It’s still The Lion King.
I know, I know. It’s not even really about the film itself any more – it’s about an era in movies that’s lost and an innocence that’s basically gone. Relatively speaking, in the entire history of everything, 1994 wasn’t that long ago, but in terms of what was and what is, the past was so much simpler and more evocative than what we have now.
Mufasa, a heroic, largely faultless (he has a bit of pride) father/god/lion king is thrown off a cliff into a herd of blameless, murderous wildebeest who crush him to death as his son, Simba, looks on. Moments later, Simba is cuddling up under the paw of his dead dad, with no real appreciation of what death is or the fact his world has ended. It’s brutal, blunt and has no complexity whatsoever: this is a Disney movie that I could appreciate as much when I was a child as now. It’s a crushingly sad scene.
From an adult perspective, the world of The Lion King is an authoritarian nightmare. Lions dominate their world; they have free rein to kill and eat their subjects when hungry, because of “the circle of life”. It’s a patriarchal, “good” strength over “evil” ambition rule that you’d expect from a children’s movie set in the animal kingdom. I have no connection to the world of The Lion King because if I think about it, really think about it, it makes no sense. Logically, the film shouldn’t affect me, especially not when I know everything that’s going to happen, but emotions don’t work that way: sometimes simple hits hardest.
When I watch the film these days, my face is frozen into something like Zazu’s look of displeasure when he’s forced to sing Lovely Bunch of Coconuts; crying doesn’t feel natural. The scene in which Simba desperately tries to bring his dad back to life is where my face contorts most. When I was younger there were fewer tears; more just a strong sense that something was very, very wrong. Not even Jeremy Irons’s velvet tones are enough to break the spell: you’re meant to feel angry that Scar is tricking his nephew into thinking he killed his own dad, but none of it seems to matter because of how much your face is leaking as Simba runs into a desert to die.
Now, I can sit here and pretend that the film’s references to Hamlet warrant me dissecting it at length like this is some pseudo-academic essay, but that’s not why the film grabs me where more recent equivalents fail to do so. The Lion King isn’t a tragedy, it’s full of comedy that stands up more than 20 years later to the same audience. Ed’s vacant face as he salutes during Scar’s song, Be Prepared, is an image that still makes me smile at random moments in life. A cartoon hyena with a blank smile saluting during a song about genocide shouldn’t evoke the same feelings it did at first viewing, but there you go. It’s the power of those moments – the highs when you think: “Everyone’s going to be all right; listen to that cheery song” – that make the lows so powerful.
The Toy Story films come close to the Lion King as rulers of I-shouldn’t-be-crying-at-this-as-an-adult city. Especially Toy Story 3, whose ending seems tailor-made to make everyone of my generation cry. But Toy Story 3 is derivative: it works because it reminds you of the first film, and those innocent, happy days when toys came alive when you weren’t looking. The Lion King is just a sheer mass of loss. You’re given roughly 20 minutes with a happy, slightly dislikable lion cub before his dad is murdered, his mother is enslaved and his home is driven to the brink of ruin. Frozen, Wall-E, How to Train Your Dragon and Wreck-It Ralph are all examples of similar, cleverly structured modern movies that deal with the same themes, but they’re nowhere near as brutal. And that’s despite the fact that the seemingly perfect parents in Frozen are killed in the opening minutes on a boat in no-longer-relevant-to-the-plot land. Admittedly, they’re on screen for less time than Mufasa and you don’t really have time to build such a connection to them. But Mufasa didn’t just feel like Simba’s dad, he felt like a king; he represented everything being all right with the world, and then he gets thrown off a cliff by Jeremy Irons.
Later in the film, Simba grows up and is confronted with a vision of his father in the clouds. It’s a chilling scene that rivals the best of what CGI has to offer now. Whether the vision is real or not, Simba is confronted with the truth: he’s forgotten who he is, and what really matters. It’s an entirely subjective, disagreeable and contentious notion, but I’d argue that we’re in the same sad, lion-shaped boat. Everything’s been done before, everything is flippant and meaningless, a thousand Mufasas have been thrown off cliffs in a thousand different scenarios and you can’t feel sad about all of them. But no matter how I try and work through it, The Lion King will always rip me to pieces, and I’m glad of that.
This article was written by Jonathan Allford, for theguardian.com on Friday 6th March 2015 11.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010