05/02/2017

The Lion King - What The Circle Of Life Actually Means

Thoughts On: The Lion King


The story of a kingdom being overthrown by a king's brother who forces the prince into exile.


Formally, in terms of just experiencing this film, The Lion King is arguably one of the best Disney films ever made. This all comes down to the perfect projection of a classical story of revenge, redemption, heroes and responsibility. It's these themes that appeal to the most primal aspects of people, to our need to survive and live comfortable lives in an unforgiving world. That would explain why so many traditional tales rely on these themes - an iconic example being Hamlet. And as most will know, The Lion King is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's play. This explains the classical narrative, age-old meaning and draw of this movie. And, in terms of narrative, The Lion King is one of the most theatric Disney features ever made. The reason why is obvious - it's an adaption of Hamlet. However, this is also Disney's most musical-esque films ever made. We see this in the camera work as well as the design of the narrative. The camera work is probably the element that will jump out at you most when considering The Lion King with the decades of animated features that came before it. Whilst being quite a grounded film, the camera imbues so much life and movement into The Lion King with almost constant movement, zooms, dollies and sometimes zollies. (This...


... is a zolly - a zoom and a dolly forward--also known as the...


.... Vertigo effect). What the camera movement does is add a highly cinematic aesthetic to The Lion King that isn't so strong in older Disney films. This comes together with the songs and score of The Lion King really gives is a musical feel. And by this, I mean to reference sequences such as the "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" one.


It's in this sequence that we see the world around Simba physically change into an impressionistic, fantasy-realm that is imperative to many musicals such as An American In Paris...


... Mary Poppins...


... La La Land...


... and Singin' In The Rain...


This is what makes The Lion King such a musical-esque film and gives reason as to why it has become one of the most successful Broadway musicals ever. It's the musical sensibilities of this narrative that lock the audience in and make this film so enjoyable. One of the most expressive examples I could provide as evidence is the melodramatic score and soundtrack. This is what elevates the traditional (meaning cliched, done-before and somewhat formulaic) story, especially in its most archetypal beats; Simba's birth, Mufasa's death and Simba's return. Score and soundtrack has these moments be so impactful because emotions are heightened and embellished. Whilst many would identify this as a negative as it manipulates the audience, I wouldn't say that this is the case for The Lion King. You may only say that a score or soundtrack is 'manipulative' in a negative sense if it is the only emotive force in a scene. Music would then serve as a cover-up or means of masking otherwise dull moments. And whilst I think that The Lion King would not be as good of a film without its score and soundtrack, I do believe that it's integrated into the narrative in a supportive way - not a distracting, undeserved way. What I mean to suggest here with 'integrated into the narrative' is that all musical elements in this film contribute to the story. A good example of this would be this image:


The spotlight on Simba here is a rather obvious metaphor - it means he's the source of attention. This is a repeated motif that is always linked to and lead by music.




And it's this point that leads us to take a look at the narrative of The Lion King. There are many theories and alleged 'hidden meanings' of this film out there that you can look up. However, all the ones that I've come across aren't very satisfying. The main theories we'll pick up on are about Mufasa as God, capitalism and Scar being the hero. On the first point, many point to Mufasa being able to appear in clouds, control weather and so on as him being an omnipotent being. This is just a misreading of the movie. Firstly, the cloud sequence...


... is a reference to Hamlet. Moreover, it plays on the conventions of the musical and theatre -  just as the pathetic fallacies (play with weather to imply subtext or give tone) in many sequences do too. The last piece of evidence you can point to as to suggest that Mufasa is God or omnipotent is the reference to stars.


It's in this scene that it's said that 'old dead guys' watch over everyone - previous kings as stars. Instead of this being evidence for Mufasa as God or omnipotent, it makes more sense to say that this adheres to an old idea of kings being appointed by a higher power - divine-right theory of kingship. This is certainly what the light in these shots can be seen to represent:



What this idea of diving right gives the film is a political side - and this is where the idea that this is capitalist propaganda comes in. "The Circle of Life" can easily be interpreted as a traditional order in which the top of the food chain rules. This is a rule of nature expressed in modern society in the form capitalism. That isn't to say that capitalism (trade and industry controlled by private owners for profit) as we know it is a food chain system, however. Capitalism is obviously somewhat diluted in modern society. However, in concept, this is arguably what capitalism is - a food chain where food is money and whoever has the most rises to the top and rules all.

This sentiment is certainly in The Lion King in the form of 'the circle of life' and the structure of the Pride Lands. However, does this make The Lion King propaganda? I don't think so as it does not promote specific politics, instead, simply concentrates on ideas of power and structure that can, arguably, be seen in political thinking. In other words, it is a film about ideas, not actual politics. My only real issue with this theory, beyond it being slightly frivolous, is that it's used to say that Scar...


