One of the last things my brother and I did together before we grew up and lost our innocence was watch The Lion King in its original theatrical release at the Kipling Cinemas on Putney Road. By then I had permission to drive the family minivan and was still on an allowance. “Lost our innocence.” I mean “when we were young and on the verge of the arduous journey of becoming ourselves”…
It was an early show on opening weekend. I remember the throng of children who in their excitement couldn’t calm down or keep quiet, who exasperated their parents. We strained our ears against the din, desperate not to be distracted by the audience. Despite the noisy, disinterested crowd, my brother and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.
Months later, when my parents played host to a young family fresh from Thailand, I brought home videos to entertain their children. They had a six-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl. None of them spoke English. My Thai was worse than my Lao, which is to say that I was useless. We communicated mostly in gesture and got by. I suppose I faked my understanding well.
By then The Lion King was on VHS, and I brought it home for the children. I popped it into the player and went to my room to read or write in my journal. I’d been depressed for a while, though for no reason I could name. I generally didn’t care for kids. Setting them in front of the TV was the easiest form of babysitting that I knew.
After a good half hour, I’d forgotten the kids until the girl burst through my door, her face wet with tears, her mouth twisted with joy. “Pi! (Sister!)” she cried. “What is it?”
“Nou long hai,” she said, and took my hand and walked me back to the TV. I thought perhaps they’d fought and I would have to broker peace. Her brother had paused the VCR. On screen I could see that Mufasa was dead. I realize she’d said “I broke down crying.” I gathered her in my arms and sat with them through the rest of the movie.
I know now the other reason she excitedly burst through my door—she’d realized she was overcome with feeling, and it blew her mind that a movie could do that. It happened tonight across the aisle. As the 3D theatrical release of The Lion King began, I could hear a couple of young girls gasp. I could hear their father chuckle knowingly. I could tell this was a magic moment for them.
The Lion King is really a terrific flick, and a standout as far as the typical Disney animated feature—loaded with characters that were well voiced in a story that is enduring. The music has grown on me over the years. Listening to it all again, I admit, it has a great mix of African beat and Broadway, such that it transcends time and place. Not all of it is singable (even 3D can’t help “Be Prepared”), but it is inspired. The whole piece is epic. It’s mythic. And that’s what I love.
There was a moment that made me pause, though. After being discovered, Simba is in the prairie at night calling towards heaven, towards his father, “You said you’d always be there for me.” Then suddenly the clouds roll to form the shadow of his father, who speaks to him in the commanding voice of James Earl Jones. “You’ve forgotten where you come from and so have forgotten me,” it says. Is Mufasa God? Is Simba Christ? “You are the true king,” the voice says. Is this a Christian movie?
Am I thinking all this because I’ve been reading The Greek Passion by Nikos Kazantzakis and all I can think about at the moment is Salvation? Let’s say it is a Christian allegory. Let’s say that Scar is the devil—the hyenas his demons. Let’s say that Pride Rock is Paradise, torn asunder by the heathens until Simba came to rescue it. Let’s say “hakuna matata” is a deliberate turning away from society. What’s the message? Follow the True King (Jesus/ The Gospel) and return to Heaven here on Earth?
Perhaps I’m overthinking this. I like to think of Timon and Pumbaa as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And the hyenas as the Bizarro Three Stooges. And the elephant graveyard is the place inside Boo Radley’s house.
Is the 3D version worth it? Cinematically, no. There’s more depth of field throughout, but some of the action sequences are compromised. The plains aren’t any more or less elegant. It’s 3D without feeling… until the rains come to douse Sodom and Gomorrah at the end. Then it’s truly like washing the bloodshed and years of excommunication right off you. When Simba roars from Pride Rock, you want to roar right with him. Because sometimes words will never do. Sometimes emotion overcomes and you feel the heart not only beat, but turn and discover itself in a cage.