Review Summary: Be prepared for the coup of the century…or the murkiest scam.
How the mighty have fallen. Walt Disney’s The Lion King
, once seen as the epitome of success for hand-drawn animated films, has found its aura of invincibility horribly tainted. In 2006, Dr. Lawrence Frank of the California Field Station for Behavioural Research – a hyena researcher – sued Disney Studios for nothing less than defamation of character in response to their portrayal of spotted hyenas in the movie. Later that year, the same Dr. Frank also suggested a boycott of The Lion King
as a way of helping preserve hyenas in the wild. Yet it was the actions of one Margaret Lazarus, an independent documentary film producer and director of considerable repute, which took the lion poaching to a whole new level. In her 2009 essay, “All’s Not Well in Land of The Lion King
,” Lazarus argues – with heavy-handed conviction – that the film uses animals in order to portray key symbols of society.
Lazarus specifically points out the hyena pack as being representative of African American culture and the “effeminate, limp-pawed” Uncle Scar as the equivalent of homosexuals in modern society. Remarking that the color of the hyenas’ fur is indicative (“dark – mostly black”), Lazarus further backs up her claim by pointing out that the hyenas’ voices, one of whom just happens to be narrated by a certain Whoopie Goldberg, is done “in a clearly inner-city dialect”, and that the hyenas’ living situation, “outside the kingdom, in a dark, gloomy, and impoverished elephant graveyard” represents none other than the segregated ghettos of African-Americans, a place where people “live dismally jammed together among bones and litter”. Meanwhile, Uncle Scar – “the gay usurper”, in Lazarus’ own words – is argued to have been depicted as malicious and underhanded to further underscore his difference from the “rest of us” in “normal” society. Lazarus then closes her essay by claiming that the movie is a paw to the face of modern sexism when it has Mufasa’s lionesses display a complete lack of assertiveness towards evil.
In other words, both think that Walt Disney Studios is extremely bigoted, racist, and sexist to the bone.
Now, far be it from me to suggest that Disney has never relied heavily on ethnic and sexual stereotypes to tell a story (see the portrayal of a North American tribe in Peter Pan
, the entirety of Mulan
’s subculture, or all of the happily subservient Disney housewives – err I mean heroines – for further damning evidence), but I find Mr. Frank and Ms. Lazarus’ argumentation tenuous and forced at best. Moreover – and this is the key point here – if one has had even a morsel of his or her childhood blessed by the all-round epic that is the movie’s soundtrack, then it will be almost impossible to hate anything even vaguely associated with The Lion King
(except maybe Simba’s Pride
). If that isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, then I don’t know what is.
Seventeen years on, it’s hard to believe that at one point, a sizeable faction of Walt Disney’s Feature Animation staff actually felt that The Lion King
was less important than Pocahontas
, which was in production at the same time. In fact, most of them preferred to work on the latter, believing that it would be the more successful and prestigious of the two feature animations. It was only after an enthusiastic audience reception to the early Lion King trailer
– which consisted solely of the opening sequence of the movie accompanied by "Circle of Life” – did the animation staff finally realize that their “backup” story of anthropomorphic lions, implausibly frolicking and singing alongside meerkats, warthogs, and hornbills in Africa – apparently without the desire to swallow any of them – might actually be quite successful. This is something that they really should have clued into sooner, as obviously it's impossible to argue with something that is even as half as awesome as “Circle of Life”. The sight of superbly-animated elephants trampling in front of Mount Kilimanjaro, its snow-capped peak dappled gold and yellow in the morning sun, as Lebo M and his African chorus belt the famous line of “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba!” in the background is enough to make any half-awake kid wet his or her diapers. It is only fitting that Carmen Twillie chooses that exact moment in the song to intone the line, “There’s far too much to take in here.” Despite the best efforts of Hilary Duff, Raven Symone, Christy Carlson Romano, A.J. Trauth, and Anneliese Van Der Pol to shi
t on our respective childhoods by releasing the Circle of Stars remix of the song in 2003, the number still holds a certain memorable weight for most – if not all – of us.
“Be Prepared” is from the scene where Scar is in what Lazarus would have us believe are the ghettos of the United States of Pride Rock, and takes place as he is plotting to overthrow Mufasa. Out of all the work that has been pumped out by the evil masterminds hired by Disney for the sole purpose of composing villain theme songs, this is probably the very best, as few others can even hope to rival the intensity of the British-accented Scar when he spits, “Be king undisputed/Respected, saluted/And seen for the wonder I am!”. The cackle of hyenas singing in delicious counterpoint in the background is also an instant win, and no doubt had one Mr. Frank going into fits and convulsions at the thought of his beloved hyenas going mad with greed, gluttony, and stupidity. The song is also worth remembering as the moment when Disney’s animators went all ape on us, and started throwing Nazi-styled propaganda at kids barely able to differentiate between their left and right bum cheek (recall the hundreds of goose-stepping hyenas and the countless beams of light pointing straight up a la
the Nuremberg Rallies towards the end of the song).
Elsewhere, “Hakuna Matata” somehow manages to trivialize over a thousand years of Swahili cultural understanding into a three-and-a-half minute skit on putting “your behind in your past”. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the number is sung by none other than a flatulent warthog and a motor-mouthed meerkat. The movie version of “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” is decent, but is completely preyed on by the single version, which has the benefit of Sir Elton John’s booming presence to back it up. In fact, the movie version of the song is perhaps only worth remembering as being the backing music to the scene where Nala fixates Simba with the biggest and most obvious “shag me now” look to have somehow escaped film censors in recent cinematic history. Aside from the Elton John versions of “Circle of Life”, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”, and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight”, the rest of the soundtrack is populated by Hans Zimmer’s score material, which is suitably influenced by African world music. Although lacking the precise screen associations of the lyric-based contributions, Zimmer’s swooping and majestic instrumentals lend some much-needed cadence to overall proceedings, and at the very least act as welcome changes of pace.
For all of Mr. Frank and Ms. Lazarus’ astute observations, I cannot for the life of me fathom how both neglected to mention significantly more problematic issues that are present in The Lion King
. For one, the scene in where Mufasa is shown sleeping with a cave full of lionesses is something only a particularly misguided Mormon would endorse, and the less said about Rafiki the better. I have only one word to describe a creepy old baboon that draws pictures of young boys on the walls of his home and then laughs hysterically as he envisions how much hairier they have become in their teenage years (hint: it starts with a “p” and rhymes with “isle”). These, if anything, are the bits that I would worry about in terms of influencing my young - not some half-baked connection between a cackle of hyenas in Africa and the communities of inner city America.