With Prince George continuing the Circle of Life here in jolly old England, what better time to revisit The Lion King, until recently the highest grossing Disney film of all time and the first without any human characters whatsoever. Even without opposable thumbs, clothes, vehicles or tools, these characters still managed to grab our attention long enough to forget that they’re a group of wild animals, so you’ve got to wonder what compromises had to be made with their behaviour to make them relatable, believable and suitable for family audiences. Given that Disney’s attempt at a real-life human story was so far off target they had to call it a legend, you probably don’t hold out much hope for Simba and co. Well, that’s where you’d be wrong, at least if you ignore the singing and the interspecies co-operation.
Originally envisioned as a documentary (and underdog to the then-in-development Pocahontas), The Lion King is a testament to Disney’s research skills as well as that of keeping shtum about certain details. But I’m going to let the cat out of the bag and explain, among other things, the real reason Simba can’t wait to be king.
The entire African savannah is overjoyed at the birth of Simba the lion cub, even the animals he will one day eat for dinner, but his uncle Scar is less enthused as he is now one step further from claiming the throne of Pride Rock. While Simba and his father, the good king Mufasa, stroll through the kingdom talking about the food chain and the delicate ecological balance, Scar hatches a plan to murder them with the help of the outlawed hyenas. Unfortunately being a cute and rambunctious cub means that Simba is both suicidally brave and gullible, and has no qualms about going to play in the elephant graveyard (and hyena stronghold) with his best friend and reluctant future bride, Nala, or ending up in the midst of a stampede of thousands of wildebeest. Although Simba is lucky enough to survive both adventures, Mufasa ends up being thrown off a cliff by Scar while trying to escape the stampede. In perhaps one of the worst psychological games ever, Scar tells Simba it was entirely his fault and that he should run away to escape the shame and scorn of the pride. For some reason neither Simba nor the lionesses connect the dots when a load of hyenas suddenly appear after Mufasa’s death and Scar’s takeover, but then Simba is too busy dying in the desert to notice much else.
Fortunately, he is rescued by meerkat and warthog duo Timon and Pumbaa, who teach him how to live like a loafer and somehow survive on bugs. By the time he is fully grown Simba is so used to this, and still raw over causing his father’s death, that he doesn’t want to return to save the day when an equally fully grown Nala comes across him seeking help to depose Scar. It takes a ghostly apparition of his father and a wallop on the head from the baboon shaman to convince him to do so, and after both accepting responsibility for his father’s death, and then discovering it was all a lie anyway, Simba is able to rally the lionesses and retake his throne. Scar pretty much tosses himself to the hyenas, the formerly desolate land becomes green and lush and full of fresh living meat, and Simba and Nala find out the result of their erotic tussle in the bushes – the Circle of Life continues once more.
So this is basically the story of a power struggle, the importance of family ties and fighting for what is right. Do real lions have these kinds of dilemma?
What They Got Right
Prides are usually made up of one or more male lions who have the task of eating, sleeping, getting food delivered to them and servicing the many lionesses in the group. This might sound awesome to some of you, but male lions have to be at the top of their game to stop others from taking over their pride and murdering their cubs, so brothers often form coalitions – like Mufasa and Scar. This explains why Nala isn’t killed when Scar assumes control of Pride Rock, and brings us to our first example of Disney keeping shtum.
The identity of Nala’s father is conspicuously absent. Given that this is a coalition, Nala and Simba are at best cousins and at worst half-siblings, but this would also be true to life as lions aren’t above getting it on with their blood relatives, as the staff of Longleat Safari Park can tell you.
Dad or Uncle will also drive out any sons who get too big for their boots, and Junior or Nephew might return again later to take over, with or without allies, so this is another feather in Disney’s research cap. Note also that the only cub you see once Simba has assumed the throne is his own heir at the end of the film, as would be the case if he conquered a pride. And there are no sequels to suggest otherwise.
No. No there aren’t.
Equally non-existent is the feline feminist movement.
It really, really sucks to be a lioness
The abused always kick downwards, which is probably why the lionesses do the hunting. They have no control over who leads their pride, who they get down and dirty with, who has the best choice of cuts at the dinner table, or whose bloodline will carry on the Circle of Life, as step-children are utterly un-cool in a lion’s world. Even with this, the only time a lioness will ever leave her pride is if pickings are slim, hence Nala dashing off into the wilderness when Scar somehow causes a famine.
Fortunately, hormones can give lionesses a reprieve and blot out all the horrible things that their partners might have done in order to meet them.
Can You Feel the Love Tonight isn’t only a love song in The Lion King – it’s also a step-by-step manual of lion dating etiquette.
This is pretty much what happens in the wild, except Simba would have to repeat this for the eight other lionesses in the pride. Again, we can assume from the severe lack of sequels that this happened after the end credits.
As it happens, strength, territory and a harem aren’t the only badges of virility and dominance in lion society.
Not only do lions roar to communicate or co-ordinate each other, but they use it to periodically tell other lions to stay away from their pride and their home. Or that they’re assuming control of said home, bitch. This explains why young Simba is obsessed with practising his own, much to the exasperation of his friends and guardians – if his roar isn’t any good, he won’t be king of anything in future.
