20 Years Ago Today – The Lion King or Ferris Bueller takes over Kenya. (Film Review)
In researching this post I watched The Lion King again, one of those films that has always seen me out of step with contemporary film culture because I just don’t get it, primarily due to its horrible xenophobia and its creepy Bambi meets Hamlet meets Moses meets Joseph with white impressions of “black” culture and “Darwinist” sensibilities plastered over a nastily conservative affirmation of the most destructive of white dominance tactics. It is a very white idea that the Lion is king of the jungle anyway – you can tell its a white idea because there are no lions in jungles, only white colonialists would foster supremacist mythology based on an animal that doesn’t naturally exist in that environment. The Lion King is a boring tale with a very unpleasant protagonist that can barely hide its adherence to conservative white values. Even Hakuna Matata, having its origins in Swahili, but rarely used by natives, has been assimilated locally to satisfy tourists now, just as the voices of the adult Simba and Nala have to be white.
But lets start with the best of The Lion King. For me, its tentative salvation lies in three things: the character Scar, the character Timon and Elton John and Tim Rice’s song ‘Can you feel the love tonight?’ a standout in a film filled with surprisingly dull musical numbers – yes even ‘Circle of Life.’ The animation is commendable, with the crew going as far as to visit Kenya, which they no doubt felt was enough to assume a respectful animated drawing of the pride lands and an indicator of the “hard work” required to bring authenticity to an “African” theme. However the best characterisation is surely Andreas Deja’s Scar, a creature so deliciously complex, one might even forgive the weird campy overtones and the out and out declaration that Scar, a Disney super villain, is so obviously gay. Jeremy Iron’s is the only voice actor who brings all of himself to the role, Scar being written around his on-screen persona as the deep dark weirdo based on characters like Claus Von Bulow four years earlier, Kafka three years earlier and the demented Stephen Flemming two years prior, even going as far as to include a line from his Claus Von Bulow character (“You have no idea.”) It is an exceptional example of what can happen when an animator and actor have a wonderful time creating together making the early appearances of Scar so interesting (easily the most interesting character in the film) and lets face it, even if Scar is gay, and has a dark coloured mane, at least he isn’t black, he’s British which makes for a semi cute commentary on colonialism, at least until Ferris Beuller ends up taking over Kenya.
My passion for Timon exists primarily because Rowan Atkinson’s Zazu is such a disappointment and I happen to really like Nathan Lane. I wanted those two roles to be very funny, but Zazu doesn’t take from Atkinson as he should, with Atkinson playing the role surprisingly straight, which didn’t work for me, because I kept waiting for the punchline that never came. Timon held the same hope but followed through, connecting with the real life comiedian, which works in The Lion King because the animals are all four-legged-walking creatures depicted as if we were watching them from a distance on an African plain. My other Lion King like, ‘Can you Feel the Love Tonight?’ justifies itself on a similar premise, in that the music disappoints because of its distance from African music which white cultures generally appropriate faithfully. Even Hans Zimmers score, often used as introduction to the anglicised musical numbers can’t make up for the distinct lack of an African Sound, which again contributes to the films distance from the real Africa, transporting it to some white fantasized dream Africa.’ Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ makes no vague attempt at assimilation, which makes it more tolerable as a white fetish.
But surely one of the worst aspects of The Lion King is its dubious morality, brought to the fore in moments such as Mufsas spurious explanation that ripping the throat out of a terrified antelope is the same as its children eating grass when the lion is a fully decomposed piece of compost. Meet the desperation of Christianity to insert moral obligation into evolutionary theory. Lion’s don’t eat antelopes because they are observing a careful balance imposed on the world by some all-wise force, like nature, or (really) God. Lions eat antelopes because they’re hungry and that’s what they eat. As a young Christian child I was taught that every animal had a “purpose” that contributed to a great balance forged from the mind of God, a system so complete and intricate it easily includes natural selection – if, of course God was deciding what is naturally selected. This is all over The Lion King, but particularly in its horrible primary message that oligarchies are all part of nature and even the least in the kingdom – defined by species (race) – rely on the benevolence of a self-appointed King to survive.
I know it is ridiculous to expect any sort of intellectual mastery from Disney, surely the prominent studio in producing white capitalist propaganda, but I can’t help lamenting the missed opportunities in The Lion King. Perhaps this is because of teasers like the very British nature of Scar, or the beauty of a lush, verdant Africa, an image contrary to our decimated one. One can’t help being excited by a cleverness that never happened, especially with existent seeds of it. What will always remain a mystery to me is how a film like The Lion King can become so popular and so deeply loved. Or rather, maybe that’s no surprise at all.