Monday, November 25, 2013

The Lion King

Something bothers me about Disney’s The Lion King. Now, some of you may be outraged by what I am about to say. You may scoff at me. As I read the words below, I can feel your probable scoffing even now. But bear with me, as I do have a point.

At the beginning of The Lion King, all the animals come to the ceremony at the rock and bow to the new prince. This includes the gazelles, giraffes, elephants, etc.

Toward the end of the movie, when Scar is running things, the implication is that everyone except he and his cronies are miserable. He’s ruined the natural resources of the kingdom and forces the lionesses to hunt constantly. Obviously we’re meant to think of him as a selfish tyrant (as opposed to a good king, like Mufasa was or Simba will be).

But here is the problem: Obviously, none of the animals in the kingdom are animals, but people that look like animals. There is no reason to distinguish between them. The lions talk and have thoughts and feelings, and so do the monkeys and the birds. So, when Scar is ordering the lionesses (including the queen) to go hunt, he is ordering them to go and murder the subjects of the kingdom and drag their dead bodies back for food. Of course, put this way, Scar is confirmed to be a horrible monster. But, so are queen Sarabi and the rest of the lionesses. They are oppressed and unhappy under Scar’s rule, but they certainly don’t seem to be suffering the mental anguish one would hope goes along with becoming a serial murderer and cannibal under duress.

It's clear who's lunch at this picnic.
And it is pretty clear why they are not disturbed in this way: things can’t have been substantially different when Mufasa was king. They are lions. They are carnivores. They eat meat, which comes from animals. So, Scar may have been going about it in an “unsustainable” way (why all the trees are dead escapes me, but clearly the artistic implication is that he is mismanaging things), but Mufasa must also have had a policy of systematic murder and cannibalism because, while they are lions, they are also people, just like their prey.

It is this symbolic incongruity that disturbs me. Of course, treated metaphorically, a person who is a lion is not out of the question. And if I call someone a lion I am certainly not implying that he has all the qualities of a lion. I probably mean that he is courageous, strong, aggressive, and other commendable masculine qualities.

However, if I were to say that some particular king is a lion of a man, and then that his people are like gazelles, I have very definitely applied the flesh eating quality of the lion to the man, and at the same time I’ve applied personal qualities to his food. The Lion King does the same thing.

And why does it do it? What motivates movie makers and story-tellers in general to anthropomorphize animals? I suppose it might be awkward if a human being that looked like a human being sang a catchy tune about murdering his brother and usurping his kingdom. But, on the other hand, isn’t that an odd thing to sing a catchy song about? Done correctly, that might be a good movie of a morbid, ironic mood. But make them talking cartoon animals, and the morbidity seems lost on everyone.

This point is important, because the only alternative to noticing it is ignoring it, and if we ignore it and teach our children to ignore it, then they might continue to ignore it when actual rulers do eat their subjects.

© 2013 John Hiner III

1 comment:

  1. John, this amused me, because I had very similar thoughts about this movie in particular. In many other stories with anthropomorphic animals, like the awesome Mouse Guard, their kingdoms exist inside their species and possibly species with similar goals (herbivores working together) . Not so in the Lion King, and it forces the viewer to basically pretend they do not notice. In the animal story, the rulers can 'cull' off some of their citizens while still being the 'good guys'. However in a human lead story, like the Hunger Games, the rulers are clearly 'bad guys' for using similar tactics. In the Lion King, if your an antelope being eaten, its as though you would just lean back and say "oh well, I guess its my turn to take one for the team, thank you lion over lords"