The Lion King. 2019. Disney. Directed by Jon Favreau. USA.
The Lion King (2019) marks another significant achievement in photo-realistic digital animal performance, and the goal of eliminating live animal performance grows ever more feasible as the gap between digital imagery and live action footage narrows. This evolution, although it promises to liberate animals from performing for movies, creates digital performances that are vulnerable to human intervention from within. Put another way, a troubling potential of digital nonhuman performances is how they can erase species-specific traits and behaviors in ways that are not always obvious to audiences (Porter 2006). While The Lion King of 1994 was obviously hand-drawn, the digital polish of 2019 invites audiences to conflate photo-realism with reality. Such concerns amplify as Lion King neglects to correct the zoological errors of the original, which distort the social and gender dynamics of lion lives (Scheikh). The failure to match character traits to reality suggests that the film has more interest in duplicating the original than it does in reflecting nonhuman animal behavior. A companion website and Activity Packet does offer more scientific data about lions and other species in The Lion King, but it also confirms the idea of a dominant male lion who heads a pride that is the “top” predator. This compromises the explicit idea of “The Circle of Life,” which rightly rejects the idea of a linear food chain and the ethics of dominion that it reinforces.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of The Lion King is a failure to adjust the ecological errors of the original. Wildlife abounds, with species mixing indiscriminately at the occasion of Simba’s birth and at watering holes. In fact, lion populations have fallen by half since the 1994 release of the original (Scheikh). The species “flexibility” does provide some comic moments, as when Simba adopts an insectivore diet and when other species flee from him because he is a lion, even though he has stopped eating them. Similarly, the lion pride lives on a rocky outcropping rather than on the savannah and Mufasa dies during a wildebeest stampede through a rocky gorge with high cliffs. These are not impossible settings, but they are unlikely. The most worrisome ecological errors lie the closest to myth. For example, after Scar becomes king, he licenses the hyenas to hunt as they wish, without the restraint that Mufasa advocated. As a result, the savannah that was green when densely populated becomes a brown wasteland devoid of grazing animals; in reality, fewer grazing animals would encourage a lush savannah to bloom. Unfortunately, the deep ecological insight represented by the Circle of Life motif does not bear fruit because it is compromised by other, more cultural, values. Adjusting asynchronous elements to reflect the lives of wild lions would enrich The Lion King rather than diminish it, as culture is more insightful when it harmonizes with nature rather than obliterates it.
Rather than dismiss The Lion King as anthropomorphic nonsense, a plausible reaction, human-animal studies must acknowledge The Lion King as a significant work because of its enduring popularity. Indeed, few recent animal stories rival it. That the same fundamental plot and characters remain intact despite the passing of 25 years since the 1994 version suggests a nostalgia that transcends recent history; the original already yearned for a patriarchal monarchy justified by divine right. Such stories rehearse a philosophy of dominion, which changes little whether the dominion resides in lions or in humans, or in this lion or that lion: the narrative conflict in The Lion King is that the throne has been usurped, not that there is a throne. The association of the lion kings Mufasa and Simba with the sun and vitality and of the lion usurper Scar with the moon and decay has a mythical and literary basis. A providential lightning strike enables the preferred narrative outcome, and the suggestion of events being guided by a hidden hand is hard to ignore. Acknowledging this mythical context, with echoes of Hamlet, is essential to understanding that The Lion King fundamentally depicts lion lives according to human culture; we still need more lion and less king.
Allers, R. and Minkoff, R. (1994). The Lion King. Walt Disney Pictures. USA.
Disney Enterprises Incorporated, in partnership with Disney’s Animals Science and Environment. (2019). “The Lion King Activity Packet.” http://cdnvideo.dolimg.com/cdn_assets/47df230678772f9fb69fedc87f1ac72d145aae13.pdf
Porter, P. (2006). Engaging the Animal in the Moving Image. Society & Animals 14(4): 399-416.
Scheikh, K. (2019). “How ‘The Lion King’ Gets Real-Life Lion Family Dynamics Wrong, New York Times, July 18, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/21/movies/lion-king-nature.html