— It will make more than $1 billion and be a classic for many years.
— It is not as good as might be hoped.
The Lion King franchise was launched 25 years ago with a cartoon movie described as a G-rated “Hamlet” for the children’s audience. It was wildly popular. (The Id may be the only person yet on earth who has not seen that film.)
A few years later, the material was transformed into a theatrical musical, which I enjoyed on a trip to London, and which still plays in New York and the West End.
Now the Lion King has been brought to life again in a hyper-realistic version that follows the success of a very good CGI-generated remake of The Jungle Book in 2016.
My reaction to this Lion King is that it is TOO MUCH. The story is too big, its hyper-realism is too broad, its humor and songs are too trivial, and its characters are too human to be credible when stuffed into apparently realistic animal characters.
I’m not advising against seeing the thing. Pretty much everyone who has seen the first cartoon will go, and if other people have different reactions, I’m eager to learn them. Meanwhile, let me talk about some of my points.
Children and Stories
The 1994 Lion King cartoon was given a G rating. Like most Disney films, it was aimed at the pre-k through middle-school demo.
As we know, the story is about young Simba, whose father, the Lion King, is killed by Simba’s envious uncle. Then Simba, convinced by the uncle that Simba is responsible for his father’s death, leaves the pride and returns after he has grown up and has learned the truth and when he is ready to take his ancestral role as the new lion king.
That first bit — the daddy dying — is a tough one. Small children are aware that people die someday, but they come to accept the fact of mortality only over years. They are resistant to entertainments that involve death.
On the other hand, small children also see cartoons and understand that cartoons are stories that are not real. Think of Tom and Jerry, the cat and mouse who battle each other (and sometimes with Spike the bulldog) but never suffer any injuries.
A child who sees the 1994 Lion King cartoon version of Simba’s father’s death understands the scene as having more in common with a Tom and Jerry cartoon and less in common with the child’s existential fear of dying or losing a parent. My guess is that this distance allowed children to accept the 1994 story without trauma.
In this new version (labeled PG and not recommended for children under age eight,) the animals look like real animals, talk like humans and have family relationships that read, emotionally, like human relationships. (If you think about it, virtually all animal characters in cartoon films have less human-like emotional lives or problems.)
A couple small children in the theater when I saw this new movie were so sad they cried when Simba’s father was killed. My guess is their parents had loved the first show as children and figured this new version would be just as appealing to their own kids. To their credit, the children dried their tears and stuck it out for the rest of the show.
The CGI characters in this movie are beautifully rendered and believably realistic. You could quibble with the how well the animators have dubbed their speaking and singing, but that would be silly. The technical accomplishment is remarkable.
In addition, this movie gives us the broad savanna, a dark cavern full of animal skeletons and isolated forest scenes with ponds and rivers. It shows the flights of groups of native birds across wide skies and a stampede of wildebeests. This further reinforces, certainly in children’s minds, that the show itself is real.
But the story is not real. Its “Circle of Life” song and theme imply that the Lion King is accepted and honored as the ruler and protector of all animals in the Pride Lands. (Yes, the daddy king explains to Simba that lions eat animals and then when lions die, their carcasses feed the grass that is eaten by the herbivorous other animals and so it all works out.)
But, still, lions are carnivores. If a tower (cq) of English-speaking giraffes, ala this narrative, were invited to the presentation of a Lion King’s baby and heir, as in the opening of this film, the giraffes would send a polite note regretting that they had a previous engagement and could not join the ceremony with hordes of other tasty (to real-life lions) celebrants. Said shorter, some ideas are more credible in a cartoon format than a realistic CGI one.
Additionally and because the story requires it, packs of hyenas are drafted as nasty, omnivorous predators, the natural enemies of all the really nice animals. (Apparently some hyena-loving biologists remonstrated about this characterization when the cartoon movie came out, but their objections went nowhere and so the idea survives in the service of the story.)
Anyway, there is no shortage of beautiful cinematography of the wilds of Africa or of its wildlife.
Why not let children learn about the real Africa and the habits of its real animals instead of seeding the continent and its wildlife with European-based mythic human narratives?
Since I mentioned that Lion King is patterned on “Hamlet,” I’ll add a few thoughts.
— Yes, Simba/Hamlet’s father was murdered by his uncle, Scar/Claudius, who assumed the throne, and, yes, after some dallying, the prince returned to avenge his father’s death. But the endings are different, appropriately given the age of the desired audience.
— In both plays, the late king counsels the prince — from the sky in Africa, in a ghostly apparition in Denmark — to live up to the role assigned him at birth. (There is also an assurance of everlasting life, a religious idea, in the Lion King. The Hamlet story offers no such hope.)
— When Simba flees after his father’s death, he takes up with an aimless team — a warthog named Pumbaa and a meerkat named Timon — “Timon of Athens,” get it? They are pleasant companions who believe life is meaningless. Some so-called scholars say the two are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, goofballs who are killed off-stage in the Hamlet narrative, which makes no sense.
— Simba’s sojourn more calls to mind two of Shakespeare’s history plays: “Henry IV, Part 1″ and Henry IV, Part 2.” In those, Prince Hal’s friendship with Falstaff is more like Simba’s bromance with Pumbaa and Timon.
— The end of Lion King less resembles the Hamlet story than “Henry V,” the subsequent and triumphal play in which Hal assumes his role as king and leads England to victory in the Battle of Agincourt.
— Finally, the look of Scar (see right,) the murderer/usurper in this 2019 Lion King iteration, summons immediately to mind a familiar line from “Julius Caesar,” another betrayal narrative:
“Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.”
Reviews from the 1994 cartoon movie suggest that the original Lion King plot drew on a Japanese anime story and/or a Scandinavian myth. The themes of such stories have traditional resonance. The only question I have is how long the idea of ancestral-derived and -enforced primacy will survive in narratives over time.
About That Play
Here is a too-quick run-through of “The Lion King” play as it opened in London after the turn of the millenium. Among its charms were animals played by people in costumes or manipulating intricate puppets and a strong singer who opened the show with the Zulu chant — “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba! — and then provided a musical narration to signal scene and location changes. The show also had an almost entirely black cast with the bad guy (Scar the murderer/usurper) played by an Anglo actor with a plummy Oxbridge accent. Why not, given the story was set in Africa?
We attended the play with a second-grader who sat straight up in his seat, rapt, from the moment it started until the curtains closed. The semi-abstract nature of the animal cast was perfectly understandable and appealing to the younger person, who still recalls it with affection, unlike the Gilbert and Sullivan production he was forced to attend the next evening.
It has been said, often and truly, that poorly done theater is awful, much less compelling than film. But great theater is vastly superior.