... is the the tragic hero of this story. Some claim that he tries to unify both lions and hyenas and so was trying to do good. Moreover, that the desolation seen under his rule was just the fault of weather - the lack of rain. However, this is not true - as we'll touch on later. The worst thing about these theories is that they link together to produce a conflicted, rather weak, 'hidden message'. If Mufasa is a God...


... that upholds a capitalist structure...


... that Scar rebels against...


... for the sake of unity...


... then this story is a tragedy about the proliferation of capitalism. It is also propaganda for the way that Scar is painted out to be a Nazi...



... and the way in which Mufasa, with his control of clouds and weather, forces his former Pride Lands into desolation...


... until his son come returns to reign...


This is a weak assessment of this film as it is self-conflicting - why would, and how could, this film be a tragedy (for Scar) as well as propaganda with a score, soundtrack and narrative arc that supports the hero? The truth is that these are small inferences taken from the film that are not indicative of a cohesive whole.

The best assessment of The Lion King, that I largely agree with, is from Wisecrack:


With satire and a comedic approach, this video points out the overriding theme of power in The Lion King. Moreover, it rightly identifies that this film is about knowing your place. However, whilst knowing your place, as it is described in the video, seems faulted and an outdated viewpoint, I don't agree that Scar had progressive ideas, nor that the solution of this film is found in hakuna matata - translation, fuck it. Instead, I think it makes much more sense to see this film as one that mediates between ideas of capitalism as well as natural orders and progressive ideas of 'fuck it' or hakuna matata.

To return to the point that Scar had progressive ideas, we have to recognise why the Pride Lands turned to shit after Scar took over with the hyenas:



The hyenas come from their own land, the Elephant Graveyard:


I emphasise Elephant Graveyard. The implication of this name is clearly: a lot of elephants died here. The fact that the hyenas live here suggests that maybe they killed them all. We understand this to probably be the case by the end of the film with their being no food and no water in the Pride Lands. The hyenas, having taken over, have over-populated and over-eaten. This seems to be why the plains have been deserted. Instead of the food chain heralding one apex predator, it now heralds two that work together. This is why everything becomes desolate; the joint apex predators destroy everything. Nature has in built mechanisms meant to sustain itself and a food chain is the back bone of this. Without one there is over-population, over-kill and the loss of resources. So, the message of 'inequality' in hyenas and lions having to be separate is that together they cannot exist if the plains are to thrive. The only way hyenas and lions could coexist is for their numbers to drastically fall. This would mean that the number of antelope, the amount of grass and so on would remain stable. Why would lions and hyenas do this though? Even if they were to become equal and not kill off vast swaths of one another as to sustain a maintainable ratio of predators to prey, the antelope would suffer. Their numbers would dwindle and they would leave - as they do in the film.

With the hyenas and Scar essentially ruling the Pride Lands we then see a structure that misunderstands the 'Circle Of Life' and how it benefits everyone. We also cannot forget that Scar murders then bullies his way into this system for the sake of power - never equality. This is what I believe The Lion King is about. It's not about progressive politics, utopias and idealism. Instead, The Lion King is a very matter-of-fact, the world is a harsh place that you have to work with, kind of film. This is its exact tone...


... and Simba's journey reflects this. He has to learn how to deal with the harsh world and death, he has to take responsibility and establish an order to make life in the Pride Land better for everyone. This is where hakuna matata may come into the picture. Instead of being the only solution to what is set up by the 'circle of life' it is an aiding solution. It helps Simba be more caring, but never entirely liberal. This is what is explored in Lion King 2.


In this film, we see a continuation of this original narrative where there's a sect of lions that believed in everything Scar said and stood for - even after his death. They are exiled and hate Simba. However, the prince of this exiled pride falls in love with Simba's daughter and... you can guess the rest. The end lesson of this seems to be that Simba shouldn't be such a bigot and accept other lions into his pride. However, only after they see as he does. So, there really isn't much of a lesson in this film. Instead, Simba simply realises that other lions can integrate into his pride and see as he does. However, herein we see the optimistic takeaway of the end of The Lion King and Simba's take over.

There is an implied progression and acceptance (that is realised in Lion King 2) that Simba represents as he is stood atop Pride Rock. This is the culmination of his character arc. Instead of rebelling against the food chain, natural order and structure of the Pride Lands, he must accept the harshness of the world, the fact that lions eat antelope, and preserve all that is good about it. This means that he drops aspects of hakuna matata, doesn't consider himself to be on the same level as Timon and Pumbaa and rules the animals that he eats as well as keeps the hyenas in their own land. This 'hidden meaning' of The Lion King may lead you to think that it is capitalist propaganda that suggests that the elites should be ruling people, exploiting them and keeping 'progressives' out of power. However, all you have to realise is that food is money in this food chain to see that this is not a terrible hidden message. By Simba eating antelope, he is essentially taking their money in exchange of his rule (a form of taxes) - if we were to see all animals as personified beings. With his rule, we see the maintenance of a natural balance, The Pride Lands being something like an economy. If Simba were to impose laws of everyone eating insects, never each other, never really participating in a capitalist exchange, everything would fall apart. Not only would most animals starve (as Simba should have of on his insect diet), but there'd be over-population and desertification (because too much grass and insects would be eaten). It's because Simba isn't a baboon, as Rafiki tells him...


