Retrospective: The Lion King

Childhood. It is where we truly begin to discover the world around us and all that it has to offer. The brain soaks up everything like a sponge, and our earliest experiences become an indelible part of our lives, even if we can’t always fully recall everything. Like many children, my exposure to cinema began with Walt Disney, whose films have now become quintessential to the childhoods of people around the world for nearly eighty years. From an early age I saw such classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Aladdin, but it was the release of The Lion King that struck a serious chord with me. Of course, as children we can be susceptible to falling in love with things, which, in hindsight are really mediocre at best. However, some things not only retain their staying power, but grow even more deep and insightful. Needless to say, seventeen years later, The Lion King is even better than I remembered it. From the unforgettable opening shot of a golden sun peaking over the African horizon, to the momentous battle for Pride Rock, Disney’s epic hit me like a force of nature all over again.

To begin, The Lion King is a massive film. One only needs to watch the opening montage and weep in wonder. It begins so suddenly and with such assertive power, that it is as if one is experiencing a birth of some kind. In a sense, this very opening shot suggests Simba’s birth, for as all the animals look to the horizon, they begin to travel to Pride Rock. This is the true visual set up for the film’s theme of the circle of life. We are shown all of Africa’s creatures, ranging from massive elephants to the miniscule ants, all gazing to the sun and migrating towards Pride Rock. Yes, perhaps for the sake of the story they are all gathering to bear witness to Simba, but to show all of these creatures gather together prior to even revealing the lion cub truly supports the idea of interdependence. While the circle of life remains a critical idea that grounds the film, The Lion King also borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There’s little misconstruing Simba’s connection to his uncle Scar with a very similar relationship that the Bard wrote about in his masterpiece. Of course, children will never notice, but the theme of paternal loss and personal guilt remains remarkably powerful and quite mature for a Disney film. This is precisely what makes seeing The Lion King again so exciting. The minor details and nuances I never picked up on as a child are now evident to me and enrich the film even more. I never realized how terrific the writing of the comedy truly was with lines like Pumba’s “bowling for buzzards!” and Zazu’s “You are to be betrothed! Affianced!”

The grand scale of The Lion King is not only reflected in its themes and writing, but also in its visual and aural landscapes. The film often indulges in wide angles of the African savannah as well as presenting what is perhaps the most phenomenally staged and heart breaking scene in Disney history: the wildebeest stampede and the death of Mufasa. Everything about it exudes power and ferocity. Just the shot of the wildebeest descending down the cliff at a breakneck speed is enough to make one’s jaw drop, just as it does Simba’s. The scene as a whole is just simply a tour de force in animation. The thundering of the stampede, the washed out tan colors of the gorge portending doom, all accompanied with Hans Zimmer’s terrific score. What is wonderfully effective about the scene is its visual cohesiveness. Having Simba up on a lone branch while watching his father battle through a sea of wildebeest allows for the audience to remain emotionally invested in the scene, without creating confusion as to where both characters are in relation to each other. Of course, it all ends in devastating fashion, but what really rubs the salt in the wounds is Scar’s sole question to the cub as he tries to wake his dead father. “Simba, what have you done?” Not since Bambi has Disney dared to go this dark.

Of course, the major reason for the staying power behind The Lion King is its inherent ability to tug at the heartstrings and tear ducts without ever being too sentimental. The power of the relationship between Mufasa and Simba in the film’s opening half hour adds emotional relevance and significance to the remainder of the film, especially in the scene when Simba sees Mufasa’s ghost. “Simba, you have forgotten me.” Years later, that scene never fails to get the waterworks going, and the same goes for Simba’s triumphant ascendance to the throne at the climax. A personal touchstone in every sense of the word, The Lion King was the very first filmgoing experience I remember, and will remain one that I shall never forget.


~ by romancinema on October 4, 2011.

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