Friday, November 2, 2012

To Serve Animals: Disney’s “The Lion King”

Disney’s Thirty-Second Animated Feature - 1994 (original release) 2011 (3D release)
I have a confession to make: I’ve never been a huge fan of The Lion King. While it’s impossible not to get swept up in its beautiful animation, top-notch voice performances, and exciting story, the essential phoniness of animal life along with its celebration of adherence to royal bloodlines and “proper” succession to the throne has always irked me. A much earlier Disney classic about animals in nature, Bambi, was set in a world where animals speak and the owl is a friend to a rabbit; but on the whole, the story of Bambi set the deer in a recognizable, realistic world. The Lion King, on the other hand, is more a movie about a European royal family (pre-Renaissance) than it is about any group of animals.

But more importantly, in Bambi, the Great Prince of the forest earned his “title” by simply (and wisely) living the longest. He was a metaphorical prince, not a prince by birthright. Now consider this royal expression from nature: the lion is the king of the beasts; meaning he’s the top of the food chain, because lions are unforgiving killing machines. They are the predator to all, not the wise monarch to all. The Lion King fudges its central metaphor.

The Lion King is pure fantasy with virtually no similarities to the lives of real lions or virtually any other wild animals of the African savannah. These particular lions imitate an old-world European royal house in all its inherent unfairness. It would seem to me easy to understand how the king’s brother, Scar (voiced by Jeremy Irons), would be a bit resentful that the king’s new baby boy, Simba (voiced as an adult lion by Matthew Broderick), has just pushed him farther from the throne if one is bound by strict succession rules. The idea that this is all wrapped in a blanket that purports to celebrate African culture doesn’t quite hit its mark. There’s an expression in the disabled community that goes, “No about us without us,” and it seems that when you consider authentic African or African-American voices in The Lion King, there’s a lot more “without us” than “about us.” The plot follows Simba as he grows up, becomes mature, and must face down his treacherous uncle (usurper to the throne), take back what is rightly his, and avenge his father’s death; so he’s got a lot on his plate.

Scar (sneering below the rock) is
annoyed that's he's now one step
farther away from the throne.
The film starts with a big production number where all the animals of the savannah show up (like the gentle animals of the forest welcoming new-born Bambi) and bow in homage to the lion king’s newborn son. In fact, the scene has more in common with the opening scene from Sleeping Beauty where the entire kingdom arrives at the palace to wish “health to the princess.” In The Lion King, it’s nice that the animals of the savannah don’t hold it against the lions that they’ll soon be eating all of them alive. Imagine King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones) requesting that one of the cow-towing zebras take a private audience and telling him (in rich basso profundo), “Zebra—you’re about to do a great service to your king and country. You’re going to be the heir to the throne’s next meal.”

"Adorable" cubs enjoy ordering
around the servant.
Another production number—“I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”—chooses the most odious aspects of royalty to showcase. It’s more than a little obnoxious when young Simba and lioness cub Nala prance about, putting servant bird Zazu (voiced by Rowan Atkinson) through his paces (read: mildly torturing him), anticipating the day when they can REALLY push the peasants around. How adorable!

The hyenas represent the "bad
element" in town.
In other scenes, this film betrays a racist view. When Scar takes over, he brings with him a group of “undesirables” in the form of hyenas. Look, I wouldn’t want to meet a hyena in a dark alley, but in terms of the African savannah, they serve their purpose in the food chain just as surely as any other animal. Suggesting that they’re inherently inferior due to their species, due to who they were on the day they were born, is not an admirable value; but I suppose in this world, if one species is “high” born, then some other species must be “low” born. The hyenas take over the once-nice “neighborhood” and render it unlivable. Hoo boy. When the white lion, er, I mean the good lion comes back, he takes care of this mess and gets rid of all of the hyenas who are ruining the property values. No human equivalent here! Insert sarcastic emoticon.

Truth be told, the story most closely follows the lives of real lions when Scar gets rid of Mufasa, shifting blame to Simba. In the animal kingdom, you’re “king” until the moment the next strongest male beats you in a fight. When his father is killed, young Simba runs away in fear. He must grow up in every sense of the word to reclaim his throne. But he reclaims it as a birthright and because he’s the “true” successor to the throne in the style of European royalty; not in the animal sense.

For me, watching a zebra (or wildebeest, or any prey animal) bow in homage to a lion is just a bit twisted. And why are people so willing to buy this? Last time I checked the figures, this film grossed more than $945 billion; that’s closing in on a TRILLION dollars. What next? A ba-zillion? Well, that’s where my argument falls on its face. This film is the most successful of any Disney feature. And simply put, THAT MANY people can’t be wrong. You can fool some of the people all of the time, etc., but if this film didn’t deliver good entertainment value, it would have fallen flat. So I have to admit, this is where my instincts are obviously misplaced.

Zillions of people have loved this movie; you probably will, too. And the recent re-release in 3D was a big hit. Though 2D films like this and Beauty and the Beast are best left without the “enhancement” of 3D, as these two worlds just don’t mesh and there’s little present technology can do to remedy that. The 2D characters in The Lion King look like paper cutouts propped up in a 3D world. I suspect the upcoming 3D version of The Little Mermaid will look a bit odd as well. And at the end of the day, when it comes to The Lion King, I prefer it if you just leave me (and my child) out of it. This movie lives in my blind spot and there’s little I can do about it.

Stories contain messages; The Lion King is not about the world of lions. It’s about finding your courage. I get that. And just maybe, finding your courage is the secret to life: give every important pursuit everything you’ve got and you’ll find out the truth about yourself. Perhaps you’ll fail, but at least you will have been fully present in your own life. But this story is expressed through a plot that’s all about monarchy for its own sake. Even the Disney features that star actual royalty (I’m looking at you, Disney princesses) don’t contain the message that royal lineage is just and fair and should be defended even to the death. They always (pardon the expression) skirt the issue and focus on the pretty clothes and attention that comes with being a princess; and they don’t hold back at showing the dangers that can come to those too close to the throne.

It comes down to this: royalty as a theme or a subplot is fun; the pursuit of the royal throne as the driving force of the plot is (to put it in kid’s terms) icky. Why graft one of the less admirable pursuits of man onto the lives of animals? I can’t imagine telling my child, “Now remember, always defend your birthright against the lesser people who try to get their share of the pie, because you were BORN more deserving of the good things in life.” Yeesh. It’s great to be king of Media Darlings because I can give this film the drubbing I think it deserves (Come here, Simba. I’ll crown you). Now excuse me, but we’ve got to do some vacuuming and wash the floors; that’s the royal “we,” of course.

No comments:

Post a Comment