I’m not even sure how to talk about this movie. For one thing, it’s considered by many people to not only be the greatest Disney film ever made, but the greatest animated film of all time. What do you add to that kind of cultural staying power? For another thing, and more appropriate to the subject of this series, people have really applied a heavy portion of Spiderman ethics to this piece. Oh, what does that mean? Well, it’s the “with great power comes great responsibility” idea, which people often take to mean that very influential companies, like Disney, have extra responsibility to the world. Disney should be some kind of ethical superhero, swooping in and teaching kids every lesson imaginable. And, because this is probably the most popular Disney feature, definitely considered some sort of zenith by many, many people, it is loaded with controversies.
I don’t even know how to address these controversies, or even pick out which ones are actual controversies and which are just… silly. That leaf swirl does not spell out “sex”, you idiots! Supposedly it spells “SFX”, which stands for special effects. Honestly, I think they just made that up, because the leaf swirl doesn’t look like either of these things.
I think that at this point Disney had become too big on the studio and image side, to the point that directors and artists working inside the company were getting squashed by the rising and increasingly hypersensitive expectations of audiences. And, I think we’re really going to start seeing some negative effects of this trend in the next Disney productions. Though, in recent years, I think that the company has been surprisingly receptive to more legitimate criticism and changing tastes, without wholly compromising artistic visions (at least in some cases).
My point for this series was to defend liking Disney productions as part of cinema history (for adults), and as good fun (for kids… and some adults). You see, I remember when I was more right-wing that a lot of people I knew had this strange way of looking for “offensive” material in… everything. Instead of looking for good lessons, they were always on guard for even the weirdest and most conspiracy-driven subliminal message or potential of a possible, if-you-squint, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “evil”. It really troubled me that a lot of hypersensitive adults were ruining childhood fun because something may, kind-of, sort-of be seen as maybe not good, or because someone on the internet said it was bad. So, going more left-wing would solve that, right? Nope, on the left we have the same behavior, but simply looking for different things to find offensive. I’m beginning to think that a lot of ostensibly grownup people have way too much time on their hands.
I think it’s troubling that people look for offensive material. I don’t mean simply being aware of critical problems, but rather actually digging for it as though that is some sort of goal. It makes “bad” the highlight and focus of everything so that a side, right or left, becomes more about not being something than about standing for anything positive. Nowhere is this more absurd than in the idea of “symbolism”. I remember someone told me as a child that Harry Potter had abortion in it, but it was “symbolic”, so no one would know. Turn out that was mandrake root, which Rowling did not make up and which does not mean “abortion”. It’s from very old folklore! I think as soon as someone starts saying this, you can assume that the supposedly offensive material doesn’t actually exist.
So, with that out of the way, I don’t think I can address the controversies in The Lion King in the same way that I did with the previous movies. I felt strained already when addressing Aladdin, and that one actually had a real line that offended a real group of people. This… doesn’t work quite the same way. It’s all just, “Does this symbolically encourage premarital sex?” or “Does this symbolize the apartheid?” and I’ll try to address some of these ideas when they come up, but I won’t spend much more time on them.
The fact is, what is far more interesting about The Lion King is, well, The Lion King. Although… I don’t actually mean this to say that I think the movie really is the greatest animated film of all time. Oh, it’s great. Don’t get me wrong. The animation is spectacular. But, best of all time? I don’t know. How exactly do you pick the best animated movie of all time? Is there any criteria for that?
Full disclaimer: while this may be strange for someone who is writing a series on Disney, I don’t actually watch a lot of Disney. I loved these as a kid, and I will watch them from time to time. But, with the exception of Tangled and Frozen, I haven’t watched Disney movies recently. I just happen to be an enormous animation geek, which usually makes people think that I’m into either Disney or anime, but actually what really fascinates me is weird, arty stuff like this:
So, yeah, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with saying The Lion King beats out every animated film ever, or even other Disney films. But, I would be completely out of touch if I didn’t understand why people love this. It’s just so… big.
The movie is epic, really. It’s almost overwhelming with its animation. Remember how I said that Disney often trades in detail for movement? Well, that isn’t a problem here. This film is lush with detail, but the movement absolutely soars. Every cinematography illusion trick from the previous films is put to magnificent use here with soaring shots overlooking gorgeous landscape imagery, superimposed images, action shots, flying POVs. It has the same fast-paced animation of Aladdin, with quick visual jokes and action scenes, and yet manages to have the glorious details and use of shadow in Beauty and the Beast.
Actually, I blame this development on a movie I’m not even reviewing. And, I’m only not reviewing it because it doesn’t fit with the “defending” category. No one finds it controversial, but, then, a lot of people don’t remember it.
