Looking Back at Childhood Favorites: The Lion King Revisited
* So called because, shortly after moving up here, Bobby and I went to the movies in Westminster--and it is a normal Regal multiplex theater located in the Westminster Towne Mall--and while standing in the lobby, a woman walked by, gazing about herself pie-eyed, and breathed out in wonder, "Wow ... so this is a real country movie theater!" Bobby and I have known it as "The Real Country Movie Theater" or just "Real Country" ever since then.
Normally, I don't dig re-releases either, but The Lion King was hands-down my favorite movie for a significant portion of my childhood, so I gave in to the sentimentality and nostalgia of seeing it again on the big screen. In the summer between 8th and 9th grades, I watched the video just about every day. Eighth grade, I had a posse of girlfriends who were also writers like me, and we gave each other Lion King code names based on our personalities. I was Ed, after the laughing hyena, because I was the crazy one. The nickname Ed stuck for many, many years after, with my sister calling me that into college.
Rewatching childhood favorites is always an interesting experience. What made this particular movie so special to me, as I stood on the threshold of adolescence? In the one sense, it was interesting to see echoes of the ideas that I would toy with through adolescence and young adulthood, and fully embrace by the fusty old age of 30, related to the so-called "circle of life" that is such a key theme in the movie. Listening to Mufasa intone about how the antelopes eat the grass, and the lions eat the antelopes, and the lions go back to the grass, I could have been listening to myself explaining the concept of "grass farming" central to sustainable agriculture. I have to wonder how subtly influential The Lion King was in putting into words the ideas that I had always observed and grappled with in my wanderings in nature as a child.
But there is more peril than an elephant graveyard in going back to those childhood favorites too, when one is older and wiser. Even then, at the age of 13, I had a soft spot for the bad guys; falling in love with the intended heroes seemed the easy way out, and I scoffed at that. I liked to imagine what life lurked for the so-called villains, behind what we were allowed to see from the perspective of the hero. The hyenas were my favorite when I was a kid; I was Ed and my best friend at the time was Shenzi, perhaps for no better reason than that I wanted her to be on my side and one of my own kind. I remember looking up hyenas in the encyclopedia and finding them attractive animals, no matter what the movie said.
Thirteen-year-old me knew that it was the nature of most stories to sort the characters into good and bad guys; older me sees something more sinister in it. The Pridelands, as seen through The Lion King, is a world of trickle-down economics: The lions reap the wealth of resources and leave literal scraps for the hyenas to barely sustain themselves on. What's worse, the lions disdain the hyenas for the appetite with which they gobble up what the refined tastes of the lions will only allow them to discard. The hyenas are banished to veritable ghettos, a world without light or green, living things, and we the viewers are expected to believe that they are somehow deserving of this. Maybe even that their own actions are the reason for the desolation in which they are forced to live. (Certainly, this is reinforced when the hyenas come to the Pridelands and quickly render it unlivable. When the first hyena lurks over a rock at Scar's command, one can almost imagine the stunned lionesses tossing their hands into the air and saying, "There goes the neighborhood!") When the hyenas try to come into the Pridelands during Mufasa's reign, they are just as quickly driven back to their bone-strewn ghetto, much in the way that the haves have used obvious and implied means to keep the have-nots in their place.
And here--perhaps most bothersome to me, since I have always liked the ecological message of the movie--the movie contradicts itself. Mufasa exhorts Simba to learn and respect the place of all living things in the "circle of life." All have a purpose, and in a healthy ecosystem, this is true. Yet, at the same time, a part of that ecosystem is banished and disdained. Depicted as scavengers (which is only partly true)--an essential component of any ecosystem--the hyenas are hated for their habits. How, I have to wonder, do the lions go back to the grass, in Mufasa's wonderful parable, if not by the actions of scavengers? So we are taught to embrace the workings of the natural world and the cycles of life and death while simultaneously loathing and fighting against parts of that natural world that are unpleasant or icky. Sounds familiar.
I did also see a positive ecological message that I missed as a youngster: what Bobby phrased (as we talked about the movie yesterday) as the "problem of peak": of too many people wanting to use too many resources and driving the world to desolation as a result. But the solution isn't for all to moderate their consumption but for the fortunate few to drive the less-fortunate majority back to the Elephant Graveyard and look down--literally and figuratively--on any role they have to play.
On a lighter note, I also enjoyed watching Disney gloss over the sexual structure of a lion's pride in order not to startle the Christian children of married, monogamous parents by pointing out the sexual perversions of most of the rest of the animal (including human) kingdom. There is one male in the pride--Mufasa--and yet a young, seemingly fatherless lioness named Nala, whom Simba eventually "marries" and has a cub with. Whee. If I wrote Lion King fanfiction, I'd craft an epic-length novel in which Nala challenges her right to the throne of the Pridelands over the physically and intellectually inferior Simba, her half-brother. The Lion King meets The Silmarillion!
This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!