts to hide behind his newfound "Hakuna Matata" lifestyle as long as he can rather than face the past. When the struggle is over and the deceiver Scar has been overthrown, Simba humbly but bravely ascends the mountain and takes his place as king, now empowered with the truth and the freedom therein. The symbolism of the lions is another thought thread in itself.

    In exploring the character of Scar, it is safe to say that Scar is possibly one of the most chilling villains Disney has ever brought to the screen. While past miscreants may have squabbled for a throne or tried to eliminate competition for unspoken beauty contests, Scar's depravity reaches a certain level rarely seen in animation. It is clear that as the antagonist, he will not be stopped by anyone or anything standing in his path to power, which makes the Hitler and Nazi reminiscent imagery of "Be Prepared" especially brilliant in its usage. He would not only kill his own brother and nephew, but as soon as his reign is threatened, he turns on his own henchmen (the hyenas) that have led the coup to place him on the throne. The Lion King might be loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but the murderous Claudius who marries his lately murdered brother’s wife has more heart than Scar. Simba graciously allows Scar the chance to flee and live with his disgrace, but Scar spits in the face of mercy. 

    Going back to the things that made The Lion King one of the most loved movies of all time, it stands to reason that the team behind the creation wove in a balance of child-friendly characters and tunes with quality script and artistry for more mature viewers, making the film timeless. The dynamic duo of Timon and Pumbaa, the terrible trio of Hyenas, the majestic artistry of the distinctly African terrain, or the climactic moment when Simba climbs Pride Rock to claim the throne under the crescendo of glorious music are unforgettable pieces that come together beautifully to form a true masterpiece. The Lion King succeeds supremely as excellent entertainment, a work of art, and one of the finest examples of what animated movies can be.