That movie is The Rescuers Down Under, one of those odd occasions when a sequel is actually better than the original. This movie is sadly underrated, with a great story, great comedy, great characters, great action. And… it looks unbelievably good. While I don’t dislike the animation of Aladdin, I do think some of the CG feels a little dated in 2014. But, not so here. And, unlike previous films, it seamlessly blended lush landscape details with fast-paced animation, cinematographic illusions, and sight gags. I don’t know why people don’t appreciate this film, especially people who dislike the Disney formula and want a non-musical adventure story, because it’s really fantastic.
I think that The Lion King is the direct inheritor of the technological feats accomplished in The Rescuers Down Under, but, using that Disney formula of big songs and coming-of-age plots, it managed to make the movie even more marketable. Plus, it’s even bigger than Rescuers. The opening is just astonishing to watch, even by today’s animation standards in our Miyazaki world. Other scenes, like the wonderfully dark “Be Prepared” and the thunderous stampede scene, which has animation techniques just beyond anything else anyone in the West had seen before, these are technologically marvelous.
So, saying that, is it terribly wrong if I don’t actually think the rest of the movie lives up to its visual brilliance? Because… I really don’t. It’s not that I think the film is bad. I think the film is good but awkward. Though, really, it’s amazing that this movie isn’t as awkward as, say, Hercules.
The most obvious thing about it is that it’s not a princess film. In fact, despite being known for Disney princesses, the company has produced relatively few in relation to its other animated work. Even in the ’90s only three movies follow the fairytale princess formula, and only two of these has the princess in the lead role. The Lion King is an enormous departure from the fairytale world, and on paper it must have been a weird pitch. I mean, it’s Hamlet with African animals. That’s an odd idea.
How about we just add in music from Elton John? Yeah… that’s even weirder.
Hitler symbolism? Again, weird.
You know how no other Disney film looks like Sleeping Beauty? Well, no other Disney film has a plot as odd as The Lion King. In fact, this must have been kind of a risk, and whatever flaws are in the film should not overshadow their success. The fact that this was a success and the somewhat less risky (but also weird) Hercules was not says a lot about the movie’s quality.
That being said, I am not completely sold on the entire movie. For one thing, I don’t think that the story always makes sense. It’s not just Scar somehow causing a drought (how?), but it’s also how the film handles its own message. I remember watching a review from Doug Walker about this, and how the movie builds up this message about learning from mistakes and admitting your mistakes. But, in the end, no one stands behind Simba until he finds out that he didn’t actually kill his father. That’s sort of awkward.
And, as much as people will hate me for this, I do not think the songs are as great as they are made out to be. I don’t hate them (except for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”). I think “Circle of Life” and “Be Prepared” are awesome. But, the rest are just kind of… meh. Now, I’m not sure exactly how to make a criticism about this other than a difference in taste, since I am not a music critic. My background is art and literature. But, I do think that there is a significant minority who agree with me about how Elton John-y the music is. I don’t even dislike Elton John, and I think a lot of his music is very good. But, it does give the film a sort of dated and pop-heavy score, which I don’t necessarially like or think fits the tone and setting. But, despite that, as a kid, I loved these songs. Many children love the songs. So, perhaps they do succeed where it counts, though, for me, I prefer the more Broadway-influenced Beauty and the Beast score.
Despite not sounding very traditionally Broadway, The Lion King has actually gained a lot of success …on Broadway. I would be lying if I didn’t understand why, and, again, it’s the visuals. The studio did a great job in hiring Julie Taymor, whose work you may know from Across the Universe and Frida (and also that adaptation of Titus Adronicus that I mentioned in the last post), to lend her puppetry and stage-production skill to the show. She had already done some great, highly visual work for actual Shakespearean productions, so the choice made sense. She created one of the most stellar and unbelievable-looking production designs in Broadway history. It looks just absolutely amazing, technologically brilliant.
However, that really leads to a lot of questions about the development of the musical itself, and Disney’s influence here.
Disney’s relationship to stage shows has gone back to the beginning, as I mentioned before. However, its relationship to the more specific mega-musical has been huge. The singing and musical style, even how the characters move as they sing, comes straight from Broadway in nearly all the ’90s Disney releases. It only made sense for Disney to put these stories on the stage. However, there gets to be a sort of weird recycling effect. These are shows based on movies inspired by shows, and the shows themselves start to rely rather heavily on either borrowing from the musicals that inspired the movies in the first place (don’t tell me that Beauty and the Beast doesn’t owe a ton of visual and storytelling ideas to Phantom of the Opera), or trying to bring the visual style of Disney to the stage. The Lion King musical looks great, and the orchestration sounds great, but the compositions are still somewhat …meh.
