Review: The Lion King

The Lion King is loaded with hoary bibilical references (rays of light, burning bushes) and Shakespearean shout-outs, but that’s all they are.

The Lion King
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

It began in Africa, so to speak. The Lion King starts off nauseatingly enough when the animals of the film’s jungle accumulate to bow before their future king, baby Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), who’s held up to the light of the sun in a curious celebration of patriarchal rule. Simba’s father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones), is murdered by the evil Scar (Jeremy Irons), who takes over the land and allows it to go to seed with the help of his minority hyenas. What with all the lush vistas and references to Hamlet, the animators strive for a certain epic familial melodrama, and though the film’s beautiful animation more or less serves as an emotional response to its many hysterias, several unanswered questions remain. At the time of The Lion King’s release, some were quick to point out its racist overtones, namely that the evil hyena triumvirate is voiced by Hispanic and Black actors. But that’s a miscalculation of sorts, especially when you consider that minority voices are also responsible for some of the film’s kinder characters. In the end, the film’s racism is mostly subconscious and stems from the animators’ elementary attempts to color-code evil for the film’s target audience (what other explanation is there for Scar’s black mane?). The Lion King is loaded with hoary bibilical references (rays of light, burning bushes) and Shakespearean shout-outs, but that’s all they are. The film’s experimental musical numbers (however screechy the songs) are gorgeously drawn, but since there’s no real conflict implied in the film’s mish-mash of styles, The Lion King pales next to the studio’s Sleeping Beauty, a film that was able to follow through on the struggle between paganism and Christianity implied in its cosmological smoke and mirrors. When Scar takes over the lion’s den, Africa inexplicably turns into a cloudy ghetto where the hyena population runs rampant. When patriarchal rule is restored, light returns to Africa. It’s a facile evocation of Good versus Evil that’s rendered all the more moot because the animators refuse to explain how these animals are able to inexplicably control the forces of nature. Surely if the deceased Mufasa can appear in the sky in order to offer some wisdom for an older Simba (Matthew Broderick), he can surely move a few clouds over and let the sun shine down on Scar’s ghetto.

 Cast: Matthew Broderick, Joseph Williams, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jason Weaver, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Moira Kelly, Ernie Sabella, Nathan Lane, Robert Guillaume, Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin  Director: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff  Screenwriter: Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton  Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures  Running Time: 90 min  Rating: G  Year: 1994  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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