The hyenas seem to be the only fans of his squawking, so let’s move on to another animal where Disney ticked some of the boxes.
Women on Top
In complete contrast to lions, female hyenas rule the roost and are the larger and more aggressive of the two sexes. Their genitalia is also very similar, which must take the thrill out of cross-dressing. In The Lion King, Shenzi is the leader of the hyena clan as she is the one who instigates any plan, discussion or fight, and from her entrance from the elephant skull, she is always shown in the middle between Banzai and Ed.
The hyenas living in the elephant graveyard also makes sense up to a point.
Bone of Contention
Hyenas are one of the only animals with a jaw strong enough to crunch bones, and a digestive system badass enough to ingest them. This explains how the hyenas in The Lion King have enough sustenance to stay alive but also crave fresh meat, just as Lestat tells Louis that you can technically survive on rat’s blood, but it would be bloody horrible, both literally and figuratively.
The big African predators all hate each other, so Mufasa chasing hyenas off his land and keeping them at bay in the elephant graveyard is also pretty accurate. Although lions are more likely to be antagonistic towards them, hyenas will most definitely go for any lion cubs on the menu, because who wouldn’t when the alternative is sucking marrow all day.
However, while they got some aspects of hyena life right, Disney have folded to conventional stereotypes in others.
What They Got Away With
Hyenas may look and act like dogs, but this little chap is a closer relative. Hyenas are more likely to have civets and mongooses on their Christmas card list than any kind of hound, but given their behaviour, and the classic cat vs. dog set up, you can see why Disney chose to go a different way. This isn’t the only instance where they bend to public opinion.
The Real Injustice in The Lion King?
This rather blurry blast from the past from 90s U.K. shows how hyenas are viewed as thieves and scavengers (although stealing a vehicle would be slightly outside their remit. Especially Ed’s). But in fact hyenas kill about 95% of their own meat and are pretty self sufficient, whereas it’s been reported that lions scavenge their kills far more often and would probably be the ones to chase them away and steal their prize. By all accounts hyenas are sophisticated hunters, both solitary and in clans, rather than the lazy leeches depicted in the film.
Here’s another change that in my opinion Disney made as a concession to audiences.
“I Think You’re A Little Confused”
I’m not going to slag off Rafiki, because he’s awesome. However, he has the facial markings of a mandrill ape, but the physique and tail of a baboon. He even pokes fun at this identity crisis by saying Simba is a baboon, but he isn’t. If Rafiki were a mandrill, he wouldn’t have a tail and so audiences would be treated to views like this:
So…that’s a fair concession.
What makes somewhat less sense is the following.
Even as a starry-eyed 11 year-old I found this part of The Lion King hard to swallow. An adult lion can put away about 20kg of meat in one sitting, so there’s no way that Simba could survive off bugs until adulthood or beyond, even if he ate a crap-load of them like Timon and Pumbaa. Disney could have just brushed Simba’s hunting habits under the carpet here, as they did with the possible incest/infanticide angle, as we know he was quite a precocious pouncer (much to Zazu’s disdain) and could have perhaps bagged a few non-meerkat-related mammals. But nope, regardless of the fairly accurate points in the rest of the film, Disney decide to shrug and just go with it. Which is strange considering they were diligent enough to change the title of the film from King of the Jungle when they realised that lions don’t actually live in jungles.
With this in mind, can we forgive this last oversight?
Disney have rather cunningly given an accurate portrayal of life in lion society without showing or denying the more unpleasant aspects. Even lion mating rituals are cleverly disguised as a romantic musical number. There are no convenient explanations for what goes on, such as the whereabouts of Nala’s father and the lack of cubs when Simba becomes king, and for the most part the other animals are shown in a light that’s either realistic or conforms to what people would expect. The fact that this is a “royal family” of lions also lets them wrestle certain types of behaviour past the censors, as things like betrothal, betrayal and murder are fairly run of the mill when it comes to the balance of power among relatives, at least historically.
Although this doesn’t detract from Simba being raised on a diet of insects, we can overlook this given the amount of accurate details or nose-tapping in the rest of the film, and the other questionable points that make sense to serve the plot or maintain a monkey’s dignity.
In short, Disney have just about kept the delicate balance between an informed documentary and an entertaining, emotional story with great characters in a stunning setting. And that’s always worth shouting about.
Accuracy Rating: 8/10
1) The Lion King, 1994. Film. Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) Uhlenbroek, Charlotte, Animal Life: The Definitive Visual Guide to Animals and their Behaviour. Dorling Kindersley, Great Britain, 2008. ISBN: 978 1 4053 22157
3) The Life of Mammals, television programme, British Broadcasting Corporation, England, 2002.
4) Carroll, Chris. (2005) Misjudged Hyenas [Accessed: 5th August 2013]
5) Kemper, Steve. (2008) Who’s Laughing Now? [Accessed: 5th August 2013]
6) http://www.bbc.co.uk/bigcat/animals/lions/lions.shtml [Accessed: 10th August 2013]
7) http://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/greatcats/lionfacts.cfm [Accessed: 10th August 2013]
8) http://tvguide.lastown.com/bbc/preview/animal-park-series-8/30-minute-reversions-episode-8.html [Accessed: 12th August 2013]