If musicals like Phantom are criticized for relying too heavily on style over substance and composition integrity (borrowing from Pink Floyd is one thing, but lifting entire sections from “Echoes” is another), The Lion King really pushes this extreme. I don’t think anyone goes to this show because they want Sondheim-style musical genius. They want to see puppets and special effects. Is this wrong? Set design is, in itself, an art, and I’d be remiss if I said that I didn’t think that the show is very artistic. However, it is not a great musical as a musical. I think this desire for a thrill ride, and big, awesome sets, and easy-to-sing pop-songs has really played a huge part in where musical theatre is today. Disney may have been trying to make a mega-musical, but it has more in common with contemporary productions, like Wicked, which are all about the set design and special effects. Also, it’s worth noting that Julie Taymor was behind the mega-flop Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, one of the biggest failures in Broadway history.
However, even though I don’t necessarily like everything about The Lion King, I still enjoy the movie and appreciate its art. And, honestly, I may have higher expectations for the movie’s storytelling simply because it is adapting Shakespeare than I might if the movie was based on a fairytale. There is still a lot of weight and emotional resonance in the film. Take, for example, the death of Mufasa. I think that destroyed me as a child. What kid, watching that the first time, wasn’t fighting back tears. It’s a genuinely sad scene, even for adults watching it again.
Furthermore, most of the voice acting is very good, although I’m not sure why the casting directors thought the child of James Earl Jones should be Ferris Bueller. Movies went through this weird phase where everything apparently just needed a little Bueller. Story about black soldiers in the Union Army? Needs Bueller.
Arty, surreal animation starring a character who doesn’t talk? What if he does talk, and is voiced by Bueller?
Why, studios? Why?
Otherwise, the story gets criticized for having a too simplistic view of good and evil, and perhaps even using some troublesome visual coding as shorthand for “bad” and “good”. Visual coding is when a movie uses clues to “code” characters in a certain way, like black cowboy hats standing for bad guys. And, it’s this coding which is the root of probably the loudest of the controversies. For one thing, many people find the flamboyant and somewhat effeminate Scar, as contrasted with Mufasa’s manly appearance, to be gay coding.
I would be lying if I didn’t think Scar seemed like a bad gay stereotype at times, though it strikes me as unlikely that Disney is planting anti-gay symbolism into the movie. It seems more likely that this is a careless attempt to make Scar seem “sly” or “weird”. Besides, one could argue that Timon and Pumbaa are also coded gay, but are very positive figures. I think that the problem with Scar is more in lazy writing. Yes, I do think that demonizing effeminate men is a huge problem. Hell, some writers and radio hosts have blamed “feminizing” men for basically every evil ever. There are different types of people and not being a traditionally macho guy does not mean you’re conniving, evil, and likely to kill your family or become lion-Hitler. But, I don’t necessarially think that Disney is saying, “Effeminate men are all evil!” I think it’s just sort of clunky storytelling shorthand. I mean, we need to get that pesky character development out of the way so that we can have more Elton John songs!
The other “coding” issue is… are the hyenas supposed to be black people? This is actually a very real issue for some people. And, I kind of see why people worried about this, since this was a ’90s film, apartheid was ending, and many rather prominent Americans were not against apartheid policy. But, I honestly think the visual coding gives us an entirely different, if a little weird, clue as to who the hyenas are. They are a hungry people who follow a charismatic leader to invade another territory, and they just so happen to learn to march in a very telling way… Okay, they’re Germany. “Be Prepared” basically tells you this. It’s not South Africa. It’s Nazi Germany. Why? Why are they German hyenas doing Elton John Shakespeare? I… don’t know. I mean, Nazis are easy bad guys… I guess? The movie has all kinds of weird cultural blending, what with the singing lions doing Shakespeare thing. Why not add Hitler? Hitler is an easy bad guy. There’s no real controversy if your bad guy is just Hitler.
Now, people can say that making an entire group evil is a really bad lesson for kids, and, yes, I agree, but this is hardly the only story to do that. I find The Lord of the Rings far worse when it comes to creating pure-evil races that can be killed with impunity. That’s way more troubling to me because that story is meant for adults, while The Lion King is for kids who are more interested in a broad idea of “doing good things” than in drawing political parallels. However, if you want more subtle and morally complex animated fare, Miyazaki is a thing. I mean, he hardly ever has a pure-evil bad guy.
In the end, I think this movie is good but overrated, visually breathtaking but musically middling, somewhat awkward, but super successful. It may not always work, but when it does it really, really does. I understand why people love it, and I understand why some people don’t. But, for me, it is culturally significant enough to warrant viewings.