One of Disney’s most popular animated features (and the inspiration for one of Broadway’s biggest blockbuster) has been re-issued in 3D. “The Lion King” is sort of a cross between “Richard III” and “Hamlet,” the story of Simba (voice of Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a child, Matthew Broderick as an adult), the cub of Mufasa (James Earl Jones), the king of the jungle. Simba “just can’t wait to be king.” But his evil Uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons), bitterly jealous of Mufasa, wants to be king, so he arranges for Mufasa to be killed in a stampede and to have Simba think he is responsible.
Simba runs away, and finds friends in Pumbaa the warthog (Ernie Sabella) and Timon the meerkat (Nathan Lane), who advise him that the best philosophy is “hakuna matata” (no worries). Simba grows up thinking he has escaped from his past, but his childhood friend, Nala finds him, and tells him that under Scar’s leadership, the tribe has suffered badly. She persuades him to return to take on his responsibilities as King of the Pridelands. He learns that it was Scar who caused Mufasa’s death, and he vanquishes Scar to become King.
Not just a movie, but a marketing phenomenon, this blockbuster was the highest grossing film of 1994. Amazingly, it made even more money in merchandise than it did at the box office, a fact for which audiences have been paying ever since, as each subsequent Disney animated movie seems to be designed primarily as a commercial for teeshirts, lunch boxes and action figures. The score, and the song “Circle of Life,” with authentic African rhythms and instruments, won Oscars for Elton John and Tim Rice.
Parents should know that the death of Mufasa is genuinely scary and young and sensitive children may be frightened of the stampede, the hyenas, and the family betrayal. More troubling is the arrogance of the “Circle of Life” explanation, which is mighty reassuring as long as you are the one on top of the food chain. And worse than that is the whole “hakuna matata” idea, which is genuinely irresponsible. Make sure that kids realize that even Simba finds out that he cannot run away from his problems.
Family discussion: How was being king different from what Simba thought? What does your family do to welcome new babies?
If you like this, try: the stage production, with its extraordinary puppets, “The Lion King 1 1/2,” a much better-than-average sequel, and other Disney animated classics like “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid.”