Tagged: the lion king

The Pathetic World of the Lion King

The morality of the Lion King is a fascinating thing because of the assumptions of the world, and specifically, how we interpret those assumptions.

Let’s get this out there, right away: Every single interpretation of The Lion King is unrealistic. We can’t kid ourselves on this: These are animals that do not communicate with one another, do not socialise with one another, there are no complex legal systems or societal boundaries to animals in the way we understand them, and birds don’t give mo-o-o-rning reports. It’s a story for kids. And that means we’re going to be talking about a diegesis that is already fundamentally fantastic.

Nonetheless, there is a popular line of conversation that forwards that Scar wasn’t so bad, and another that forwards the movie is similar to Hamlet, in which Scar, as Claudius, is very bad. I find both of these interpretations really tiresome but that’s okay, because I find the fact people are making them to be more interesting. I want to do a real quick unpack of something that the story outlines, and how people interpret that.

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Here’s the rough thesis, presented from the affirmative:

Scar is a leader who wants to encourage a unity of all peoples, and the outcome of his ideology is meaningless, because a drought ruined Pride Rock and that’s something he has no power over

And the same idea, from the opposite position is:

Scar’s failures tie into dealing with a drought that hit his territory, and how he responds to it shows he is a bad leader.

Now, these are both, I feel, internally cogent positions. After all, you can point to the fact Scar beats his sister in law for comparing him to Mufasa shows him as thin-skinned and she evokes as if they’d had a lot of conversations about this same topic, suggesting that he wasn’t listening to (potentially) useful advice; at the same time, it’s possible that he was also heavily stressed by his position, and this one conversation isn’t proof of other conversations, so he might have been lashing out in a weak moment, and so on. In each case, there is enough flexibility in the text to interpret them.

But there is also the assumption in this that the drought isn’t anyone’s fault. There’s even a fan theory that Mufasa’s actions of segregation caused the drought, and another that, as a spiritual force, he made the drought happen in order to restore Simba to his throne (which, if true, heck to you Mufasa, people – or at least animals, or maybe even lions –  probably died in that drought). The point is, the idea is that The Lion King is a story where there is a natural procession of events, and the actions of the protagonists merely exist as interruptions, disruptions in the normal regular pattern of reality as it was going to transpire anyway, and we therefore interpret the behaviour of those characters as they respond to circumstance.

On the other hand, we could point to the storybook tropes, and framing, the definitively unique nature of protagonistic characters (there are not other Warthogs, there are not other Meerkats, Simba and Nala are visually signified as being of Different Type), and the way that events only matter as they immediately pertain to individuals (look at Rafiki’s tree when he first gets wind of Simba – the tree is fine, even if the surrounding area is rough). You could very reasonably say that this world is pathetic in the most fundamental way: That the world is perceived as its relationship to human entity, in this case, even the animals are human entities – the way Zazu hangs out with lions even as the opening does make it clear that Zazu is pretty much just prey to them. There is a tension between the reality of these animals and the humanity of them – a tension the story doesn’t really want to do anything to collapse. They’re human because we perceive their humanity.

With that in mind, even the environment is human; the canyon feels huge and imposing as Mufasa falls backwards into it; the Savannah is small and local enough that everyone can quickly journey to it in time for the announcement of Simba’s birth. And with that humanity, the world that suffers shows us that Scar has a drought because Scar is a bad king. It is an inherent response of the environment to reflect the king, even in ways that it is impossible to make true.

Anyway, these are just interesting different interpretations and none of them are wrong. It says a lot about how much attention was spent on making this narrative feel whole that there are these many different interpretations, and that none of them requires too much suspension of disbelief.