... that he must be a lion, that he must do what he is biologically built for. Translate this to humans and we see an appeal to hierarchy in society. Instead of us all being equally powerful in an anarchist state, there has to be something of a government or ruling class that organises and maintains a working class. Whilst I don't believe that this justifies any real world application of capitalism, socialism, dictatorships, fascism, communism or whatever, I do believe it simply says that there must be some kind of order, that there must be an allocation of power (hopefully given to the right people).

The crux of The Lion King and its assertions come with Simba's arc. Whilst he is just born to the throne (a valid critique of a feudal system or country run by a queen or king), he also has to learn how to take it. This is what the first act is all about.


Simba has to be enlightened to the ways of the world and so he must learn that there is an order to life, but that it shouldn't be abused. After all, we have to remember that Mufasa is teaching him this, the king that keeps his asshole brother around. What he essentially teaches him is that everyone needs each other - and that's what a hierarchy provides. The lions eat the antelope, but the antelope eat the grass, which is made from the nutrience of decaying corpses--sometimes lions. Predators eat prey as to sustain the system because there must be an exchange of energy in the biological world. Understanding this foundation, you can understand that nature puts the lions at the top of the food chain, just as nature establishes hierarchy in all species - humans included. The essential lesson that all parts of this system, especially those with more power, must know is all to do with... hakuna matata. You must know when to let go, you must know when to live and let die; you must know how to be a good person. Mufasa demonstrates this when he lets the hyenas go.


He could have killed these three idiots and maybe prevented (inadvertently) his own death as well as his son's exile as a result. However, instead of killing the hyenas, he lets them go, most probably with the understanding that it was Simba who trespassed on their land, who got himself into trouble. It's here where we see Mufasa's "hakuna matata" that Simba too has to learn. And in such, we see that the circle of life is quite a complex idea that is sometimes unforgiving, that cannot be fully comprehended and manipulated, just adhered to.

The true meaning of The Lion King then lies in an appeal to the subconscious nature of the world and people. Whilst all things, humans especially, have the capacity to both destroy and create, to nurture and consume, to unify and to segregate, there must be a balance found. Whilst you may rise to power by assuming a hard stance on either unification, nurture and creation or segregation, consumption and destruction, once you achieve that power you are inevitably going to implode the system - as is shown with Scar and his rule of 'equality' with the hyenas. It is with a balance between these six factors (unification, nurture, creation, segregation, consumption and destruction) that nature works and societies function. After all, you can see in our own politics these two opposing sides - a fight for power between a left and a right. We all know, however, that no extreme version of a yin or a yang, a left or a right, should be given complete power. There should always be mediation, a give and take that can preserve a system of people and work to make their lives better. Thus, as The Lion King makes the point of, there has to be a system in place that has the ability to mediate in its rule over a hierarchy. Without hierarchy, there is no balanced relationship between societies and their surroundings. So, just as what the lions and hyenas do, unnaturally so, effects other forms of life, so will all profound, high-impact and self-centric decisions made by people. For example, if we were all to decide to never harm a plant or animal again, the world would either collapse or push us out of it. There'd be dire over-population resulting in desertification or we'd be over run by other species. Another example would be the precarious state you'd put a country in if you just done away with government, structure and money. Everyone would be equal because all factors that quantify inequality are gone, but what happens when other countries want to interact, to trade, to possible take resources? Without a system of hierarchy, without some level of compartmentalisation and people serving as one specific cog, there seems to be no communication on vast, impersonal scales. This order is naturally placed in societal functions so that the whole can function without each and every individual having to be a king, government, politician or an individual trying to manage all of a society's facets.

The Lion King then ultimately explores the importance of someone at the top of this hierarchy and how it is beneficial, to the whole, for them to make decisions that serve a holistic order of things as well as be personally stable. It's then through Simba going on an arc of a hero overcoming tragedy that the 'circle of life' is justified. Whilst it is a difficult system to be apart of and maintain because it involves so much compromise and loss, the hierarchical circle of life benefits from all that participate in a positive manner as it will slowly evolve or change to better support them. It's ultimately Simba standing atop Pride Rock that represents this evolution.

This, in my opinion, is what The Lion King is about. What are your thoughts?

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