Until now, I had never seen Disney’s magnum opus, The Lion King. For years, this particular pop cultural deficiency, when admitted, regularly provoked eye-poppingly amazed, outraged and plain ol' dumbfounded responses from my peers. “Did you not have a childhood?” they’d wonder, mouths agape, saliva dangling precariously in the breeze. I’d try to explain to them that I wasn’t raised under abnormal conditions—in a greenhouse, for instance, or on a small dairy farm. However, my parents didn’t exactly subscribe to the “It’s a Small World” mentality either, so it had just never happened. By that point, though, they would be imploring me to “go watch a movie for crying out loud, you dummy.”
I’d ask if they had heard of The Mask. They’d crinkle their noses. “That weird movie?” Sometimes, they would skip all the funny stuff and suggest I just go die in a ditch somewhere.
But now that I have watched Simba retake Pride Rock, I wish to reflect on my reactions to the film, on my attempt to reclaim some part of my lost childhood and to restore some amount of dignity in the eyes of my peers--that pride of furry humans I value above all else. In the process, I will interrogate the age old adage “better late than never” and discover what unique perspectives I can bring to the film as a “big kid” or “little man.” Because right now I’m clearly stuck in some sort of limbo.
The film started out a bit slowly for me. The kingdom was a little too harmonious and Simba a bit too naïve and carefree to hold my interest. In this respect, I probably missed out because of my age—a younger child may have felt immediately involved by this playful, near-carefree atmosphere. The joyful, rollicking and inventive “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” sequence brought me some pleasure, but I soon instinctively realized it was only an appetizer to the real meat.
The presence of Scar, the king’s disloyal brother, brought to me a considerable sense of foreboding. Indeed, he eventually catalyzes the central conflict, killing the king and exiling Simba. Jeremy Iron’s bored and gleefully insidious purring perfectly suited the character, as did the animators’ interpretation. Scar is sleek, with a black mane, phosphorescent green eyes and twin points for teeth. His character, counterpoised against James Earl Jones' charismatic and deeply wise Mufasa, anchored the film in its first half, providing a captivating depiction of the greed and selfishness that can easily tempt a cub from his path.
Once Simba emerged as a fully-grown lion (in appearance, at least) The Lion King picked up for me. This disinherited son’s journey to reclaim his kingdom from hyena-infested shadowland touched on some deep themes. Just like Simba, I was also denied at childhood what rightfully should have been mine—that is, a chance to see The Lion King (and various other Disney movies). But moreover, as a 20-year-old stuck in the limbo between external maturity and inward confusion, I felt a surprising catharsis along with Simba as he strode up the royal promontory in pouring rain to assume his throne.
What finally sealed it for me was the triumphant sense of circularity in the conclusion. Harmony returns, the land turns green and Simba and his mate Nala, in turn, proudly hand their new cub to Rafiki the shaman mandrill, who displays her to the kingdom. In the end, The Lion King left me with a greater comprehension of the cyclical nature and interconnectedness of life. The nighttime stars make a resonant motif as the winkings of deceased kings who continue to guide present lion society from above. I felt that under its more apparent “fun” side, the movie makes a similarly noble effort to impart wisdom about the importance of laughing fear in the face during the passage to maturity and about the ebb and flow of the life cycle—ironically, lessons more valuable to me today than they would have been 10 years ago.