SPOILER…warning? I guess? I mean, I’m giving away one of the most known Disney ‘twists’ of all Disney ‘twists’, and the movie’s nearing a quarter of a century old, so….yeah. I dunno, I reveal everything in The Lion King below. There’s your warning. I s’pose.
There’s this review of The Lion King made by a guy on YouTube called Confused Matthew. It’s mostly negative, and built on a lot of subjective posturing, misinterpretation of scenes and characters, and a general weird reading of the story. One of the points he brought up that I used to think he had a point on, though, was how Simba was made think he was responsible for Mufasa’s death when that doesn’t really make a lot of sense, and how he keeps that belief well into adulthood.
Now, this isn’t going to be a rebuttal directly replying to Matthew and his review. One because the review itself is nearly a decade old, two it’s been cover so excessively it’s almost a joke at this stage, and three he himself admitted he was too harsh on believing an 8-year-old would think logically after seeing his father get trampled to death in his re-review years later. Matthew is entitled to his views, whether I think they hold up or not. However, Simba’s belief that he’s responsible for his father’s death makes complete sense both character-wise and narratively. In fact, it’s one of the main components of the story and one of Simba’s biggest and most relevant arcs as a character; he’s stuck in a rut of grief.
The Lion King is a coming of age story about Simba, a young prince who is next in line to rule over a random patch of land in the African Savanna. Most people get this, but ‘becoming King’ is metaphorical for becoming an adult. Simba learns this the hard way, hopefully in a way that none of us have to go through at such a young age, by experiencing death. Through this, it’s not only an excellent way to show the concepts of responsibility and the hardships of life to children, but it also is a good lesson about how to deal with death, albeit done in a sanitised Disney way that people seem to immediately dismiss because kids should handle the harshness of life the way I dealt with it, damnit! Fuck leaving a better future for our youth. Anyway, let’s explore why!
Each act of The Lion King is used to explore Simba’s maturation process: child, young adult, fully-fledged one. Obviously, there’s no time skip after the famous log moment, but this is more staging out how he grows. In the first act, he is naïve and boastful, imbued with the idea that being king will be all fun and adventures. Again, ‘King’ is a metaphor for adulthood, and that tends to be how children see adulthood. As being able to do what you want and when you want to. I mean…we learn pretty fucking quickly that’s not true, but our parents don’t let us in on the truly sucky parts of being an adult, just like Mufasa doesn’t really let Simba in on how hard it can be to be king.
Sure, there’s nothing that radical about essentially saying ‘Acts are broken by character development’, but these are all anchored around one crucial element; Mufasa’s death. He’s there throughout Simba’s childhood protecting him. Even when Simba gets his first taste of danger in the Elephant Graveyard, Mufasa comes to protect him. It’s all part of the great circle of life. When Mufasa tells Simba they are part of it, Simba seems to still see himself as above it. That’s something all children have to learn about life, and the biggest part of that is that we become the grass that the antelope eat. We are all going to die. The sun will set on Mufasa’s time. Simba cannot understand this yet.
As it is a musical, this is conveyed with ‘Circle of Life’. It’s a life lesson passed onto our protagonist right from birth-he’s part of this “through despair and hope/Till we find our place/On the path unwinding”. For our plucky hero, “There’s far too much to take in here/More to find than can ever be found”. Death is something that finds you, but you are never ready to grasp it.
As we see in ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’, the song literally changes to this colourful, vibrant spectacle because it’s the world through the eyes of a child. Stripping away our metaphor, it’s a kid who’s just really stoked to be an adult and a killjoy elder telling him there’s more to it than getting your way all the time. Zazu is right, but he’s annoying and the kids are just having too much fun imagining owning this scene! It’s definitely a good bit of joy for Simba and Nala before they get their first taste of the dangers in life. To them, a graveyard is ‘a cool place’, not morbid.
Let’s bring up Scar. In a sense, Scar represents the consequences of not accepting your place in this circle. His first line, the first spoken line in the movie, is ‘Life’s not fair’. Right from the get go, Scar shows what happens when you play with death with your own machinations and distort this great balance. ‘Be Prepared’ is all about this, and the Nazi imagery is not exactly unintentional (Disney are not a company known for their subtlety). He’s preparing these hyenas, these agents of chaos, to disrupt the natural order of things. Not for any altruistic reasons, but because he wants to use death and subterfuge for his own selfish motives. Scar is not in tune with this circle or respecting the great balance that death gives it-he’s entirely motivated by his own ego.
So yeah, time to shift gears and talk about the main event: Mufasa’s death. Let’s strip away the metaphor and just look at what Scar is doing to make Simba feel culpable for it. I mean, the most obvious thing to point out is that Scar didn’t think the kid will live beyond that pretty brief exchange. It was his ego getting one more stab at this unworthy brat he despised, wishing for him to die thinking he was responsible. Luckily, he surrounded himself with idiots, so they failed one half of the murder plot. Of course, if Simba could think rationally at this point he’d know how full of shit Scar’s words were, but he was extremely traumatised having discovered his father’s body. In Matthew’s rereview, he accepts this fact and then suggests it’s Timon and Pumbaa’s fault he ends up not realising he’s not responsible (long story-watch the review to find out). However, I think it goes a lot deeper than that for how Simba deals with his guilt. It’s a rather common and understandable reaction.
It’s important to remember that there is no ‘wrong’ way to grieve: your relationship with this person is unique to you, and thus, it will bring up feelings entirely distinct from those who may have loved them in an entirely different matter. I think that’s important to note, especially as believing you’re not mourning in the healthy or proper manner is a thought that can flourish. But there’s no strict, straightforward guidebook in exactly how your brain processes this. We are creatures with intense survival instincts aware of the fact that we have to die-we ain’t built to get this shit.
That’s also what I’ve witnessed from my own subjective experience of grief; when a loss happens very suddenly, we look for something to blame. Someone to blame, in a lot of cases. We cannot accept the arbitrary randomness of loss in this instance, so it has to be part of some vast reasoning to have it make sense. Simba (who doesn’t know Scar’s part in this yet) is likely refusing to keep the idea that his father simply fell because it keeps him alive, in some way. Even if the consequence is being rattled with unspoken guilt for the rest of his childhood and the start of his adulthood.
Part of that, of course, is because of Timon and Pumbaa’s life lesson of Hakuna Mutata, but he internalises the ‘No worries’ lesson to ‘Don’t ever bring up my guilt’. That, combined with his being separated from his family and home for a large chunk of his life immediately after his father died, led him to just internalise this belief and not look at it in a more objective matter. Because Mufasa’s death then meant something to him in the great circle of life.
Part of how we cope with death is creating this continuity. You keep a loved one alive, in a sense, by memoralising and honouring their life like this great, rich tapestry. You remember them telling you about the great kings in the past and how they are in the stars, many years later, and bring it up randomly to friends. Maybe it’s silly to others. Maybe it’s arbitrary, morbid and yes, maybe unhealthy in certain respects, especially if we fixate on how their death happened. But it’s better than acting like they were never there at all.
That’s what’s so important about the lesson he learns from Rafiki at the end of the second act. Well, both of them. The first is learning from the pain of the past. The second is, well, Mufasa’s is dead but he’s still important, because part of him lives on in Simba. That’s the great message in the circle of life he missed: his father’s life meant something as long as he is there to carry on the legacy. This is an important thing to pass onto children who have lost a parent or parents-not to imagine they’re still alive or that they’re haunting them or something like that, but as long as they’re living life, part of them will always be within. We are our parents’ greatest legacy, and The Lion King conveys that in a way that’s easy to process but doesn’t sugar-coat it. Mufasa may be in the clouds, but he is gone. We see his body.
With that, Simba is ready to face his father’s passing by coming back home. He faces the accusations, and learns he was being manipulated by his dick of an uncle the entire time. He gains closure, and Scar gains comeuppance disrupting the circle of life and being eaten by his own agents of chaos. Simba finally gets order back to his life; he’s bringing the greens and the waters back. I mean…yeah, that doesn’t make a lot of sense logically, but metaphorically speaking it totally bookends Simba’s character arc of becoming an adult. He accepts his responsibilities, and being ready to be the best king he can be. His memories of his father no longer cripple Simba, but empower him.
Hell, maybe you don’t or didn’t get this knowledge or comfort from the film. I get that. Once I know the sure-fire way to prepare for the death of a loved one , I’ll let you know. This may prepare you for the concept of death, but nothing can prepare you for the realities. I’ve watched this movie most of my life and it didn’t prepare me. My best advice, with no professional experience to speak of (seriously, seek out a mental health professional or grief counsellor if you’re experiencing difficulties, not some prick on the internet analysing Disney movies) is to find a sense of empowerment with the memories of a deceased loved one. Keep the circle of life chugging along by connecting who they were with who you are.
This film may not have prepared me for anything, but I remember that 4-year old boy being with somebody he loved seeing it for the first time. Knowing that I shared this experience with that person, knowing that I went through the similar experience of the protagonist of a film I loved from childhood, it means something to me. Hopefully it can to you, too. Death comes for all of us-it has no prejudices, it leaves no prisoners, it has no sympathy. But when you’re going through it, just remember who you are.
Man, that was a daunting one, though kind of an easy connection to make with a movie based loosely on a play obsessed with death. Wonder if there’s some out there theory I can get on a Disney fi-
Yeah, that’ll do.